Elizabeth drew her cloak tighter around her, apparently to shut out the cold October wind, but in reality to shut out the harsh chill that gripped her heart. This tiny gesture was the only sign of the distress that was overwhelming her.
She hadn't believed, hadn't been able to comprehend the words that the maid had spoken at the Lambton Inn the night before. Mr. Darcy dead? It could not be. Elizabeth's rationality, her feelings, everything about her railed against such an idea. How could it be? Her heart had refused the information. But now, seeing the great house of Pemberley draped in bunting, the intelligence assailed her, the evidence too powerful to deny.
Her eyes cast about, seeking every detail and not failing to notice the beauty of the structure and the grounds. The land and the buildings seemed perfectly suited for each other, as if a change to one would diminish the other. Only the black cloths, hung gracefully from the upper windows, announcing to all that this was a house in mourning, marred its appearance.
Her Aunt Gardiner cast a concerned eye on the young woman. Elizabeth had been uncommonly quiet as they had entered Derbyshire, her usual wit vanishing into silence as they grew closer to Lambton. Knowing what she knew now, Mrs. Gardiner regretted the gentle hints she had made about visiting Pemberley. She had wished she had never spoken when they learned the news of poor Mr. Darcy.
It was then that Mrs. Gardiner and her niece exchanged desires; the older woman now wished to avoid the place, while the younger was adamant that they go. "I must pay my respects," she had insisted firmly.
As she watched the sadness darken Elizabeth's face, Mrs. Gardiner cursed the fact that she had ever spoken of the place or its Master.
The trio removed themselves from the carriage and approached the door, on which Mr. Gardiner knocked respectfully. A footman, who upon hearing their purpose, led them to an older woman with a careworn face, who was introduced to them as Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper.
With genuine sympathy, Mr. Gardiner expressed his sorrow to the woman for her loss. Mrs. Reynolds received the condolences with a well-bred grace, which had been improved upon by long practice.
"We would not have come, if it were not for that fact that Elizabeth was resolute," Mr. Gardiner said.
Mrs. Reynolds turned a kind face in the direction of young woman. Despite her shock, or perhaps because of it, Elizabeth took a moment to observe with some surprise that the housekeeper was far more kindly and much less elegant then she had expected in Mr. Darcy's home. Finally Elizabeth spoke, finding courage in the warmth of the woman's look. "I am so sorry. When did he die? Was it sudden? Forgive my impertinence, but it is such a shock. When I saw him at Kent he seemed in the best of health-"
Mrs. Reynolds expression changed slightly, "You knew the Master?" she asked, softly, clearly pleased.
"Yes," Elizabeth replied with difficulty. "We met last fall, and then again in the spring." Elizabeth implored with her eyes for the information she could not in good taste ask for again. "I was hoping I could visit his grave, and pay my respects."
Mrs. Reynolds' face saddened, "I'm truly sorry, Miss Bennet. That is not possible. The truth is that we do not know when Mr. Darcy died, or even where his body lays. All we know is that he disappeared from this house in late April, and no one has seen him since. We have searched for him for months, all over the county, but finally, we were obliged to acknowledge that he is gone from us, never to be seen again."
Fitzwilliam Darcy could no longer deny the awful truth; he had gone mad. For six months he had existed as a shade, a ghost, invisible to all, and somehow he had managed to hold on to his wits, but now it was clear they had left him.
The voice he had longed for all this time, that he had heard in his dreams every night, sometimes damning him, other times welcoming him; that voice he heard now, in broad daylight, in Pemberley. He had to be mad; there was no other explanation.
Yet this could not stop him from investigating. He moved silently through his home until he came to the East Salon. There he had the shock of his life; Elizabeth Bennet was there. She was even more beautiful then he had remembered her. He watched in amazement that turned to horror as she asked of him and was told the truth; that he had disappeared. He watched helplessly at her increasing distress.
How was this possible? he asked himself. How could it be that Elizabeth, whom he had given every good cause to despise him, was now weeping for his loss?
He followed her, as her aunt lead her to a sofa and bid her to rest. He longed to touch her, but he knew he could not. It would only upset her further.
As he watched her weeping gradually subside, he realized that she must have believed his letter, and forgiven him. It was a great comfort, despite the fact he could do nothing about it now.
