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Prologue: Just in Time
Posted on 2011-03-16
Fitzwilliam Darcy sat behind the mahogany wood of his desk in the study at Pemberley and stared blankly at the pistol lying atop its well-worn surface. The polished brass gleamed in the rays of afternoon light streaming through the window behind him, but he did not truly see it. He was staring instead into a dark and regret-riddled past.
He had been sitting here in this fashion for some time now. The thin rays of morning had long since widened, lighting the room even as his mood had shadowed. The sounds of the household beyond the heavy oaken door, the occasional footsteps of a passing servant or the tolling of the hallway clock, were muted and barely registered. He was too entrenched in melancholy thought. Even his fingers -- so often otherwise engaged in patterned drumming or ring-twisting as the only outward sign of inward contemplation -- were stilled, splayed out on a half-filled piece of foolscap.
At last, his eyes seemed to refocus and he reached forward as if to take hold of the pistol, when a voice arrested the movement.
"Good God, I got here just in time!"
Startled, his head whipped in the direction of the sound to espy a weathered old man, grasping some piece of heavy machinery under one arm, come limping quickly across the room.
"What the deuce--" he managed, before being cut off by the other man, who reached across the desk to lay one wrinkled and age-spotted hand heavily over the pistol:
"You can't kill yourself, Darcy, or there'll be nothing for it."
Darcy stared at the old man, his mouth hanging open in bafflement. "Kill myself?" he finally stuttered out. "How on earth did you come to the idea I would kill myself?"
The other man scowled. "Then what are you doing with a pistol and a suicide note?"
"Suicide note?" Darcy echoed. He glanced down at the letter before him. "This? This is a letter to my solicitor regarding some shares I have in the Funds."
"Oh," replied the other man, deflated. He rallied again: "But what of the pistol?"
"I was just in the midst of cleaning it," Darcy replied, beginning to become annoyed. He gestured toward the box on the side of the desk, where the matching pistol lay on folds of velvet. "Look, there's the other. I certainly wasn't going to shoot myself with it. Good Lord, man, it's not even loaded." He picked up the pistol in the middle of the desk and pointed it at the old man, who clasped his free hand to his chest. As he sighted down the barrel of the pistol, however, Darcy's expression changed to one of vague puzzlement. "Your face is familiar."
The older man breathed a sigh of relief as the gun was set down on the desk again. "It should be," he said. "We've known each other well, though not in recent years -- either for you or for me. We have not come face-to-face in more than fifty years."
"Impossible," Darcy scoffed. "I am only forty-two."
"Not to me," the old man said, laying his burden down on the desk and falling heavily into the chair opposite. "But I don't expect you to understand that. Yet."
He sighed again, carefully flexing his arthritic fingers and then rubbing his knee. "It's a beast to get old," the man said after a moment. "One starts to feel everything ... especially the regrets. Do you remember Elizabeth Bennet?"
Darcy was startled by the seeming non sequitur and felt a blush rise to his cheeks. "Bennet?" he echoed, savoring the name but striving to sound detached. "It sounds familiar, but I cannot say..."
The old man's eye grew sardonic, but he merely answered blandly: "Nearly fifteen years ago, your time. You were visiting with your friend Bingley in Hertfordshire."
"Ah, yes. I do recall the Bennets now. Five daughters. Grasping, low sort of people. I think the second daughter was named Elizabeth."
"You were supposed to marry her, I understand. And would have, if I hadn't interfered."
The flush that had before only lightly tinted Darcy's cheeks now flooded into a dull, dark red stain as he spluttered, "Marry her? I never came near to doing such a thing."
The old man nodded sadly. "I know. But you would have. And you would have been happy, with a passel of children and grandchildren. Or so said my older self when this all first started."
"Your older self? What the deuce does that mean? And what do you mean by saying I would have been happy? How dare you presume to know my current happiness. I don't even know who you are, sir. How did you get in?"
"Are you happy, then?" the old man asked, peering at the younger man through rheumy eyes. Darcy, paling, looked away. "If you were, I could leave and you would never even remember I was here. I have a lot of things I regret in my life, most particularly making her so horribly unhappy, but I could go to my grave quietly if she were the only one whose happiness I ruined. I was given a chance to fix it ... but, then, I suppose not all opportunities are meant to be taken, as I have found to my discredit."
Darcy was silent for a moment, then said hesitantly, "I don't understand. Who are you?"
The old man sighed and, getting up stiffly, moved across the room to where stood a case of miniature portraits. He laid one hand reverently upon the glass and said, "That's not as important as who I was, or who I might have been: a man consumed by hatred and seeking revenge. A man who saw you as a rival. In another life, you spoiled all of my chances to change my situation and when, years later, I came across that machine," he said, gesturing now to the mass of metal gears, tubes, and brass fittings on Darcy's desk, "I saw a chance to make you pay. I sought out ... myself, many years ago, and contrived to change the past. At the time, I felt it was my right. I was young, foolish, and thought I only had to grasp fortune to be happy. I've long since come to realize that the man I was -- the man I became in that other life, and my younger self who conspired with him -- we were wrong. Wrong to have changed time and wrong to have sacrificed the happiness of so many in order to promote our own. Especially when it seems that by doing so I sacrificed my own happiness in the bargain."
Darcy stared at the other man for a few moments, then turned to the machine on his desk. "What is this?"
"A time machine," said the man. "From the same man who made it -- from whom I had taken it the first time."
"The first time?"
The old man nodded. "From what my older self told me, I had assisted the inventor as a sort of man-of-all-work. When the machine was complete, I stole it and went back, and that's where I first met my younger self. This time I only had to wait until the time was right, and then I broke in and took it. It was right where I said it had been. That had not changed."
"You stole this?" Darcy said, standing angrily. His expression betrayed his disgust. "Why have you brought it here? I will have nothing to do with this. I am a man of irreproachable honor. How dare you presume--"
"He will not know it is gone," the old man said, interrupting. "And I cannot do this myself. I am old. Far too old to go running around, changing the past. The last time I had used my younger self, but I do not think I would be able to do the same this time. And I do not wish to directly meddle -- I would not leave someone else with regrets as I have been. I think, possibly, this will work."
"What will work?" Darcy said, frowning.
"I will take you back," the old man said. "I will take you back to the past, and you can send a letter, perhaps anonymously, to where you remember yourself to be. Warning yourself of what is to come. You will go, and you will stop her, and the past will, I think, be fixed."
"Yes, fixed. I will not be left with bitter regrets, she will be free of me, and you will be happy."
"But what would happen to me? To us? You and I," Darcy said, gesturing between the two of them, "would still know what happened."
"No, we will disappear," the old man said, a wistful note in his voice. "Cease to be. At least, that is what happened to my other self. I simply ... faded away."
Darcy shook his head, his jaw setting rigidly as he sat down again behind his desk. "I do not know who you are, sir," he said after a moment, "and I do not understand your purpose, but I find this to be a poorly conceived joke. Your explanations do not even make sense. Time travel, indeed! You might as well have said you come from the moon."
The old man didn't say anything for a few minutes, but then approached the desk slowly, his limp pronounced and painful. "I understand your hesitation," he said. "I, myself, had been skeptical all those years ago. In fact, I did not believe him until I saw him disappear with my own eyes -- and part of me had continued to doubt until I found this machine and used it myself."
There was silence in the room for a few moments as Darcy thought about this. At last he leaned forward, looking curiously at the contraption before him. After a minute or two of study, he looked up at the old man sharply. "Even if I believed you, why should I bother with this? What would be my gain? You say I would be happy, but how could you guarantee that? What if I am right now truly as happy as I am ever supposed to be? And why, when you yourself have found regrets in changing the past, would you want me to do the same -- or believe that I have that right?"
The old man didn't respond at first. He picked up a paperweight on the edge of the desk and turned it over once in his hands, watching the light play through the crystal. After a moment, he gently returned it to its place. "I should have known that you would never do this for yourself," the old man said gruffly. "You have always had a most exact sense of honor. But consider that what I did affected not only you but also others. If you will not do this for yourself, do it for Georgiana."
"Georgiana," whispered Darcy, his voice hoarse with pain.
"Yes, Georgiana," the old man repeated. He set his hand on the machine and leaned forward, his voice becoming more urgent. "And you can stop her from marrying me."
Darcy's head whipped up and his eyes widened. His mouth opened as if he were about to say something, but then he closed it and narrowed his eyes. At last he asked grimly, "I can stop her? How?"
"Come with me. Write the letter. If someone had written you years ago, before it happened, would you not have come?"
Darcy paused thoughtfully, looking down at the letters on his desk as if for inspiration. "I might have, but possibly not. If it were from someone I trusted, or if it seemed urgent enough, or if it came from Georgiana herself."
"Then we can arrange matters in a different way," the old man urged. "It matters not how we do it, but that it be done. She need not have married me, have lived miserably unhappy, a pawn between us. She dies next year, Darcy," he said sadly, watching as Darcy paled. "Of pneumonia, alone and in pain, with a husband who didn't realize her worth until he destroyed her. We can change the past. But you must come with me."
"How?" Darcy asked hoarsely.
"With this," the old man said, laying both his hands over the machine. "You and I will take this machine and return to London, before I eloped with your sister."
