A Winter Before Hunsford.

When the news of this second engagement for one of the Bennet girls came to the neighbourhood the next day,- after Mrs Bennet had gone to Meryton to inform her sister Phillips, -all the surrounding inhabitants were, very naturally, surprised at the match.

While very few of them could answer without a resounding negative as to whether they knew Mr Collins very well, all could testify with some authority, that they knew Miss Lydia Bennet. Indeed, with her frequent, almost daily, visits to town, who could not come to know her so well?

And with this in mind, the fact that she had accepted a man of the cloth was too improbable to believe, and, had it not been confirmed by Meryton's curate, none of them would have.

All had expected her to be married soon, but their thoughts had centred on an officer being her future- whether that person was willingly or reluctantly agreeing, they would not like to comment -husband, not the Reverend Collins.

They were all wild to see the intended happy- they at least presumed they were happy -couple, and were most disappointed when they discovered through Mrs Phillips that Mr Collins had returned to Kent to inform his patroness of the match.

Then they were further disappointed when Miss Lydia did not make her daily appearance in the village. At first, they put her absence down to the possibility that she was pining for the brief loss of her intended to Kent, but when she had neglected the walk for a second day, Meryton's inhabitants confessed to find themselves lacking an appropriate explanation.

Of course they knew nothing about the real truth of the matter. They may have surmised correctly when speculating upon the opinion that Miss Lydia was wild about the match; for indeed she was, only in quite a different way, and one wholly contrary to their expectations.

Having always been assured of being her mother's favourite, Lydia had expected to possess a certain amount of choice when it came to who she wanted as a partner in life. So, when she was confronted with the engagement to Mr Collins, she had naturally expected to be rendered single again very quickly.

As far as she was concerned, the tumble resulting in her cousin being on top of her for a brief moment, was nothing more than that. It had been an accident, that was all. A hilarious one, but nothing that should have any consequences to follow. Indeed, when she first became aware of the match that had been made between her and Mr Collins, Lydia had regarded it as a joke. She was convinced that by the next morning, the entire mess would be sorted out.

Instead, she was confronted with the news that she would be married as soon as a license could be procured. In other words, she would be Mrs Collins before the year was out! Lydia could not understand why. She tried to assure her mother that Mr Collins had not compromised her, but Mrs Bennet was too wrapped up in wedding arrangements for her daughters to listen. Even her father, whom she had never expected to allow Mr Collins to marry any of them but Mary, declared himself too settled on the match to change it.

She ranted at her sisters, pressing Jane and Elizabeth for assistance. But neither could be prevailed upon. It was not because they did not believe Lydia's story, rather that they could not get Mrs Bennet to see its truth, nor could they get their father to see anything but humour in the idea.

In the midst of all this mess, the gentlemen from Netherfield arrived at Longbourn, in order to pay a call, on the future mistress of that great estate. Mrs Bennet, delighted at their visit, quite happily left them alone with her two eldest daughters, dragging a reluctant Lydia off upstairs to debate over the merits of Meryton or London lace.

Seeing, and in fact hearing most of the chaos that was alive in Longbourn at present, Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy wisely proposed the idea of walking to the Miss Bennets, and Jane and Elizabeth were only too happy to agree. The two sisters had had little time to themselves since the Netherfield ball, due to the number of events which had occurred, and now with the protestations of Lydia to contend with, the only peaceful solitude they could look forward to was the night. All thus agreed, they set out immediately in the direction of Oakham Mount.

Bingley and Jane, anxious to be alone, soon allowed her sibling and his friend to outstrip them, lagging behind, leaving Elizabeth and Darcy to entertain each other. Of these two, it must be said that neither looked upon the walk without a certain degree of trepidation.

Mr Darcy was only waiting for the right moment to speak, and Elizabeth was trying to decide whether she wanted him to or not. Her feelings had undergone such a material change since the Netherfield ball, that she had scarcely begun to learn to trust their permanence. Before the twenty-sixth of November, she had considered Mr Darcy to be the most disagreeable man she had ever met, and one that she would never dance with.

That opinion had then been entirely swept away, when she chanced to overhear his conversation with Mr Wickham. Not only that, but she had also danced with him afterwards, and heard and seen enough to believe that he was in love with her. And while she was flattered with the idea of such a man being in love with her, Elizabeth had not yet had the time to work out whether she returned those feelings.