Mrs. Reynolds watched solicitously as Elizabeth gasped and her face grew pale. Weakly she clutched her aunt's arm. "No, no," she whispered over and over, shaking her head.
As she directed Mrs. Gardiner to a place where her niece could sit, she wondered what the young lady knew. She wished she could question her frankly to if she had any intelligence as to why the Master had returned from his aunt's so changed; in turns raging and despairing.
Clearly the news of the Master's disappearance was unknown to the lady, but still, she had been near to him in those last weeks, and Mrs. Reynolds possessed a deep yearning to find out anything she could of her Master and his last days on earth.
But this was not the time nor place. The young lady was pulling herself together, and Mrs. Reynolds felt a tug of admiration for her, while wishing to avoid any further conversation that would be needlessly upsetting to her.
After a brief discussion with Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Reynolds walked the party to the door and released them into the waiting hands of the head gardener, who took them for a tour of the park.
Elizabeth knew that she was being dull, as they walked the park and inspected the beautiful gardens, but she could not help it. Her mind was too full to take in what her eyes were seeing. She felt numb to all sensation.
Mr. Darcy ... gone? How could this be? Suddenly so many questions she had were answered, only to be replaced by new ones in their place. She had found it odd that Darcy had failed to attend Bingley's wedding to Jane that summer. Now Elizabeth understood why Jane had begged her to say nothing of it. Jane must have known of Darcy's disappearance, but why had she not shared it with her? Perhaps, she reasoned, the confidence was not hers to share.
She fought unsuccessfully against the waves of guilt that assaulted her. What had she done? She remembered the harsh, hurtful words she had spoken to him that night so long ago. The cold way he had given her the letter then next morning and then walked off without a look.
An icy lump grew in her stomach. Was it possible that he was so hurt by her rejection that he- no, she could not think it. Surely a man such as Darcy would never give into his unhappiness in such a way to do harm onto himself?
"But ..." the wind seemed to whisper. He was gone, and she could not deny that fact. Oh god, she thought, what have I done? She noticed she had fallen behind the tour, and sat on a nearby bench. Her mind, as if hoping to escape the wretched facts before it, took in the beauty that surrounded her. Even in the barren autumn, the prospect before her was striking.
"Of all this, I could have been mistress," she mused, before dissolving once again into tears.
Darcy felt as if every tear was a slash on his soul. He could not bear to see Elizabeth, his dearest Elizabeth, crying over him. He knew he did not deserve her tears. In fact, he was at a loss to understand why she was here at all, but that did not matter. All that mattered was her misery.
He sat beside her, and studied her helplessly. He could not stand before her, and have her, of all people, look right though him. That was too much. But he could sit beside her, to try and comfort her with his presence. It was all he could do.
"I am sorry, Mr. Darcy, I am so sorry," she whispered brokenly. Darcy's heart broke, and his resolve failed him. Gently he touched her cheek, wiping away the tears there. Her skin was so soft, and the warmth of her living flesh seemed to burn him. He could still feel the sensation of touching her even after he had pulled his hand away. Her eyes were closed, and she responded to his touch for a moment, until she startled and opened her eyes.
Of course, she could not see him. No one could. Confusion passed over her features, but not the fear that he had been expecting. It surprised him, and served to do what he would have believed was impossible; his estimation of her improved.
She looked about puzzled, then gathered herself and rose, hurrying off to meet up with her relatives.
Elizabeth could not sleep that night. She kept remembering that moment in the garden. Yet even as she remembered the feel of that touch on her cheek, she knew that she had not imagined it, for the sensation was so different from the memory.
What had touched her then? She was afraid to ask, and even more afraid of the answer, just as she did not wish to examine her determination to return to Pemberley the next day.
The next morning, while her aunt and uncle renewed old acquaintances in Lambton, Elizabeth was driven back to Pemberley. It was only when she was before the great doors that her courage faltered. She was not sure what she should say, or how she would explain herself. She could not expect anyone else to understand her compulsion to be there, when she did not understand it herself.
The question of what to do was taken away from her when the door opened and she stood face to face with the footman from yesterday. He was clearly surprised by her appearance there, but quickly masked his emotions and led her once again to Mrs. Reynolds.
Mrs. Reynolds had just been thinking about the young Miss Bennet when she was shown into to her office. Remarking on how it was a pleasant surprise she welcomed the lady and asked what she could do to be of service to her.