Darcy picked up a penknife that lay on his desk and turned it over thoughtfully in his hands. There was silence in the room for a while as he contemplated everything he had just heard. At last, he set down the penknife and looked up at the old man before him, saying softly, "This is very unlike what I recall of you, Wickham. You were never one to do something for another's sake, only your own. What do you have to gain from this?"
"Freedom," said the old man with a rueful smile. "Freedom from a lifetime of regrets, hopefully from the chains of my sins. We change, Darcy -- all of us. I was lucky: I changed for the better, even if it took the greater balance of my life for me to reform. I would like to gain a measure of peace and make retribution."
"You found religion," Darcy concluded.
The old man's eyes twinkled with the ghost of his old devilish nature. "Far too late to take the living your father offered me, I'm afraid."
A glimmer of a smile appeared on Darcy's face briefly. He thought for several minutes longer, and then, standing decidedly, said, "I do not truly believe you, but I will give you an opportunity to prove your point. If, as you say, this is a time machine, show me. Take me back in time, where I can stop you from marrying my sister." He leaned forward over the desk, narrowing his eyes at the old man. "But mark this: if this is all some hum, if you are trying to hoodwink me for some devious purpose, you will be sorry for it."
The old man smiled wryly at this, and looked down to flip a switch on the machine. He fiddled with a few more levers and dials, and then looked again at Darcy. "Don't worry," he said with a wink. "I already am."
Wickham was gone. Darcy had watched him leave the house nearly ten minutes ago. But still he hesitated.
There was a lot involved in changing the past -- more than Darcy had ever even begun to realize when he had embarked on this journey. Not least were the ethical implications of his actions. Even though he had this power, did he have the right to use it? He had asked himself that at the very beginning, as the two had stood on the streets of London soon after their first jump, and later in Ramsgate, as he had listened again to the old man tell him what might have been. He asked it of himself again, now, as he stood hidden among the trees, watching Mrs. Wickham hang laundry on a line in the garden.
Things had not happened as expected. Yes, they had prevented Georgiana's elopement that long-ago April, though it took several tries. In order to protect her, they had arranged to have business bring Darcy to London before Wickham's plan had gone too far. But that had only delayed matters, and the elopement merely happened a month later, when Darcy went for his annual visit to his aunt's in Kent.
Then, they arranged for Georgiana to catch a cold during the time Darcy went to Kent. Conveniently for their purposes, her maid had already been mildly ill, and they simply ensured she spent more time with her mistress. Georgiana became sick and after ailing for several weeks, went to the seaside to recover fully. There, in Ramsgate, she eloped with Wickham.
It was becoming clear to both of them that they could not protect Georgiana fully from the disastrous elopement -- not without telling Darcy directly what might occur, or without permanently sidelining Wickham. Shielding her only led to her being preyed upon later. Short of locking her in a room until she were of age, there was nothing they could do to alter time within their limitations. Instead, they would need to allow her to see what Wickham was while still protecting her from her folly.
A week before the elopement, Darcy, in the guise of a messenger, delivered to the household where his sister stayed a letter, ostensibly from himself, asking her to write him how her trip to Ramsgate was proceeding and whether she might like a visit from him in the next week.
Georgiana had then written to Darcy -- and the following morning the memory of the letter had suddenly and surprisingly flowed through him. The moment he had abruptly known what was in the letter was a strange and otherworldly one. It was much as when one struggles to remember something, and then in a moment the memory becomes accessible. Though he had been in London, miles from where he was presently, when he cast his mind back he could recall receiving the letter, of opening it and being surprised and concerned by the contents. She had enthusiastically written him of meeting with George Wickham, had hinted of their planned elopement and the wish her brother could be present. In her innocence, there was no doubt she'd thought he'd be happy.
Everything beyond the letter and his immediate reaction was still a blank, an impossibility to recall, but as the day went on, he remembered more. By the following day, the younger Darcy had arrived in Ramsgate -- and he remembered that journey, too. The elopement was called off: Georgiana had tearfully acknowledged all, and Darcy had written to warn Wickham away. Mrs. Younge was turned off without a reference, and Georgiana returned to London.
But the old man who had accompanied Darcy to the past, who had given him this opportunity to make a new future, had disappeared. And Darcy had not.
"Time is fairly resilient," the old man had said as they sat in the taproom at an inn in Ramsgate the night before, waiting for Darcy's younger self to arrive. They could have jumped the hours, but since they arrived in the past Darcy had discovered more questions -- and with time at their service, it was a good opportunity to have them answered.
"From what I understood when I spoke with the inventor the day before I left to meet you, to change the past is a very difficult undertaking," the old man continued after pausing to take a sip of watered-down wine. "There are many risks, of course. One can be killed as easily out of one's own time as in it; one can jump too far, or not far enough; one can make an accidental, but irrevocable change to the past. The inventor even theorized that one could wipe out one's own existence."
"A well-timed knock at your parents' door would do the trick," the old man said with a guffaw that set him to coughing. When he had cleared his throat, he continued: "But there are so many ways to create the paradox. More than likely, it would lead to one simply ceasing to be, and things reverting around one's non-existence. As I said, time is resilient. It resists change. My other self said he had tried more than a few other methods before he finally hit upon my eloping with your sister. He simply hadn't found the right combination to change himself. It was only when I eloped that his work was done and he -- and that particular line of the future -- dissolved."
And that, as far as Darcy could suppose, was what happened to the old man. Darcy had watched him fade, as if dissolving into the air, the following morning while they stood across the street from the house where Georgiana had been staying, watching the coach carrying Georgiana and the younger Fitzwilliam Darcy depart from Ramsgate. As the old man disappeared, he said one word, his voice hollow as if speaking from a distance: Elizabeth.
So Darcy was left alone with a head full of new memories and an overwhelming number of doubts. After trudging back to the inn where they had stayed the night, he collected the time machine from where they had left it in their rooms and cautiously jumped back to his study at Pemberley, shortly after he and Wickham had left. His first solo jump successful, he celebrated by spending more than a few hours, and more than a few glasses of wine, trying to puzzle out what everything was supposed to mean.
From all the old man said, they both should have disappeared. The past was changed -- significantly. Georgiana was no longer married to Wickham. Darcy had saved her. But then why did he not disappear, as well?
He could remember everything, from the letter to the journey to Ramsgate, and everything after -- visiting Hertfordshire and staying with Bingley, just as before, meeting Wickham there...
No, that wasn't right. Darcy shook his head slowly, befuddled slightly by the drink and this random memory that seemed to come from nowhere. When did Wickham go to Hertfordshire? Certainly not when he was married to Georgiana, so this must be new. Was this why Darcy was still here?
Darcy cast his mind back to everything the old man had told him about the other life he might have had. He had met Elizabeth Bennet in Hertfordshire -- which, indeed, he could recall doing. It had been right before Christmas that he'd gone down to spend a few weeks with Bingley at his rented house. She had been a tiny thing, a mere slip of a girl but full of life and vitality, a beauty in her vibrant and energetic way. She had attracted him, but surely no more than any woman, and certainly not enough to have moved him to marry her.
But, then, he must have: according to Wickham, he had married her nearly a year and a half later and they had been happy, with a huge family. He had ridden the tides of land failures and industry revolutions and increased the monetary worth of the Darcy holdings -- and it was this success in life and love that had led Wickham to steal the time machine to avenge himself.
But there were no details, nothing to guide Darcy from this point. He certainly had no memories of marrying Miss Bennet. His wedding ring still only reminded him of his socially perfect but unfaithful and unloving wife; the unfinished letter to his solicitor on his desk still reminded him he needed to sell those shares to stave off a debilitating investment downturn.
Wickham's hints of a life in which Darcy did not regret the past, of a life in which he knew what it was to be content, to have found joy, drew him. That lure of happiness was so strong that, despite every rational thought telling him he could not have possibly married such a poor country gentlewoman as Miss Bennet, he knew without a doubt that he couldn't go on from this point without knowing for sure. Having experienced the power of changing time, of fixing the things that had gone wrong in his life, he felt the desire to go beyond simply mending what was wrong -- he wanted to make things right. He had to go back. But to where?
Perhaps, as the old man had indicated with his last word, the key to all of this lay with Elizabeth Bennet.
But where to find her? And when he found her, what was he to do? To say?
"Hello, Miss Bennet. You might remember me as a younger man, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley in Derbyshire. We met back in '11, in Hertfordshire, when I was visiting Netherfield with Charles Bingley. We were supposed to get married and have many children and live to a ripe old age, but a madman went back in time and changed all that. What do you say you and my younger self get married sometime a year or so after you first met him?"
She'd laugh in his face. Indeed, he couldn't even keep his own chuckle from escaping at the thought of such a convoluted tale.
The woman in the garden looked up at the sound, and he stepped back further into the shadows. When she didn't catch sight of him, she went back to her task.
She was still lovely. As unconventionally beautiful as he remembered her being, though there were faint lines and wrinkles now creasing her face that hadn't been there when last they met some twelve years before this -- and some fifteen years, in his own memory. Her figure had ripened, had matured in that subtle way a woman's ought, though her gown, such as it was, couldn't show it to perfection. All in all, he thought, there was something about her, from the slightly tattered hem of the skirt to the shabby gloves to the careworn expression on her face, that spoke of a hard life.