She accepted that he was handsome, that many of their tastes were not as dissimilar as she once thought them to be, and that he was truly a gentleman, but whether that constituted a deep enough affection for him to be called love she did not know. So many things had happened in so few days. Could she really presume to believe that her recently formed good opinion of him would remain constant?

Elizabeth could not be sure. She stole a glance at him as he walked beside her, blushing in embarrassment as she met his eyes, which had come to steal a gaze themselves. In her mind she recalled the previous proposal she had received, substituting Mr Collins with the gentleman beside her. Could she refuse him as easily as she had refused her cousin?

The question would have to be left unanswered. Or rather, discounted, for Mr Darcy came to a sudden halt. He turned towards her with a cautious, serious look. "Miss Bennet," he began, in a tone laced with uncertainty, "Elizabeth," he added then, in a voice that could not be mistaken for its intent, "what you overheard upon the night of the Netherfield ball was true.

"Almost from the first moment of our acquaintance I have come to feel for you, a passionate, admiration and regard, which despite my realisation that you did not care for me, has long since been impossible to control or ignore. I am in love with you. I am willing to wait, if you wish, to court you as you deserve to be, but I would be honoured if you would make me the happiest man alive, by accepting the offer of my hand in marriage."

Elizabeth, as she listened to the speech, had pictured herself asking for him to stop, to delay his asking, to allow her some more time to think over it, but when he had finished, she found herself replying almost immediately, and with words she had not expected to be able to give him yet.

Though not very fluently, she gave him to understand that, despite the few days between her better understanding of his character and her previous dislike of him, her sentiments had undergone such a material change, as to enable her to receive and accept, with gratitude and pleasure, his proposal.

The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before, and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do; by taking her hands, and catching her lips in a kiss.

Caught in surprise by her reply, Elizabeth was further astonished to feel herself respond to him. Then, as she began to be wrapped in the kiss, she realised what had made her accept his addresses. The tone he had used to speak her name, was one that she had never heard before, but could not help being caught by. It had resonated with such tenderness, such deep passion, as to make it impossible for own feelings for him not to be awakened.

For indeed, as she was fast discovering, she did have feelings for him, feelings that did indeed equal passion, admiration, regard and, above all else, love. So suddenly was she overwhelmed by the existence of those feelings, that she found herself astonished that she had not discovered them before. She had hated him so violently, and was not hate a side of the same coin as love? If she had not cared for him, why had she professed to hate him so much?

Feeling his control beginning to buckle even further, Darcy reluctantly ceased the kiss, inwardly smiling when he felt her resistance. Silently, he gestured to the rest of the path ahead of them. Elizabeth nodded, and they walked on, no longer caring for the direction.

There was too much to be felt and said. Still clasping one of her hands, he found himself bringing it up to his lips for a kiss every now and again, as he told her of feelings which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable.

He still could not believe his luck. Indeed, as much as he hated Wickham, he realised now that he was somewhat indebted to him. For, had his enemy never decided to come to the Netherfield ball, he would never have had a chance of succeeding with Elizabeth this soon. Indeed, he dreaded to think of the possible future he could have experienced.

But no more. Speculation upon such was unnecessary. He had asked her, and had been accepted. There was no longer any need to dwell on what might have been. He was at liberty to imagine the wonderful future ahead of him.

With Elizabeth by his side.

Who can be in doubt of what followed? When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other's ultimate comfort.

This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it to be the truth; and if such parties succeed, how should a Mr Darcy and a Elizabeth Bennet, with the advantage of maturity of mind, consciousness of right, two characters that, while differing in some aspects, could not fail to compliment each other, and one vast, independent fortune between them, fail of bearing down every opposition, should any exist?

Indeed, there were very few within their acquaintance that felt that emotion. Mrs Bennet was naturally overjoyed at the good fortune of it all, and very happy to add the plans of another wedding to the two previously secured. With what delighted pride she afterwards visited and talked of Mrs Darcy, may be guessed very easily.

As for her remaining, yet to be attached, daughters, there was no objection from them either. While Mary learnt to submit herself to mixing more in society, and to be no longer mortified by the comparisons between her sisters' beauty and her own, Kitty, away from the influence of her younger sister, was able to loose her insipidness, her irritability, her ignorance, and what little of an ungovernable temper she may have acquired in Mrs Collins' company.