Elizabeth flushed and looked down. "This may sound absurd, Mrs. Reynolds," she began and immediately Mrs. Reynolds knew what the lady was going to say, "but yesterday, when I was in the gardens, I felt," she paused, and Mrs. Reynolds could see her losing her nerve. "That is, I felt a sense of peace, and, um, comfort, that was very soothing, and I, I came back here, in an attempt to find it again."
The older woman felt a wave of sympathy for the young girl. Everyone at Pemberley had sensed what she had, and while many had been unable to accept it and had left, most had stayed on. Mrs. Reynolds had learned she needed to be gentle when discussing the phenomenon, especially with the young.
The sprit of their dead Master had returned to Pemberley, or perhaps more correctly, had never left. Gently, she explained to Miss Bennet that she herself had found a sense of peace and comfort at Pemberley. "At times, it seems like the Master is watching over us," she added.
It was enough. Elizabeth's eyes widened and she nodded, before she caught herself and composed her expression. Mrs. Reynolds made understanding small talk, failing to inform the lady that that Master's bed was still slept in each night, and that his meals disappeared daily. It was an odd secret the staff of Pemberley kept; that they were waiting on a dead man, but it was strangely comforting, in the way that their routine continued on and so they kept it.
"During the day," Mrs. Reynolds told Miss Bennet sympathetically, "I find the greatest source of comfort to come from the Master's study. Perhaps you would like to sit in there and reflect a while?"
Elizabeth nodded her assent and Mrs. Reynolds led her to the room.
Elizabeth was shocked by the ease by which she found herself alone in Mr. Darcy's private rooms. Even when she had been unable to voice her experience to the housekeeper, the lady seemed to have understood and directed her to a place better for her purposes then she could have hoped for.
She felt his presence there very strongly. It was difficult to believe he had been gone for six months. Elizabeth, had she not known better, would have said he had been gone only a day or had only just left. His scent, which she recalled from their dance at the Netherfield ball, and from the physical closeness they had shared at Hunsford, hung in the air. Elizabeth breathed it in deeply, and closed her eyes, letting all her memories of his voice and touch wash over her.
Even as it did, she remembered her guilt. She remembered the anger and hurt on his face after his proposal. She remembered how cruel and sharp her words had been. Mr. Darcy had been astonishingly insulting when he had proposed to her, but he had also been sincere. He had tried to offer his love, and she had rejected him on the harshest way possible.
And now he was dead. Feeling wretched like she had never felt before, she gave into her grief.
Darcy was aghast when the door to his study opened, and Mrs. Reynolds showed Elizabeth in. Breathlessly he watched as she walked to the center of the room, and closing her eyes, breathed deeply. What was she doing there? How was it possible she had come back? His jaw tightened with conflict. He couldn't deny the sweet joy he felt at seeing her again, but he knew it was wrong. She should not be here, at Pemberley, or even in Derbyshire. It was too dangerous.
His heart broke as he heard her speak. "Mr. Darcy," Her face slowly crumbled and she lowered herself blindly to a chair. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Darcy," she sobbed, "I didn't mean to hurt you so. I never meant for this. Forgive me."
Darcy watched as she slid to the floor, prostrate with anguish. He could take no more. He knelt on the floor beside her and spoke in the softest whisper, "I forgive you. Truly, there is nothing to forgive." With the lightest touch, his rubbed her back, trying to comfort her.
Elizabeth stopped crying when she felt his touch. His words and touch were so light, that she dared not move, for fear they would disappear. Instead she laid still, her eyes closed, her tears drying, cooling on her hot cheeks, letting the impossible soothe her. She could not think about it, she could not face the truth that this could not be real, so instead she abandoned herself to the moment, and felt, rather than thought.
Darcy was aware of the danger. He had seen the fear in the faces of some of his staff. It hurt him deeply as he had seen the people he had known since boyhood flee from him in terror. He knew he dared not push Elizabeth, yet at the same time, it had been so long, so very long since he had touched any other living being. He simply could not bring himself to stop. And so they remained, in a frozen tableau on the floor; Elizabeth lying perfectly still, while Darcy lightly stroked her back, each afraid to break the moment.
When Darcy stopped himself, Elizabeth returned to the present. She waited a minute, and then two, hoping the touch, or the voice would come back. Already she was beginning to doubt them. But when they did not, she gathered herself together, and sat on the sofa.