What he had heard of it and could surmise from his knowledge of Wickham only reinforced that impression.
Darcy had come here, to this tiny, squeezed house on the outskirts of London, after several time-hops* that included a stop in Hertfordshire, in the inn at Meryton. There he had posed as a traveler and gained good information over a few mugs of ale at his own expense. He once again praised the old man's foresight to take with him a satchel of essentials, including a good-sized bag of coins to loosen tongues.
"Oh, aye, I knew the Bennets," said the local to his right at the bar in the taproom after Darcy made a vague allusion to the last time he was in the area. "And yer right; they al'ays were the beauties in these parts."
"Do ye know, whatever happened to them?" Darcy asked, deepening his adopted accent and stroking his fake whiskers. "The eldest daughters. Fine lookin' young ladies."
The other man thought for a while, his grizzled jaw pushed forward to aid in recollection. "Well, le'ssee. It's been a few years, now, but I believe the eldest one married some merchant or some such from Lon'on. Inn't that right, Hutchins?"
"Wha's right, Morris?" the innkeeper asked, turning from where he stood in conversation with another local gentleman.
"That the eldest Bennet girl married a merchant in Lon'ontown."
The innkeeper, a round, portly tub of a man, stepped over, wiped his hands on the rag tied to the cord around his ample waist, and then set his hands on the counter. His bright eyes sparkled as he said, "Indeed, she did. Qui'e a letdown, they said, affer that other gen'leman paid 'er such attentions the year before. Heveryone 'ad thought they were to make a match of it, but then 'e up and left for London, 'im and those snooty friends and sisters of 'is."
"What did I tell ye," the man called Morris said with a wink to Darcy. "I knows all of what's been in this here part of the country for years back."
"Ah, but you hain't nothin' to old man Jeffries," the innkeeper said with a hearty laugh. "That ol' goat can remember the big flood of '56 -- or so 'e says."
A few mugs of ale later, they got back around to the second eldest Miss Bennet.
"She was more of a wild one than her older sister," Morris said confidingly. "Not so much as that youngest Bennet -- now that girl was somefin' else, always hangin' around the officers here at the time. But Elizabeth Bennet, she had her ways. Smart as a whip, and pretty as a paintin', asides, but with more than enough bottom. Her father was always known around here as a witty gen'leman, and she took after him, they say. Now, she married an officer, too, which weren't too much of a surprise, an I recall. Windham, I think it was."
"Not a bit," said the man on Darcy's other side heatedly. "Wickham, it was. Lieutenant Wickham. And a greater scoundrel around these parts I don't remember. Meddled with my daughter, he did."
"Aye, that was a bad bargain if hever there was one," said the innkeeper sadly, shaking his head. "Mr. Bennet 'ad to pay off more than a few debts around 'ere affer the newlyweds left town with the regiment. And affer all 'e made out to be the victim of that other fellow was stayin' at Netherfield at the time. I don't know 'ow bad that Darby fellow could 'ave been if 'e'd 'ad Wickham to deal with. I'd 'ave done more than denied 'im a four-'undred-pound-a-year living."
"You'd have taken it yourself!" shouted a wag at the other end of the bar.
"Indeed, I would 'ave," declared the innkeeper roundly. "And I'd 'ave made a better parson than that Wickham fellow, what's more."
"What, would you have watered down the communion wine, too?" asked the man on Darcy's left.
That set the rest of the inn's patrons to laughing, though Darcy could barely muster a half-hearted chuckle. The knowledge that saving Georgiana from Wickham had merely allowed the man to prey on other gently bred women did not sit well with him. And that it should be Elizabeth Bennet the man married was even more disturbing. According to the old man, she had been meant for him, and though he was still not convinced that marrying her was the solution to this muddle, the knowledge she was in Wickham's power made him uneasy. He needed to find her.
It took Darcy more than another half hour to wrestle a few more pieces of information from Morris about the rest of the Bennet family. Mr. Bennet had died some years ago, and, as such, wouldn't be of any help; Mrs. Bennet had gone to live with her brother and sister-in-law somewhere in London's Cheapside district, where the youngest sisters had married at some point. But the middle child, Morris recalled, never went to London, but had gone on to become a teacher of some sort at a school for young women.
Set in the countryside not far from a small pastoral town in western Berkshire, Miss Olivia Grayson's Ladies' Academy was the solid, respectable, redbrick building where Miss Mary Bennet had served as the assistant to the music master for five years. She was more than a little suspicious when a vaguely familiar-looking solicitor requested information on how to find her sister, Mrs. George Wickham, until he informed her that it was in reference to a bequest from a relative of her father's. With the latter gentleman dead, the man explained, all of the Bennet sisters were named as heirs. Such a respectable clarification out of the way, Miss Bennet gave the Wickhams' address willingly and went back to her duties with a small spring in her step. Perhaps, she thought as she hefted the bag of coins in one hand, with the small amount she had already saved up she could afford a place in London where she could take in her own piano students for private lessons.
Darcy, meanwhile, went to a small district on the outskirts of London, where he now stood on the other side of a fence, watching Mrs. Wickham hang the laundry. She was down to the last few shirts in her basket, and he knew that if he were going to address her, he would need to do so soon. Taking in a deep breath and his courage and shifting the time machine under his arm, he stepped forward from behind the bush and entered through the garden gate.
"Mrs--" he began, but deflated when he couldn't make himself give her the title. "Elizabeth."
She looked over at him in shock, her eyes going wide at his sudden appearance in her domain. "Do I--" She narrowed her eyes. "Do I know you, sir?"
"You might remember me," said Darcy. "I am Fitzwilliam Darcy."
Her face flushed. "Mr. Darcy," she said with a tilt of her eyebrow. "I do remember you. You were a friend of one of our neighbors for a time in Hertfordshire -- Mr. Bingley. But I must admit I am surprised to see you here. I never thought Somers Town would be a favored haunt of someone such as yourself."
"It is not," Darcy admitted. "It was you who drew me here."
This was enough to startle her. "Me?" She spluttered slightly, then caught hold of her words again: "Why, in heaven's name, would I draw you here? We barely know each other. You knew ... Mr. Wickham, I believe--"
"Not as much as I once believed," Darcy muttered.
She was silent for a moment, her head cocked in confusion. When she finally spoke again, it was with a slight edge: "What business do you have here, Mr. Darcy?"
"I need your help," he replied.
"My help?" she echoed. "How could I possibly help you?"
"With your memories," he said. He looked away from her penetrating gaze and gritted his teeth for a moment before continuing: "I don't know how to explain this, Miss Bennet--"
He glanced back at her briefly before looking away again. "Yes, of course," he said. "And to be quite honest, that is precisely what I need your help with. I need you to explain to me how you married George Wickham."
When she didn't respond, he looked over to see her staring at him, her face flushed. He tried to explain: "I need you to help me set something straight that has grown completely out of my control. But you must explain to me all of the events that occurred to drive you into Wickham's arms."
"Drive me into--" She blew out a puff of exasperated breath. "Mr. Darcy, I don't understand what your purpose is, but I must tell you, I don't believe I owe you any explanations. I cannot see why you should be interested in any such thing. Nor, indeed, why you should have any right to know."
He ran a hand through his hair. "I am trying to fix the past."
"Fix the past?" she echoed. "What, make amends? Are you going to offer George the living you once denied him?"
"The living? I would never offer him the living, not after he frittered away the three thousand pounds I gave him for it in the first place."
"Three thousand pounds?" she asked, her eyes narrowed and lips pursed. "When did you give him this money?"
He looked at her in confusion. "When he wrote me, asking not to be given the living. That must have been, oh, sometime in '06. He was going to use his inheritance to go into law. Not that I believed that," he said with a mirthless laugh. "I wasn't overly surprised when he wrote me several years later asking for the living when he was short of funds again. That was when I denied it him."
Elizabeth frowned and exhaled angrily. Under her breath, she gave a colorful description of what she was going to do to her husband. When Darcy's brow went up in surprise, she put her hand to her mouth, gazing at him in wide-eyed embarrassment. "Oh! Forgive me," she said, "I've been too long exposed to low company, I'm afraid."
Darcy shook his head. "It is entirely my fault."
She laughed at that. "Mr. Darcy, if you could possibly explain how my marrying Mr. Wickham is your fault, I would like to hear it."
He looked at her squarely, sadly, thinking about the old man's words. If he was right, Darcy was meant to marry her -- he was meant to be happy ... with her. All of what happened between the time he had saved Georgiana at Ramsgate and the day the old man came upon him in his study at Pemberley -- and even beyond that -- was not meant to happen. And the only difference he knew of was that they did not marry. The silence lengthened between them until he said softly, "Perhaps it was because I never offered."
Her cheeks turned pink. "Why, Mr. Darcy, I hardly know what to say to that," she said with a nervous laugh after a moment of stunned silence. She shook her head. "Truly, I cannot imagine any reason why you ever would have offered for me."
He smiled slightly. "Neither could I. But then I was told that we were supposed to be married, and that we would have had many children and grandchildren and years of happiness together."
"Years of--" she broke off in amazement. "I don't believe it."
"I didn't either, for a while."
"Who...who told you this?"
His smile widened, crinkling his eyes. "George Wickham."