She had many opportunities of staying with her elder sisters, both in town and in the neighbouring counties that they soon came to reside in, and formed a close friendship with Miss Darcy.

As for Mrs Collins, I wish I could say, for the sake of her family, her husband, and her husband's patroness, that her marriage produced the happy effect of transforming her into a sensible, amiable, well-informed woman for the rest of her life. However, Mr Collins, nor indeed Lady Catherine de Bourgh, could never be that lucky.

Year after year of marriage, of quiet life in Kent, with the lack of assemblies and militia encampments, did nothing to alter her wildness, or her temper. As for Mr Collins, though he soon became reconciled to the match, he never did come to form that unswerving passion which might have existed within him had he chosen another wife.

Mr Bennet was perhaps the most surprised by the match of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. Being convinced that his favourite daughter had disliked Mr Darcy with a passion, he had been very naturally surprised when that same gentleman came to ask for her hand, the evening after he had made his proposal.

While being immediately assured of the gentleman's constant affection, some persuasion had needed to be worked upon him before he could believe in Elizabeth's assurances, that she did care for Mr Darcy as much he did her.

Mr Bennet had taken pains to become acquainted with her suitor, and soon found much to like about him, so much so, that when the couple had moved to Derbyshire, he took delight in visiting, especially when he was not in the least expected.

After Mr Bennet, it must be said that Lady Catherine was the next in line to being surprised at the actions of her nephew. Indeed, when Mr Collins presented his own Bennet wife to her, she was prepared to think the very worst of Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Almost immediately had she set off for Longbourn, expecting to find an older version of Lydia Collins, and an anxious to make amends nephew.

The contrast however, between Mrs Darcy and Mrs Collins, was so apparent and so great, that Lady Catherine soon found herself, despite her having little inclination to do so, becoming reconciled to the match.

As for Miss Caroline Bingley, who may be supposed as being the next in line of abstainers from the general felicity to the match, she never returned to Netherfield after departing from it as she had done so after the ball. The moment the announcement of her brother's and Mr Darcy's future marriages appeared in the papers, she had very happily engaged herself, to a man of even greater fortune and estate, and who, in a certain light, bore a startling resemblance to the very gentleman she had previously chosen as her future partner in life.

Indeed, Caroline was so fortunate as to have her suitor also possessing the same first name as Mr Darcy, as well as the same initials. With such good fortune, she felt no resentment to the new Mrs Darcy, especially when she became Mrs Dancy.

As for Jane and Bingley, once wed themselves, they retained the tenancy of Netherfield Park only a twelvemonth. So near a vicinity to her mother and Meryton relations was not desirable, even to his easy temper, or to her affectionate heart.

While enroute to a stay at Pemberley, they chanced upon the sight of a vacant estate through the sudden parting of some trees, and were desirous of taking up residence immediately. Of Pearlcoombe Abbey they found much to delight in, especially as it was within thirty miles of Pemberley.

For those that might be wondering what happened to Mr Wickham, here is some satisfaction granted. Due to his injury from 'sword practice' he was unable to ever appear on active duty, and forced to remain in the militia, at the lowly rank of Lieutenant for much of his life, until Colonel Forster discovered the many unpaid expenses and ruined tradesmen daughters, whereupon he was consigned to the hell that is a debtor's prison.

Finally, we return to Elizabeth and Darcy themselves. The former had much time before her wedding to become accustomed to those previously surprising feelings of love and devotion for the latter, and by the time they were ensconced in Pemberley, she could hardly ever remember the time when she had hated him.

As for her husband, he fell more in love with his beautiful, witty, and wonderful wife each day, witnessing with bliss the pleasure she derived from the beauties of his estate, and the instant close attachment to his sister.

One thing he always made sure of. That the twenty-sixth of November was reserved with sacred memory forever in their minds, and in the minds of those around them, as he threw a ball at Pemberley upon every passing of its date.

And, though he could never receive his once childhood friend at his home, Darcy made sure the man's many illegitimate children were catered for, and that most, if not eventually all, of his debts were paid off. For, after all, his presence at the Netherfield Ball, and the events which followed, were the means of uniting them.

The End.