She spoke without thinking, knowing only whom she spoke to. "I'm very sorry, Mr. Darcy for what I said to you last April. It was unspeakably cruel and I can not recall what I said without feeling the greatest shame." Once she had begun, it seemed like the words flew out. "I read your letter, and while at first, I could not believe it, I have long since found it to be all true. Mr. Wickham was arrested this summer, at Brighton, for his debts. Since then, accounts of the debts he owed at Meryton have become known, and he is no longer regarded with any favor."
"And Mr. Bingley returned last May. Did you know that?" She smiled at herself for the ridiculousness of the question. "He came the same week Jane and I returned from London. He called on Jane the day he arrived, and within a month they were engaged. You were right there too. I encouraged Jane to be more open with her feelings when he returned, and I believe that helped them," she laughed, "although Jane has not told me any details."
Darcy was entranced. His Elizabeth, his sweet, lovely Elizabeth was here speaking to him like an intimate friend. He could not believe it, yet his heart longed for more. Did she know, he wondered, how her eyes sparkled when she talked? Or how bewitching her smile was?
"Are you there?" she asked in a soft, uncertain voice.
Not trusting his own voice, he rose up from the floor, to sit next to her on the sofa, and lightly touched her cheek. Elizabeth's eyes closed in response, and she sat very still, savoring the moment. Then he drew his hand away, not trusting himself any further, and she continued.
"They were wed two months ago in August. We were hoping you would come for the wedding, but, of course-" her voice grew unsteady. She stopped and looked down, biting her lips. "I can not lie. I was hoping you would come for the wedding. I wanted a chance to apologize, and to tell you that you were right." She drew quiet and looked out the window, her face looking untenably sad. "When you didn't come, I-" she sighed, but forced herself to continue. "I thought you were still angry at me, or that you were too proud to see your mistake corrected." She wrapped her arms around herself. "I guess a part of me was hurt, and angry that you would not come down to see me." Her voice cracked on the last word and her strength broke, as she began crying again. "I had no idea you were - gone. I am so cruel. Even in death, I think the worst of you. I do not know how you could have ever loved such an unworthy wretch as me."
Her sobs were growing stronger, racking her frame with each cry. Darcy found himself once again forced beyond his limits. Silently, he took her into his arms, and held her close, letting her cry into his chest. "To think I might have driven you away, to your death," she whispered in agony. "How is it to be borne?" He pulled her closer, but she so deep in her grief as to be almost completely unaware of him. "I do not deserve to live. I do not want to live. Not without you."
"NO!" Darcy cried. "Elizabeth, do not say such things!"
"Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth gasped, her eyes not seeing the man she felt and heard. "How? How is this possible? Have I gone mad?"
Darcy saw in a moment of clarity that he had to reveal everything to her. Otherwise she would be in grave danger from her grief. Taking a deep breath, he said in a calm voice, "You are not mad, Elizabeth, but there are many things I must explain, and it is all beyond normal understanding."
Elizabeth was distracted for an instant when she noticed he was using her Christian name. Taking a deep breath, while still feeling his arms around her, she calmed herself. "Then explain it to me. I will believe you. Are you dead?"
He smiled down at her, impressed as always by the quickness of her mind. Gently he pressed her ear to his chest. "Dead men have no heartbeat. Can you hear mine?"
She listened, her eyes closed and soon a blissful smile covered her face. "Yes, yes I hear it. Oh Mr. Darcy! Thank God!" They were both taken by surprise when she impulsively threw her arms around him. Elizabeth had never felt such relief and joy, and Darcy was certain he must have been dreaming.
When she did not withdraw, Darcy moved back and carefully positioned them on the sofa together, so they could maintain contact. Although he could not admit it, Darcy was just was afraid as Elizabeth that if he were to let go she would be gone.
Slowly, he told her everything: about how he returned to Pemberley angry with himself and with her, although he was careful to hold her closely during this part. How he had remembered her countenance and her censure. He was determined to prove her wrong; that his behavior, his home, his lands, everything was to be perfectly gentlemanly and without reproach. When his steward had reported a camp of gypsies squatting on his estate he insisted on dealing with it, repeatedly demanding that they leave his property at once.
"Finally," he admitted with regret, "my rage and frustration overcame me. I suppose that somehow I had come to associate the gypsies with your disdain. I felt that you would never approve of me while they were there."