"In truth, he was only a year away from being my sister's widower, at the time," Darcy replied.
"Widower!" Elizabeth said, her voice faint. She looked around the yard blankly, her hand searching for something to support her suddenly weak knees. "Your sister!"
Darcy quickly took hold of her hand and, setting the time machine on the ground, wrapped his other arm around her waist. He led her over to a small bench, where he helped her sit. Then, crouching next to her, he took both hands in his own and rubbed them briskly. "I apologize," he said with a measure of self-recrimination. "I'm going 'round the back way trying to explain this and making a complete hash of it. The truth is, Miss Bennet, I am from the future. I am come to fix ... something that had been put horribly wrong, and in so doing created a complete mess. I now believe that I am supposed to find a way to have you marry me, sometime around 1812. I need your help to bring this about. At the very least, we need to stop your marriage to Wickham."
Elizabeth said not a word. Her eyes were wide, fixed in horror on Darcy. Though her jaw had dropped in amazement, she didn't seem to be breathing. At last she shook her head and took a deep breath, then let it out on a chuckle. "Mr. Darcy, you must think I'm all about in the head." She removed her hands from his and laid them primly in her lap. "Now, what are you here for, truly?"
"I am from the future," he began slowly.
"Oh, not that," Elizabeth said, waving her hand in dismissal. "That was quite an amusing tale, but I'd like the truth now, please."
"It is the truth," Darcy insisted. "I am from the future, and I am here to fix the past, and I need you to come back with me to 1811."
"Not impossible. I've done it, myself."
"Gone back in time?"
"Yes," he said. "And I stopped my sister from marrying Wickham. Unfortunately, it meant that you married him instead. That is what I intend to fix."
She stared at him for a few moments, her head cocked to the side. At last, she folded her arms across her chest and demanded, "How did you go back in time?"
Darcy ran to the garden gate and picked up the time machine and brought it back to her. "With this," he said, setting it on her lap. She grimaced at the weight. "Wickham taught me how to use it, luckily, while we were jumping to Ramsgate. I can go anywhere in time with it."
"What, with this little thing?" she laughed. "I grant you, it is heavy and appears impressively complex, but do you truly expect me to believe this little machine can take you anywhere in time? Mr. Darcy, you look so perfectly serious about all this; I might even begin to fear I was in some danger from you. Madmen can reportedly get quite violent. Although I suppose I shouldn't tell you that. It might incite such a reaction."
Darcy felt a little nonplussed by her rejoinder, and, indeed, had no idea how to respond to such a speech. "Miss Bennet, I am quite serious and certainly not mad." He paused and thought for a moment, "Though, granted, I can easily see why you might think I am. Indeed, I thought Wickham mad when he first appeared in my study at Pemberley."
"At Pemberley?" she echoed. "What, in Derbyshire? When was this?"
He tried to contain his grin. "About three years from now."
She scowled. "I see."
"And Wickham seemed to be somewhere in his late eighties or so, I believe."
Elizabeth shook her head, now trying to contain her own smile. "Now I know you're funning me. Thank you, Mr. Darcy, for cheering my afternoon, but I must truly get back to the task at hand. I need to finish the laundry before I head off to work. Would you mind terribly taking this ... mélange of metal off my lap?"
He did as she asked, but followed when she got up and went back to hanging the laundry on the line. "Miss Bennet, I need your help," he said. "What can I do to prove that I am telling the truth?"
She cocked her head. "Why, Mr. Darcy, it is hardly likely I should know. You are the time traveler."
"True," he said thoughtfully. "Very well, Miss Bennet, I will have to show you. Will you come with me?"
Now she looked alarmed. She stepped backward, her eyes wide. "Come with you?" she echoed faintly, laughing nervously. A faint blush rose to her cheeks. "Mr. Darcy, I am not that kind of woman. I appreciate the forethought of this rather inventive story, as little as it says about your views of my intelligence. I may be poor, but I, at least, respect my vows."
Darcy stared at her blankly for a moment, then, with an expression of shock and reddened cheeks, shook his head firmly. "No, that's not what I was asking at all, Miss Bennet," he said tightly.
"Mrs. Wickham," she ground out.
"I simply wanted to show you how this machine worked," he continued apologetically. "But if you won't come with me -- just in this little test -- I will have to show you a different way." He sighed, and began fiddling with the dials and levers on the machine. The numbers rolled past as he set the coordinates. "I haven't done this yet," he said, with a glance up at her. "I mean, I have jumped, but not to a place where I already am. I'm not entirely sure this will work." With a final twist of one of the knobs, Darcy stepped back and bowed to Elizabeth. "I will be back very shortly."
Elizabeth was shocked when, with a flip of a lever, he disappeared in less than a blink of the eye. At first, she couldn't believe her own senses, but then stepped forward, her hand outstretched as she felt the air where Darcy had stood only a few moments before.
She was even more shocked when he returned.
"Miss Bennet," Darcy said, helping her again to the small bench. "I apologize. That was hardly well done of me."
Elizabeth shook her head mutely.
"But I thought this might help you understand."
She nodded. "I think," she said dazedly after clearing her throat, "I think I believe you."
"Oh," Darcy said, nonplussed. "But you haven't seen me yet."
"Seen you?" she echoed in confusion.
Darcy pointed over Elizabeth's left shoulder, and her gaze followed where he indicated. Ten feet away stood Darcy, holding the time machine and staring at them. When she met his gaze, he bowed politely. Her eyes flew back to the Darcy kneeling before her, still chafing her hands in his own.
"How--" she stammered.
"I went a few minutes into the future and then came back to where I had been before," Darcy explained. "It was very easily done. I simply wasn't sure if it would work, what with everything Wickham had told me about paradoxes and the difficulties of time travel. And, to be honest, it is quite a shock to see myself standing there."
Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder again, but the other Darcy was already gone. "Where did you go?" she asked.
"I came back here," Darcy replied.
"Oh, yes," she said somewhat weakly, putting a hand to her brow. "How silly of me."
Darcy said nothing, gazing at the woman before him in concern. He continued to kneel by her side, one of her hands still in his. "You seem troubled, madam," he said at last in a gentle voice. "Is there anything I can get you to alleviate your distress?"
"Troubled!" Elizabeth echoed with a laugh. "Very troubled, indeed. I confess, Mr. Darcy, I tend to think rather highly of myself for the most part. A few lapses -- in fact, one particularly large lapse -- of judgment aside, I believe I can safely say that I am an intelligent person. But this has completely befuddled me. I don't understand how -- the thought of time travel is so foreign, so anathema to anything I've ever believed. No, I just can't ... and yet, I saw you. With my own eyes."
"It's best not to think too deeply about it," Darcy replied. "Indeed, I am not even entirely certain I understand how this works. Which is why, no doubt, I am so completely at sea in my efforts to correct this mistake. I'm taking a stab in the dark, asking you to help me. I simply don't know how to do it by myself."
He stood abruptly and offered his hand to her. "Will you come with me?"
Elizabeth stared at the proffered hand for several minutes, her brow furrowed as she worried her lip. "I don't know, Mr. Darcy," she said softly at last. "I have so many demands on my time. I shouldn't be gone--"
"You won't be gone," Darcy said. "Not if we change the past."
She met his eyes, and her gaze was probing, searching for something. He tried to tell her silently that he was to be trusted, that she should put confidence in him to make things right. At last, he felt her smaller hand slip into his, and he raised her from the bench.
"Pack a small bag with necessities," he said to her softly. "We have a long time to go."
*Footnote: The cut scene "Sense and Sensibility and Mr. Darcy and Sharks in Space Riding Motorcycles Plus There Is a Time Machine" comes here in the story. Those who have read the scene will understand when I say that it is highly, highly, extremely unnecessary to the plot of this story and may only serve to confuse. This footnote is just for the pleasure of those who enjoy random information.(back)
Chapter Two: Best Laid Plans
Posted on 2011-03-23
"Well, that's not gone right," Darcy said with a sigh of frustration.
He and Elizabeth, dressed as a respectable middle-class couple, watched arm-in-arm as the newlyweds exited the church at Longbourn and ran laughingly under the canopy of outstretched sabers. This was the third time they had witnessed this travesty occur, and the third time Darcy had used those words.
It was as exasperating, Darcy reflected, as watching a storm roll in on a garden party -- and he was as equally helpless in preventing it, it seemed.
Elizabeth patted his hand consolingly, where it rested easily on her other hand. "We will figure it out. I wasn't exactly in a rational state, you know. I fancied myself in love. There is not much one can do to convince a woman in that condition otherwise."
Darcy looked down at Elizabeth with a fond smile, liking the feel of her small hand on his, even with their gloves between them. Over the past few days of time hopping, he'd found himself discovering more and more reasons to approve of this woman. He respected her, very much, especially for the way she was so nearly unaffected by everything she'd been through as Wickham's wife. Her wit, her spirits, her smile had blossomed more and more since he had taken her from Somers Town. He could only imagine what it must have been like to have that spirit undiminished over their lifetime, unhampered by past regrets.