She shook her head, and he smiled, his voice warmed with irony, "I know, it made no sense, but I was quite devastated by your rejection. I had never had anything I wanted denied to me. I was irrational with it."
"I never meant my words to be taken as such," Elizabeth cried.
"What did you say that I did not deserve? You were right Elizabeth, I only wish I had seen the truth of it sooner." He pulled her closer and continued his tale. "In my rage, which was now beginning to turn towards myself, I rode to the encampment. I insisted that they leave at once. I insulted them, told them their appearance was revolting to me. That they were ruining the beauty of my home with their presence."
"Yes, I behaved quite the way you would have expected of me, I'm afraid, and worse. The men of the camp turned away from me and I became more belligerent. Finally, this old woman, who I now believe was their matriarch came to me. Her voice was heavily accented, and it was difficult to understand her words. She said, 'You value appearance over substance. Then this will be my curse on you. You will have no appearance, and therefore, no substance, until you can make another see your worth.' When I returned to Pemberley, I found out the dreadful meaning of her words. No one could see me. It was as if I had turned into my own ghost."
"But that is not possible," she objected.
"While normally I would agree with you, my dear Elizabeth, I must defer to the evidence before you," he replied with a dry grin.
"Oh," she said, stung, as she pulled away.
Darcy realized his error, that she could not see his smile and caught her up. "I beg your pardon, that was a poor joke. Please don't leave."
Elizabeth found it too disconcerting to speak to nothing, so she closed her eyes. Without her vision, he was there, real and whole, and she relied instead on that.
"Forgive me?" Darcy asked uncertainly.
"Of course," she said, settling back into his arms. "But you must admit, it is an amazing story."
"It is, and that is why I have not told anyone else."
He stroked her cheek as he smiled, unseen, at her. "Elizabeth, do you dare ask that question? I had to tell you, because once again, you were mistaken about me, but in this case, I feared very much for your safety and peace of mind."
She nodded silently, and returned her head to its place on his chest, reassured by the heartbeat and warmth she found there.
He spoke of the loneliness of having many of his staff and friends leave, and of his greatest loss; when Georgianna moved to Matlock, to be with his cousin, her sole remaining guardian, who had resigned his commission to care for her.
He spoke of living as a shade, in his great empty house, and coming to realize the truth of what she had told him back in April. First he was filled with shame, as he realized his failings, and then with sorrow, as he become conscious of what it had cost him. He saw all of it, and was resolved to change, but only when it was too late.
When she questioned him, he admitted to sending the letter to Bingley the day he returned to Pemberley, begging him on their friendship to return to Netherfield. He was able to get it in the post before anyone realized he was gone.
"I am happy to hear they were able to reconcile. I am very sorry I could not attend the wedding. How are Bingley and Mis- Mrs. Bingley?" he finished with a chuckle.
Elizabeth smiled. "They are very happy. Marriage agrees with them both. But frankly, knowing their personalities, I could not expect otherwise."
As she spoke, the smile faded from Darcy's lips. He was happy for his friend, but Bingley's felicity only reminded him that there was no such happiness possible for himself. He unwillingly recalled the facts of his situation: that he was little better then a ghost, and that Elizabeth must forget him, and move on.
"Did I hear Mrs. Reynolds say that your traveling companions were your aunt and uncle?" he said, trying to gently remind Elizabeth of the bitter facts she must face.
"Oh yes," Elizabeth's expression faltered as she remembered that these were the very relatives that Darcy would have looked down upon in the past. The warmth that she had been feeling slipped away. Yet he claimed he had changed, and she wished to believe him. "They are my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, from Town. They had arranged to go for a tour of the lakes this summer, but Jane's wedding prevented us from going."
"Why are you here now? Not everyone would brave Derbyshire's weather in October."
"To get away from my mother, I would brave much worse." Elizabeth gasped as she realized what she said. She looked down to cover the blush on her cheeks. "Please forgive me. I should not have said that."
To her astonishment, she heard Mr. Darcy laughing beside her.
"Elizabeth, you do not require my pardon. I have to give the old witch credit; her curse has certainly taught me exactly how much importance I should place on propriety and appearance."
He laughed. "I did not intend to shock you, what I meant is that I would rather hear your frank wit rather than an answer which might be more polite, but less frank."
Elizabeth lifted her head and smiled archly at him, "Well, you did say that disguise of any kind was your abhorrence."
"You remember that?" he asked in an odd voice that made Elizabeth wish she could see his expression.
"Yes, I do not think I shall ever forget that day, and I'm afraid I have quite memorized that letter."
Elizabeth could tell by his voice that he had looked away. "I had wished you had burned it."
"I do not know why. It was entirely accurate and it served me very well in correcting the misapprehensions I was under. I was grateful for it. The letter, perhaps, began in bitterness, but it did not end so. The adieu was charity itself, and it touched me deeply."
As she spoke, he realized the sweet agony of her visit. Both of them had finally been able to say things that had needed to be said. They had made their peace, but his wretched foolishness had insured that there was no future for them. He accepted that he must be grateful for what he had: her forgiveness, her belief in his innocence, and he forced himself to accept as well the painful fact that he could have nothing more from her but her blessing.
With a resolve which could not completely hide his sorrow, he said, "I hope you see now, Elizabeth, I am not dead, merely a victim of my own stupidity, arrogance and anger. You owe me no apologies."
Elizabeth sat up and looked uncertainly at where he should have been. "Why do I feel as if you are saying goodbye to me?"
"Because I am." He held her close one last time, pressing a silent kiss in her hair. "You must leave now. I'm grateful, more than you will ever know, for your forgiveness and the knowledge of it. But you cannot stay here."
"But," she protested as his arms left her. "I do not wish to leave."
For the first time, he was glad for the curse, so he did not have to hide his expression from her. "You must, Elizabeth. There is nothing for you here."
"How can you say that?"
"Because it is the truth. Elizabeth, I want you to be happy. For my sake, leave this place, and never come back. Find," he stopped a moment to steady his voice, "Find a man who is worthy of you. Be happy."
"And what about you?"
The silence lengthened and Elizabeth was aware that she was alone. She suddenly felt cold. The door to the study opened as if by itself, and Mrs. Reynolds stood waiting outside. Gathering herself together, Elizabeth stood and walked out to the older woman.
"Did you find what you needed, Miss Bennet?" she asked.
Elizabeth looked at her puzzled as she considered the question. "Yes, and no."
Elizabeth spent the evening even more silent then the night before. She could not bear the company of anyone else, so she took her meal in her room at the inn, eating it all without any notice or memory of what she had consumed.
All the while, her mind raced feverishly. At first she was stung, feeling rejected by Darcy. But she soon came to realize that he was correct, no matter how it pained her. He was trapped, invisible at Pemberley, while Elizabeth would be returning to Longbourn in two weeks. The situation was impossible, no matter much how she, or he, might wish it otherwise.
She smiled then, at the daring certainty she had that he wished it were otherwise as much as she. As amazing, as incredible as his story was, the most unbelievable part had to be that he still cared for her. No, he loved her. She could tell from the tender way he comforted her when she cried, and how he had confessed his situation to her alone. It was inconceivable, yet it could not be denied; Mr. Darcy loved her! She held on to that truth for strength, returning back to it as her mind wandered through the night.
How was this all possible? She asked again and again. In an age of reason and science, how was it possible that such a thing could occur?
Of course, the scientific, reasonable answer was that it had not occurred and that this was all a fantasy to banish the guilt she felt over Mr. Darcy's death. That she had lost her wits with grief. While that was certainly a more rational explanation, she simply could not accept it. Not when she could smell his scent on her clothing and hands. No, she had felt him, had held him. She recalled as well Mrs. Reynolds behavior and the way she seemed to understand what was going on. Although it might be easier to dismiss the encounter as a delusion, the proof was too strong.
She resolved in her mind that he was alive, and he did love her. At the same time, she was also forced to acknowledge the existence of the curse. And as long as the curse remained, he might as well be dead. She remembered what he had asked of her: to leave Derbyshire and find a new life. Yet even as she heard those words, she knew it was impossible. How was one supposed to go back into the world untouched and unaffected by such an experience? It was beyond her, that she was certain.
It was the cruelty of the curse that it had allowed her for once to speak freely to him, and him to her. In that space, she had found a new side of him she had never known. A side that was gentle and caring. She had also found a new side to herself, and it was the ultimate cruelty in that only now, when she could not have him, did she realize that she loved him.
She knew he was right when he made her leave. She recognized that he was trying to spare her heart, but it was too late by then. It was probably too late the first time he touched her.