They'd been kept in close contact over the several hops they made to and fro, trying different methods of stopping Elizabeth's marriage. They had taken a suite of rooms at the inn at the very beginning as a cover, posing as a married couple from Keswick on holiday. When asked what had brought them to Meryton, Elizabeth came up with the tale that her ancestors on her mother's side had come from the area. Ah, said the innkeeper's wife to her husband later -- that was why she had the look of the Bennets about her.
Darcy, on the other hand, had tricked himself out with his false whiskers, which had made Elizabeth laugh when she first saw them.
"Completely unrealistic," she declared.
"They fooled all the men at the inn when I was here last," Darcy retorted a tad sullenly.
She laughed again. "A bunch of drunk old men! They would probably have believed you were the prince if you wore a crown."
So she helped him trim the beard and moustache, and Darcy had the pleasure of watching her in concentration, her eyes narrowed and her tongue peeking out between her lips as she focused on evening the sides. She had to stand close to him in order to use the scissors carefully, there in the solitude of his room at the inn, and as he breathed in her scent and felt her brush up against him he felt an overwhelming urge to wrap his arms around her.
But he was a married man, he reminded himself, and not to her -- yet. And while that reminder was enough to keep him in check physically, he could not contain the growing admiration he felt for her.
When he had first met her, back in '11 when he was visiting Hertfordshire with Bingley, he recalled her as being unconventionally striking, vivacious, and witty. She had attracted him, but he had been distracted by his sister's elopement the first time, and the second time by the behavior of her family. The latter had left him with a vague feeling of distaste, and while he couldn't recall any particular incident, he knew they had been the reason he had so easily forgotten her.
But she had always haunted him, to some extent. Most of the time not anything more than a reminder of a fascinating young lady in Hertfordshire, but occasionally, particularly while dwelling on the failure of his marriage, as an ideal, as what he probably ought to have taken into marriage instead of searching for wealth, connections, and class.
Now, of course, he didn't know why he had ever done anything but taken her to wife. She wasn't quite the ideal he had built up in his mind over the years, true. He had quite an imagination and very little true memory to go on. But she was the flesh-and-blood form of that ideal: the real, faulty, Wickham-marrying woman he wished he had wed.
"Do you have any other ideas?" Elizabeth asked now, as the newlyweds once again boarded the carriage to take them to Longbourn for the wedding feast.
Darcy brought his thoughts back to the present and considered this for a while. "There is always the 'any objections?' part of the ceremony," he said at last.
She laughed. "I thought we had already decided there were no objections that would hold up."
"Perhaps we could go back in time and marry him off to a barmaid or something," Darcy offered. "Then he couldn't marry you or he would be a bigamist."
"Or perhaps we could have him join the fleet instead of the militia, and ship him off to the West Indies."
Darcy smiled. "It would never work," he said. "Wickham hates water. Gets sick even out on a calm lake."
"Ah, well, it was worth a try," Elizabeth said. She reflected for a moment, then asked, "Should we try for a different tack, then?"
"I'm not a huge fan of murder, though I have considered it a few times in his case," Darcy mused.
Elizabeth cocked her head at him, trying to contain her laughter. "That is not what I meant at all, though the idea does have its merits. I was thinking more along the lines of you and I. Perhaps if I had a different option I might be less willing to join hands with Mr. Wickham."
Darcy was silent for a moment, contemplating this. "You are suggesting we go back even farther. To when we met."
She waved her hand in a gesture of indecision. "Or before that, possibly," she said. "An earlier impression might be helpful, do you not think? Mr. Bingley took possession of Netherfield at Michaelmas, if I recall correctly, and you and his sisters and Mr. Hurst didn't arrive until nearly a month after that. And then your entire party left at Christmas. So it was only a month that we knew each other."
"And you think that if we met each other sooner, knew each other longer, we might have more opportunity to fall in love?" Darcy concluded. "But then why did we wait a year to get married?"
Elizabeth had to think about this for a few minutes. "Perhaps your informant merely meant that we waited until the next year. That would have been only a week after Christmas, at the earliest. And banns take three weeks to be read, so I could easily see it maybe happening in January or later."
"Perhaps," Darcy said, still doubtful.
"Plus," Elizabeth said, her expression mischievous, "if we go back in time, we won't have to pay for our rooms at the inn."
Darcy choked on his laughter. "I think we have enough money to cover that, Miss Bennet," he said.
"Through no efforts of mine," she said with a soft sigh. "I regret I didn't even have a halfpenny left in the household accounts to bring with us."
He turned to look at her, his hand going to her chin to raise it. He met her eyes and said firmly, "And you would have had more -- all of my wealth -- if I had not been so foolish as to let you go in the first place. You would have been my wife, not Wickham's, and we wouldn't even be in this muddle. I would not have you distress yourself over this any longer."
She smiled crookedly. "Then I shall forget it," she said, threading her arm through his again and leading him back in the direction of the Meryton Inn. "As should you, really. I used to have a philosophy, you know, of remembering only what gave me pleasure. It was so easy, then, to live in the moment. I see I shall have to resurrect it."
"Only if you can still recall what we need to know to change the past," Darcy replied. "Speaking of which, I think I can see a flaw in your plan to bring me here to Hertfordshire earlier."
"How do we do it?"
"Oh, dear. I didn't think that far," Elizabeth said, stopping on the path and drawing Darcy to a halt, as well. "I suppose ... do you think we might have Mr. Bingley convince you to come earlier?"
"It's not that simple, I'm afraid," Darcy said. "I had business to take care of. In fact, if I recall correctly, I was at Pemberley for nearly a month before I came down here. A fence had come down in a storm in one of the fields and set a flock of our sheep free. I had to return home to play diplomat with one of my neighbors, who refused to believe not all of the sheep in his field were his own."
Elizabeth laughed. "But if not for that, you would have come to Hertfordshire earlier?" she asked.
"Indeed. Bingley was with me in London and had asked me to Netherfield, in fact, just as I got news of the problem."
"Well then," Elizabeth said, her smile wide. "This should be easy to fix! So long, of course, as you're not afraid of storms."
The entire Bingley party arrived at Netherfield in time for the Meryton Assembly shortly after Michaelmas. Darcy heard the news while he was in the taproom at the inn, drinking ale with the inn's barfly, Morris.
"Do you know how many, my good man?" Darcy asked pleasantly.
"Oh, aye," said Morris, accepting another mug from the innkeeper. Darcy slid a coin across the bar to the latter man. "My sister, what works up at the house as an upstairs maid, said they prepared four more rooms for the gen'lefolk what came yesterday. Apparently they're quite a snoo'y lot!"
"If ye goes by their servants," Morris said with a laugh. "The two sisters of that Bingley fellow apparently have some fancy French maids to take care o' theirselves."
"French," spat the innkeeper. "As if we need any of that sort around 'ere."
Morris nodded sagely. "Affer all that killing their be'ers, and all, ye'd think they'd not take a job servin' them."
"We're a peace-loving folk 'ere, sir," the innkeeper said with a nod to Darcy.
"I'm glad to hear it," he replied, setting down his tankard and thanking the two men for their company. He returned upstairs to Elizabeth. "It sounds as if I came to Netherfield," Darcy said. "Morris said there were four of them. And when Bingley had asked me, back in London, he had indicated his two sisters and Hurst would be of the party. I would make the fourth."
Elizabeth, who was seated at the small dressing table on the far side of her room, turned. She had pins in her mouth and was still holding up her hair with one hand. She began to speak, but then stopped and removed the pins from her mouth before trying again: "But we don't know for sure?"
Darcy shook his head, coming further into the room. He sat down in the comfortable chair near the fireplace. "I cannot remember clearly. I must have, but I simply cannot find the memory. It is highly likely, however," he said. "To be honest, Bingley didn't have all that many close friends." He paused for a moment, confused. "Doesn't? No, didn't." He shook his head. "Not that Bingley is an unlikable fellow -- quite the contrary. It simply is that he gathers a large number of acquaintances, but few close friends. I am the closest he has. Had."
"So he sat in your pocket quite a bit," Elizabeth concluded, putting the final pin in her hair and turning one way and the other as she examined her appearance in the mirror.
"You look lovely," Darcy said, then blushed as Elizabeth looked at him in surprise. He cleared his throat awkwardly and returned to the main topic of conversation: "I mean, yes, he did. Does. Sit in my pocket, that is. I never minded, though. It's nice to have someone who looks up to you. I have cousins, and my younger sister, of course, but it was different with Bingley. He always trusted me, took my advice on everything."
Elizabeth twisted her mouth up in wry amusement. "He made you feel like a Demigod."
Darcy chuckled. "Yes, I suppose in a way he did. Surely, though, there is nothing wrong with that?"
"Of course not," Elizabeth replied as she stood and went to the wardrobe to take out a shawl Darcy had purchased for her earlier in the day. "So long as it doesn't go to your head," she added as Darcy helped her place the shawl around her shoulders. She returned to check her appearance in the mirror, patting her finished coiffure self-consciously. "I simply cannot get accustomed to seeing myself with dark hair."
"I will admit that I prefer you fair-haired," Darcy replied, then colored when he realized what he'd said. "That is, not that I think your appearance less pleasing now since you dyed your locks -- I mean, you were quite beautiful before ... or rather ... I don't think I can reclaim those words, can I?"
Elizabeth laughed and patted him on the cheek. "I would stop trying, if I were you," she said. "But I will have to retaliate and tell you that your whiskers make you look like a middle-aged pirate."