She laid in her bed, abandoned by sleep, her mind wandering. She wondered if perhaps he had followed her? If he had come in with her tray, and was now sitting in the settee, watching over her. The thought warmed her, even as she smiled at its absurdity. She missed him. She wished she were back with him, in his arms, listening to his heartbeat and his breathing. The more she thought about him, the more painfully she missed him, and soon an obstinate determination was born in her breast: She would not leave him. She would break the curse.
She did not know how. A few days ago magic had seemed the stuff of children's stories. Yet she had faith. It did not seem possible that a love, which had over come so many obstacles, would be defeated like this. Fate could not be that cruel. She could not give up.
She thought of her lover, and the loneliness he must have endured and must still be enduring. It pained her to think of his suffering. She wished she could be with him then, so she could tell him his love was not unrequited and to comfort him.
Willing her strength to him, she fell asleep, recalling again the warmth of his touch.
Elizabeth's hands were trembling as she dressed the next morning. Not wanting to wait for the maid, she did it herself, but she found herself growing more and more anxious.
Sitting down to a cup of tea, she realized that no matter the result of this day, she would never be the same, and while that knowledge daunted her, she also realized she would never have this opportunity again. It seemed as if destiny was riding heavily on her shoulders, but there was nothing she could do. Once she accepted that fact with her characteristic resolve, she found herself growing calmer.
With only the briefest excuse to her aunt and uncle, she returned to Pemberley, walking boldly up the steps and knocking on the door. When it was answered, she did not wait, but asked to be directed to the breakfast room.
She was hoping to catch him there, but it was cold and empty. By its appearance, she concluded that it hadn't been in use for months. Mrs. Reynolds appeared in the doorway. "You are looking for something, Miss Bennet?"
Elizabeth turned, trying to determine whether she faced a friend or foe. "Yes I am. Do you have any suggestions?" she asked plainly.
"Try the study," the housekeeper answered simply.
Elizabeth needed no more, and walked swiftly to that room. She entered it and examined the room, searching for a sign of his presence. Pale light came in from the windows, and all was still. His chair at the desk was pulled out. "I know you are here," she said calmly. "I want to speak to you."
"You should not have come," he said coldly, surprising her with his location, which was just to her left. Unbeknownst to her, Darcy had spent the previous night indulging in self-pity for her loss, and was not prepared for her appearance.
"I had to," she asserted. "I want to try and help you break this curse."
"Why?" he said from the window. "I do not need your pity."
Elizabeth was shocked. She couldn't understand why he was being so hostile to her. "It is not pity, sir. I can assure you of that."
"Just leave, Elizabeth. The curse can not be broken."
"Have you tried?"
"Of course I tried!" he snapped, surprising her with his anger. "I've read, I've researched, and I've done rituals. It can not be broken."
Elizabeth was distracted from her rising temper by something he said. "You have done them all alone? You have not had any one assist you, have you?"
"Leave, Elizabeth," he muttered.
"But the gypsy said you needed to make another see your worth. You can not break the curse alone!"
The door opened. Elizabeth knew he was fleeing her, and she followed him. She heard his footsteps on the stairs and followed him up. At the top of the staircase, she saw a flash of him out of the corner of her eye. She ran down the hall to see a door closing. She went though it, finding herself in his bedroom.
"You should not be in here, Elizabeth."
"Listen to me! I saw you! For just a second, I saw you at the top of the stairs."
Again, she perceived a flash of an image of him as he turned from the window. "I am seeing you!"
"Can you see me now?" he asked from directly in front of her.
"No, I can only see you out of the corner of my eye. But it is a start! We can break this together, Mr. Darcy."
"Mr. Darcy?" There was no reply. She slowly moved forward with her hands out, as if she was playing blind man's bluff. "Fitzwilliam? Please, speak to me."
She found him, as she expected, before the window. His back was to her, and his arms were crossed. "What is the matter? Do you not wish to be cured?"
"I am not certain there is much difference in whether I am cursed or not," he said softly. "It somehow feels right, being invisible, when I am alone," he finished in a harsh whisper.
Elizabeth saw that it was her turn to console him. "Fitzwilliam, I am here. Do you not see that? Do not tell me I've become invisible too?"
She couldn't tell if he returned her smile, and it worried her. "I know you Elizabeth. You are a kind and generous person, and you would help your worst enemy in this situation."
Elizabeth's expression fell. "No, Fitzwilliam. It is not fair to damn me for being a kind person, especially since I have never been particularly kind around you."
"The way you nursed your sister at Netherfield was kindness itself," he countered.
Elizabeth was amused by his unwillingness to see her as anything but good. "If you will not believe me due to my kindness, will you at least believe my frankness?" She felt him nod, and went on. "Fitzwilliam, I do not believe that is it kindness to come back to you. If I honestly did not think there was a chance of helping you to break the curse, then it would be kinder to respect your wishes and leave."
She felt him tighten under her hand. "The truth is, I do not know that I can break this curse."
She felt him turn to face her, "Because," she reached out and finding his hand, held it fast, "when I contemplated a life without you, I could not stand it."
She longed to see his face, so that she could know what effect her words were having on him. "I realized then that I loved you, just when I thought all hope was gone. I knew I could not leave without trying to break the curse, because with all the certainty of my heart, I know my destiny is bound to yours."
"Elizabeth?" He pulled her close to him. Slowly she lifted her face to him, and keeping her eyes tightly shut, she twined her arms around his neck and then felt the softest kiss possible on her lips. Emboldened, she kissed him back, feeling a peculiar and exciting sensation, like sparks of lightening dancing over her body and on to his.
"Elizabeth, my dearest Elizabeth," he said, as she felt herself lifted from the floor and spun around. Laughing, she looked up at him, finding the elation she felt mirrored in his dark eyes. He kissed her again, more deeply than before, and it was only then that she realized what had happened. Her eyes popped open and she gasped.
"I see you!" she exclaimed breathlessly. "I see you!"
"You are certain?" he hesitated.
"YES!" she laughed excitedly. "Move around the room, I shall follow you. Hold up your fingers and I will tell you how many. Here! Stand beside me and look in the mirror."
He did as she bid, and they looked with wonder. He had changed since Rosings. His hair was longer, and his cravat was not as perfectly tied, but most significant were his eyes, which now glowed with a happiness she had never thought possible. Longing to touch him again, yet feeling suddenly shy at the sight of the two of them in the mirror, Elizabeth looked down, and laid her head on his shoulder. "You are back, my love," she said happily.
He picked her up, cradling her in his arms, and with an expression of heart-filled delight said, "Will you marry me?"
Elizabeth returned his look with an equal measure of warmth and joy. "I will! I will." She touched his face lightly, tracing the aspects and contours of his features. She had never known a sight could be so dear to her.
Gently he took her to the sofa and sat with her safely ensconced on his lap, his arms holding and supporting her. Elizabeth happily rested against him, feeling his warmth under her cheek. They were both stunned at how their fortunes had turned so quickly and clung to the other for comfort as they sought to make it clear in their own minds. "You did it," he whispered finally, "my dearest, loveliest one. You broke the curse."
Elizabeth reached up and touched him, her fingers tangling in his dark hair, "But you were the key. You made me come to know your true worth. You made me fall in love with you.
He laughed, a warm rumbling sound, "And I have no idea how I did that."
"Do you truly not know?" She smiled archly, "You did it by being completely transparent, and letting me come to know all that is inside of you."
He pressed her tight to him, as a feeling of completeness overcame him. He had missed her teasing wit and had thought he would never hear it again. Then he turned, so he was facing her, "My own, I hope you know that what is inside of me is a heart that is wholly yours," he swore, taking her hand and kissing her fingers.
Elizabeth nodded, as tears stung her eyes. "I could not believe it was possible at first," she said in a voice choked with emotion. "When I realized yesterday that you were so good, so kind, to have not only forgiven me, but to continue loving me, I was ashamed that I had misunderstood you so cruelly. I do not know how I earned your love, my heart, but I promise, I shall return it all my life."
He kissed her; how could he not? He kissed each tiny tear that traveled done her lovely cheeks, and then her tender eyelids, and then her sweet lips, in turns giving and taking the consolation they both needed.
Eventually, they stopped and were content to hold each other tightly, letting the knowledge of what they had done wash over them, along with the promise that the horror of loneliness was over.
"You have made me so happy, my love." Elizabeth sighed from the warmth of his embrace.
"And you have brought me back from the dead," he whispered as he kissed her again.
The End Return to Austen Interlude