He barked with laughter. "A pirate, eh?" He swung one arm around her waist and pulled her close. "Then I shall have to find myself a lusty wench, madam."
"Did I mention middle-aged?" Elizabeth said with a laugh, leaning back in his arms.
In that moment, wrapped as they were in a loose embrace, the atmosphere around them suddenly changed, charging with an energy that seemed to come from their very selves. Darcy felt as if the breath had been sucked out of his body as he looked down into her by-now familiar face. There was a message in her eyes, one that he feared as much as he desired, and his arm tightened around her.
"I would have loved you in an instant had I seen you then as I see you now," Elizabeth said softly.
With a pained expression, Darcy set her back on her feet and turned away, spearing a hand through his grey-flecked hair as he battled the suddenly conflicting emotions her words had raised in him. Elizabeth stood where he had set her, her pale features betraying the hurt she felt at his rejection. "Mr. Darcy, I--" she began, but he interrupted her harshly.
"I am sorry, Miss Bennet," he said.
Elizabeth didn't respond at first, her gaze dropping and her expression falling. "Mrs. Wickham," she corrected dully, turning away and wrapping her arms around herself.
He looked over at her now. "Even more reason why I should remind myself of who we are," he said. "As before, as it has been from the beginning, this is my fault. I have no right to indulge in ... flirtation. With you or with anyone. I will comport myself honorably with you in the future."
She turned back to him, her arms still tight across her chest, her expression thoughtful. "It is not only your fault, Mr. Darcy," she said, her voice little more than a whisper. She shook her head and cleared her throat and continued, stronger: "I am a married woman, far enough into my adult years to know what is expected of me. This is not an idyll, though I admit that for the past few days, as we established our identities here, it has seemed as such. I will remember my place."
They stood awkwardly in the silence that followed, each lost in their own thoughts and emotions, until Darcy cleared his throat, recalling them both to their present engagement. Without a word, Elizabeth took her fan from the dressing table and, pulling her shawl closer, preceded Darcy out the door, careful not to brush against him as she went past.
The Meryton Assemblies were a bimonthly opportunity for all of the society of the area to gather for a festive evening. There were no restrictions placed on class; visiting noble and country squire alike were invited in, providing the cost of the ticket was at hand.
Here was their opportunity to begin their attack -- Bingley was known to be attending, his first introduction to Meryton society at large. And it was equally well known that he was bringing a large party. If the young Mr. Darcy were here, he would come.
Elizabeth and Darcy arrived at the assembly hall before many, in the hopes that a fait accompli presence -- as they had already established in the village -- would allow them to blend in as a sort of assumed acquaintance. They were older enough than their present-day counterparts, Darcy believed, and well disguised enough not to attract notice. Assuredly, an older married couple would be less likely to draw suspicion.
As well, Elizabeth's intimate knowledge of the neighborhood had made it easy for her to insinuate them among these people. She knew their likes and dislikes and the topics most likely to interest various people, and she navigated them from conversation to conversation with an ease born of longstanding familiarity. For Darcy, who had always been awkward in crowds and lacking in the ability to speak easily with strangers, this experience was eye opening -- in more ways than one.
Watching Elizabeth now speak with Sir William Lucas and his daughter Charlotte, Darcy knew that she was reveling in this opportunity to reacquaint herself with their lives even as she laughed at her hidden secret. He watched the expressions play over her face as she responded to something Miss Lucas said and felt a tightening around his heart.
She was perfect, he thought -- as much at home here among the cream of Meryton as she had been in the pouring rain at Pemberley, standing in muddy sheep paddocks as they tried to fix a broken fence. The latter experience, especially, had deepened their burgeoning relationship in a way that Darcy had for days been trying not to examine.
They had gone to Pemberley to prevent the situation that would have resulted in the necessity of Darcy's presence and therefore delay his appearance in Hertfordshire. They had staked out the parts of fence Darcy recalled as having fallen apart and had gathered the essential materials to repair them quickly. Then, amid the wind and rain of one of the worst storms to have hit the area in years, Darcy and Elizabeth hammered the fences back together. At one point, Elizabeth had thrown down her hammer into the mud and chased the sheep away from that part of the paddock when they were close to escaping.
It was at that moment that he knew he was irrevocably lost. As she laughingly ran through the cold, pelting rain, waving her arms at several dozen sheep, her skirts whipping about her and her bonnet falling heedlessly into the mud, he paused, hammer resting on the fence, and felt the pull of her presence. As he looked into her smiling eyes when she returned, dripping and mud-spattered, he knew he had come home. Not to Pemberley, but to her.
And now, with his ill-chosen words in their rooms at the inn, with his flirtatious manner, he had put up a wall between them. A necessary barrier, but one that nevertheless pained him. He wanted nothing more than to admit to her that he loved her, to run away with her, to marry her -- even now, out of their time. But it was impossible. Not with who they were.
He smiled distractedly as Elizabeth said something to Miss Lucas, glancing over at him as she did so. Sir William then asked him about the Lake District, and Darcy answered to the best of his knowledge, trying to dredge up details of fell walking from the last time he had visited the area.
He was saved from embarrassment by the entrance of a new group of people. Five people, fashionably dressed, and obviously unaccustomed to the society in which they now found themselves. Only one of them seemed not to appreciate the difference.
Sir William excused his daughter and himself to approach the group.
"So, there I am," Darcy said in an undertone to Elizabeth, trying not to stare at the tall gentleman standing just over the threshold of the assembly rooms. It was strange to see oneself, even stranger to see a vastly younger self. "I thought my hair parted the other way."
Elizabeth glanced keenly at him, then at his younger self. "For all that you're here, you don't seem happy about it," she said in reply.
Darcy frowned. "I don't," he said softly. "And I think I know why. Watch Bingley."
Mr. Bingley, the younger man in the group, smilingly accepted Sir William's approach, quivering in excitement as he looked around the room. Unlike the rest of his party, Bingley was both pleased to be there and open to being pleased by a society that might be more than a touch below his usual standards. He smiled warmly in appreciation at several young women who passed by him, even as he tried to listen to Sir William's greeting.
"He seems a very genial fellow," Elizabeth said to Darcy.
He glanced at her with a wry expression. "Willing to dance with everyone, willing to speak with everyone. Willing to think highly of everyone without considering the effects."
"A perfect foil to your own personality," she replied, her eyes on the man across the room who just then touched Bingley's elbow and whispered something to him in a low but intense voice. Bingley shrugged him off with a laugh and asked Miss Lucas to dance; the other man tightened his lips and went to procure refreshments just as Sir William turned to the rest of the party in an effort to introduce them around.
Darcy shook his head. "I don't recall myself being so..."
"Reserved? Aloof? Impolite?" Elizabeth offered as they watched Darcy's younger self listen with ill-concealed boredom to a gentleman who had cornered him by the punch bowl.
"Well dressed," Darcy finished with a wry smile. "But I suppose if I wish to prove that at least my wiser and more mature self is not so discourteous, I should no doubt find someone to partner me for this first dance. There do not seem to be enough gentlemen to do the pretty as it is."
"Very thoughtful. I recommend Annie Long -- she's the one in the blue dress," Elizabeth said, discretely gesturing towards a young woman on the side of the dance floor. "We met her and her aunt yesterday while calling on the Gouldings. She is not often partnered at assemblies such as these."
Darcy, or "Mr. Winterbottom," as he was known, did as bid. The rest of the assembly, for the most part, was spent with the middle-aged Darcy dancing with many of the wallflowers of Meryton, under the direction of Elizabeth. "I think I have danced more tonight than I have in the past ten years," he said to her at one point as he struggled to catch his breath during a break in the dancing. He patted his whiskers to ensure they were still in place.
"At least one of you has," Elizabeth replied, indicating where his younger self stood by the wall, ignoring the hopeful glances of the young ladies forced to sit out the dance. "Aside from one set with Miss Bingley and another with Mrs. Hurst, you have barely strayed from that spot. And you completely ignored Mrs. Long when she sat next to you earlier for a full half-hour."
"What is wrong with me?" Darcy asked, shaking his head sadly. "Why am I not asking any of the young ladies to dance?"
"You could hardly expect me to know," Elizabeth said. "It is your younger self."
"We have to do something," he concluded. "I have to make myself dance. Look -- I could even ask you. You are sitting out this dance."
Elizabeth grimaced. "I know. I have spent the whole night propping up a wall or chatting with the other old women. You have no idea what it is like to talk with my mother -- as her contemporary."
He shook his head. "Not you. You," he said, nodding towards where her younger self was just now sitting down in an unoccupied chair. "Come. They are just starting the dance. We can still make up the set."
"And do what?" Elizabeth asked, but he had already taken her hand and was leading her to the floor, where they arrived just in time to join the set. Darcy maneuvered them into the line next to Bingley and his partner, Jane Bennet.
They spent most of the dance in silence, with an occasional remark about the size of the room or the number of couples. When they touched on the latter topic, however, Darcy suddenly brightened and began to speak loudly about how wonderful it is to dance.
"It is a pity, though," he continued, "that there are always so few gentlemen at these affairs."
"Oh, yes!" Elizabeth said, catching on. "It always is a shame that so many young ladies must sit out because there aren't enough partners."
"Yes, well," Darcy said in a gruff, middle-aged manner, "especially at my age it becomes difficult to dance the night away like these young men. It's much more pleasant when they do their duty and stand up with the young ladies."
At that moment, Bingley and Jane were to dance down the line, and as they went past, Darcy winked slyly at Elizabeth. When it was their turn they danced to the end of the set, but Bingley and Jane were no longer there. With a satisfied smile, Darcy led Elizabeth away from the set, as well, and went to the punch bowl. When he returned to her, she had maneuvered her position close to where Bingley and Darcy were now in conversation. Elizabeth put her finger to her lips when he approached.
"...and there are several of them, you see, uncommonly pretty," Bingley was saying as he arrived.
"You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room," the younger Darcy replied as he glanced over to where Jane Bennet stood, speaking with her sister Mary and Maria Lucas.
"Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld!" Bingley replied with an endearing grin. He paused, and then added in a lower (but not low enough) voice, "But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."
"Which do you mean?" his friend asked, turning. He caught sight of the younger Elizabeth and seemed to assess her for a moment. When she looked in his direction and caught his eye, however, he turned sharply back to Bingley and replied, "She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me, and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me."
Elizabeth's eyes widened, and Darcy flinched but quickly put a hand on her arm to prevent her going to him and scratching his eyes out. After the younger Darcy unwittingly removed himself from danger, she seemed to recover. "How incredibly rude! I heard that."
"I know," Darcy said. "But we were standing right behind him."
"No," Elizabeth said, shaking her head. She gestured towards where her younger self still sat with a slightly dazed and baffled expression on her face. "I heard that. You didn't even bother to lower your voice enough to prevent my hearing."
Darcy grimaced. "If it's any consolation, I'm sorry," he said softly. "I don't really know why I said that. Most likely simply to get Bingley to stop harassing me. I guess I shouldn't have tried to make myself dance."
She sighed. "Well, now I have even more reason to marry Wickham instead of someone as offensive as you. I've laughed it off, but I have no reason to doubt that little snub will be enough to put me off you forever." She paused in thought, then offered: "We could always go back and try the assembly again."
He considered this for a moment, then shook his head. "It's better to move on. First of all, it might be odd to have another pair of ourselves here, unless we could somehow get us to be somewhere else. Secondly, though, there are no guarantees we would be able to change the outcome of tonight. Especially considering the foul mood I was clearly in, we're probably lucky I didn't say something worse. Besides, if that is my personality at that point, I don't know if I would want you to marry me. Not until I learn how to be a gentleman. You deserve better."
Elizabeth smiled provocatively at that. "Then we'll just have to teach you."
Chapter Three: A Change in Strategy
Posted on 2011-03-30
Darcy sat in the taproom of the Blue Boar in Meryton, listening to the regulars chat with the innkeeper. If truth be told, he was becoming something of a regular himself. Nearly every afternoon and the occasional evening, he spent at least a few minutes catching up on the gossip. It was the best way to keep tabs on his younger self.
Sitting at several of the tables scattered around the room, some of them involved in games of dice or cards, were members of the regiment that had come to town lately. They were often loud and rowdy, and the townspeople grumbled about them, but they were business, the innkeeper frequently reminded the regulars.
Just as Darcy finished his mug of ale and was considering retreat up to his rooms, the colonel of the regiment, a Colonel Forster, strolled in from outside. He approached the bar, giving a friendly nod to some of the men nursing their drinks before spotting Darcy leaning against the bar. He laughed. "Mr. Winterbottom! Here again! Someone might think you never spend any time around your wife!"
The regulars all chortled over that, a few adding their own ribald comments, but Darcy took it good-naturedly. "I never spend any time around the shops, more like," he replied. "The less I do, the less likely it is I'll have to sign away my life's savings for a new bonnet."
All the men laughed, and the colonel patted Darcy on the shoulder. "The pains of taking a wife, I've heard. They're pretty things, but have to be worth the price. Are you going to be able to dine with us tomorrow night?" When Darcy nodded, the other man rubbed his hands. "Good, good. Then we'll be able to hear your thoughts on the war in the Peninsula and that constitution those Spaniards seem to have got now. I think you said your cousin was there. Written recently?"
Darcy smiled. "Not recently, no. But, then, you know how the packet boats are. I have been reading the London papers on the conflict, though."
The colonel would have responded, but at that moment the door to the taproom opened and two gentlemen strolled in, glancing around. "Ah, Mr. Bingley," the colonel said in an aside to Darcy as he watched Bingley smilingly acknowledge everyone in the room. "Nice chap. Not much of a strategist, from the little I've talked with him, but a pleasant man, all the same. Haven't really spoken much with his friend. Seems a rather taciturn type."
"That he is," Darcy muttered under his breath.
"Do you know him, then?" Colonel Forster said, glancing at him in surprise.
Darcy shrugged. "We've been introduced," he said, recalling that strange moment at the Gouldings' dinner party. He tried to think of something to say now that might help his younger self open up to the neighborhood. "I should think the two of you might have some interesting conversations. He has a cousin on the continent, as well, I believe. Or had. I believe I read in the papers that the colonel was home on leave for an injury."
"Ah!" the colonel said, brightening. He glanced over at the younger Darcy thoughtfully. "Perhaps we might invite them to the little dinner party tomorrow. I would most thoroughly enjoy engaging his thoughts on the matter."
Darcy congratulated himself on his skilful handling of the situation for the rest of the afternoon until he related the experience later to Elizabeth.
"And what will that do?" she asked.
He was flabbergasted. "Well, obviously, it will ... I mean, surely ... It's a man's thing."
"Obviously," she said, folding her arms and leaning back in her chair. They were dining together in a private room at the inn, and Darcy -- before she had so unfairly contradicted him like this -- had been thinking how nice it was to sit across the table from her. "So explain it to me."
"This 'man's thing,'" she said. "What, where you all get together and eat excessive amounts of food and drink excessive amounts of liquor and talk incessant amounts of rubbish about wine, women, and war?"
"No! Of course not!" Darcy said, then reconsidered. "Well, yes, actually, that is mostly what happens. But it's no more ridiculous than those little tea parties you women have, so you can wipe the smirk off your face."
She refused to heed his warning. "So your little plan will do precisely what? Get your younger self inebriated? Sounds like a fun time."
Darcy thought that it did sound like a fun time. He was greatly looking forward to the night out. He hadn't had one like it in years. But he wasn't going to mention that to Elizabeth. "I think it might help for younger me to open himself a little to the neighborhood. Make some friends."
She stared at him for a moment before responding. "And you think plying him with wine will help you do that? For pity's sake, have you not been watching yourself for the past few weeks? One night will not make a difference to your reputation. You have offended everyone here in Meryton. You have been silent, morose, aloof, arrogant, and rude. You stared at me for a full hour during the Goulding's party, and at the Lucases' soiree you eavesdropped on my conversations!"
"I hardly think you can complain about my eavesdropping, madam. You were the one who started all these problems by eavesdropping on my conversation with Bingley."
"I started? Why, you arrogant oaf! You talked loud enough for the whole room to have heard you."
Darcy harrumphed, throwing his napkin on the table. "I do not recall it that way. And, besides, I told you the last time we talked about this that I am only eavesdropping to get to know you better. I am simply not comfortable talking to strangers, and wish to acquaint myself with your personality more before attempting to engage you in conversation."
Elizabeth snorted. "You would do a great deal better to simply practice the skill more, than to make me so uncomfortable that the moment you do open your mouth, I deftly roast you with my brilliant wit."
"Roast me?" he echoed. "Is that what you were doing when you refused to dance with me at the Lucases' soiree?"
She laughed, but then sobered when she realized he wasn't laughing with her. "Good gracious -- you are serious, aren't you?" she asked, noting his hurt expression. "You really thought -- what? But how could I have been doing anything but giving you a set-down, when you were so horribly rude to me? I told you that I had promised my mother I would never dance with you."
"Yes, but I thought it held as much weight as my own opinion that you were merely 'tolerable,'" he replied. "You said it in a moment of pique after I had offended your pride."
Elizabeth seemed hesitant to say anything and opened her mouth and closed it several times before committing to the action: "I wish you had said something earlier about this misapprehension. It explains so many of the comments you have made in the past few days that I had attributed rather to a sense of irony or humor than to candor. It seems I was as bent on misunderstanding you as you were me." She sighed. "I vow, I didn't at first think this would be so difficult, but here we are, making the same mistakes our younger counterparts are. We should no doubt communicate slightly better than this if we hope to avoid working at cross-purposes."
Darcy thought about that a moment. "Then we should talk more -- and perhaps encourage our younger selves to talk more with each other and with the rest of the neighborhood."
Elizabeth agreed it seemed a likely way to lessen the chances of misunderstandings.
"Then you do think my idea to have my younger self invited to the dinner tomorrow has its merits?" Darcy asked, his expression playful but still determined to win his point.
She laughed and acknowledged the hit. "And I daresay you shall all have a roaring good time -- and perhaps if you fill his glass often enough your younger self might even crack a smile and the neighborhood can then declare you merely 'ogre-ish' rather than 'the root of all evil.'"
"A modest goal, I should say."
"Indeed," she said. "And who knows? Perhaps some good will come out of it, despite everything."
Which was not the opinion she had the following morning as she stomped into his room and threw a pillow at his head.
"What the deuce was that for?" Darcy said as he dabbed at the cut he had just made on his chin. He turned to glare at her after ascertaining it was not a life-threatening wound.
"Your stupid idea to get Darcy and Bingley to dine with the officers today," she said, her hands on her hips as she returned his glare. "I just remembered that Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley invited Jane to dine with them at Netherfield in your absence."
Darcy was confused. "I should think that a good thing. Are you not the one who was saying we should promote a friendship between the Bingleys and the Bennets? That such a friendship would necessarily throw you and me together more often?"
"Yes," Elizabeth replied slowly, "but Jane is riding there, not taking the carriage."
"So have you not looked outside? How could you not know it is going to rain today? There are horrible black clouds on the horizon, and I'm sure it will absolutely pour before she makes it there."
Darcy shrugged and went back to his shaving. "Then she will have to stay the night. That seems even better."
Another pillow, this one from his own bed, missed his head by a close margin and crashed into his mirror and shaving-set stand. Lather sprayed everywhere as the spattered pillow fell off the table to the floor. "Dash it all, woman! Are you trying to have me slit my throat?"
"It would serve you right. You don't even care that Jane will be soaked to the bone and no doubt catch ill."
"Oh, no one dies because of a little cold," Darcy said. "If she does catch ill, she will simply have to stay at Netherfield for a few days before returning, which will provide us an opportunity to deepen the family friendship. Besides, why does she not take a carriage if it will rain?"
Elizabeth grimaced, a light blush staining her cheeks. She hesitated before answering: "Because my mother won't let her."
Darcy suddenly comprehended the source of her anger and, relieved it wasn't him, set his razor on the dressing table and quickly moved to take Elizabeth's hands in his own. He drew her to the bed, then thought better of it and moved them to a set of chairs by the window. "Elizabeth, you cannot take the blame for your mother's machinations," he said softly after they were seated. He tipped her chin up with one finger to make her look him in the eyes. "She is no doubt only trying to see you well settled. Truly, it is the goal of every mother."
Elizabeth pushed his hand away and wrapped her arms around her waist. "Yes, but does she have to do it so crudely? It's so embarrassing, to have her pushing us on others like this. I cannot believe Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley will not see straight through this ruse."
"So what if they do? I shall not think the worse of you."
"Perhaps not, but your younger self will."
Darcy thought about this a moment and had to acknowledge its truth. He could already recall his impression of the Bennet family, of their poor manners. Her mother he had derided, the youngest two daughters and even Miss Mary he had held in contempt, her father he had blamed for the lack of discipline and his own somewhat eccentric behavior. This latest little bit of evidence would probably not influence Darcy-the-younger's opinion greatly -- it was already so low that it hardly could get much worse.
"Besides," Elizabeth continued, "how is what she is doing any different than what I do now? I am no less a desperate matchmaker than she is, and I hated her for it. How does this not make me a hypocrite?"
It did. Or, at least, it did if one looked at it by that definition. "Truly, though," Darcy said, "you are not really matchmaking others. You are convincing yourself to marry me. I should think that's more about improving yourself and your circumstances. You are doing no more than, say, if I were to persuade myself right now I should give up eating chocolates."
Elizabeth burst into laughter. "That, quite possibly, was the worst justification for poor behavior I have ever heard," she said, taking his hand and squeezing it. "And I have heard many, considering the environment in which I was raised. But it was quite satisfying, and I vow I will believe it."
Darcy smiled slowly, his heart overflowing as he listened to her delighted laughter -- laughter he had inspired. He wanted to do more for her -- buy her jewels, show her the world, give her the moon -- if only she would continue to laugh, and laugh for him. At least he still held her hand. "Is there nothing we could do to help your sister? Perhaps we might find a way to intercept her, offer her a ride in the confines of a coach."
Her smile saddened and she sighed, looking away. "With what carriage?" she asked. "At what time, at what place? It is entirely frustrating that I cannot recall anything that has not happened yet in this time, but it is nonetheless true that I cannot remember when she left. And without hanging about Longbourn, waiting for her to leave and then following her, we cannot know for sure which path to Netherfield she will take. She might go by way of the village, but there is a shorter way through the fields, so she might choose that. Even should we discover where she was, what carriage would we offer her? We sent our borrowed coach back to London, and you know how awkward it would be to rent a carriage here for such a strange mission. No, I fear we must simply wait."
But waiting was difficult, especially as they could not do so together. When a neatly whiskered Darcy left later to dine with the officers, Elizabeth had seemed to relax and was sitting in the chair in her room reading a book, but her frequent glances at the rain streaming outside the window belied a calm state. It was impossible for him to not worry for the remainder of the evening, and his preoccupation showed.
Despite his thoughts, for the most part, being elsewhere, however, he could not ignore the utter failure of his attempt to acclimate his younger self to his surroundings. Darcy-the-younger spent most of the evening sitting stiffly in his chair, nursing the same glass of wine he had been given early in the dinner, and providing monosyllabic responses to his companions' questions and statements. Even the topic of Roman war theory, which Darcy knew had been of keen interest to him when younger, failed to rouse more than a modicum of inclination to participate.
By the time the Bingley party made to leave, Darcy was beginning to wonder if perhaps he had been suffering from lockjaw during this time period and had forgotten. And, worst of all, he had to admit to Elizabeth that she had been right.
"So, was I right?"
Darcy muttered something suitable in her direction as he tossed his greatcoat on his bed. She had been waiting for him in his room, reading something that looked heavy and, judging by how few pages she was into it, seemed likely to be able to put even him to sleep. Elizabeth dropped her book on the table beside her chair and stretched, extending her legs in front of her. He watched, fascinated, as her stocking-clad toes peeked out beneath the hem of her skirt. "I don't believe I heard that," she said, leaning forward and fixing her gaze on him with a cheeky smile. "Was I right?"
Shaking off his inappropriate thoughts, he shrugged and came to sit across from her in the other chair by the window. "Yes, you were correct, O Wise One," he said, and she chortled and clapped her hands in delight. "Laugh all you want, but it isn't getting us any closer to our goal. In fact, it is most likely putting us even further from it."
She sobered at that and, with a sigh, tucked her legs up under her again. "I daresay you are right," she said, her fingers and gaze idly tracing the embossed cover of the book beside her. "I still do not recall you with any fondness. But I was thinking -- what if we have been going about this the wrong way? We are really not getting anything done here as Mr. and Mrs. Winterbottom. The limits placed on us here, at an inn, are simply too great."
"So where would we go instead?" he asked.
Elizabeth smiled, looking up at him with twinkling eyes. "Perhaps, like Jane, our future lies at Netherfield."
Her plan, as she then outlined it, seemed simple: They would infiltrate Bingley's rented house, taking up residence perhaps in an unused wing or unused suite of rooms. Darcy's appearance, despite being nearly a decade and a half older, was not dramatically different from his younger self, and he should be able to move about fairly freely. Elizabeth, when her hair finished regaining its normal shade of blonde, would not be a perfect match for her younger self, but in the dark or half-light could no doubt pass; in a pinch she could simply dress as a housemaid. She hadn't figured on exactly what they would be able to do yet, but she was sure opportunities would present themselves.
"And, perhaps, if that works, we could go to Longbourn afterward and it would be my turn. It would certainly give me time to wash the black completely from my hair."
Darcy liked the idea, but thought there were flaws: "How do we get into Netherfield?" he asked. "We cannot jump straight there until I get the coordinates."
This, however, was easily got around -- as he was known at the estate already, it would be simple enough for him to slip inside while he remembered himself to be gone, and then find a way into an empty room to take down the location.
So a plan was set out for them to return to London with a rented carriage the following morning. There, they took a private parlor at a small inn, and, nearly as soon as the door was closed, Darcy jumped to a spot in the woods outside Netherfield that morning, leaving Elizabeth behind to wait for tea. He would only be a moment.
Darcy-the-younger had gone on a ride that morning, a little later than his wont but perfect for Darcy-the-elder's mission. He could come from the direction of the stable, pop up the stairs, and be back at the inn in London in less than five minutes -- and if anyone then saw Darcy come in later, they would hardly think twice about it, or merely assume they had not seen him go out again.
Dressed in the outdoor clothing and the greatcoat he usually preferred -- plain black, an easy find for him to impersonate himself -- he approached the house with smooth determination. It was only as he reached the flagstones of the side garden that he realized he wasn't alone. He took in the appearance of the approaching figure with some measure of alarm and quickly closed the gap between them.
"What are you doing here?" he hissed, glancing around them to make sure no servants were close enough to witness their interaction.
"I beg your pardon?" Elizabeth asked, clearly affronted. She pulled her brown traveling cloak closer around herself. "Why should I not be here? My sister is ill."
He tightened his lips, muttering between gritted teeth: "It wasn't necessary for you to come here." A thought occurred to him, and he widened his eyes. "Speaking of which, how did you get here?"
She narrowed her eyes. "I walked."
She shook her head, a baffled smile curving her lips. "I know your opinions of the country, Mr. Darcy, but most of us do not make town the central point of every trip. It was quite a simple matter to walk here from Longbourn without going all the way to London in between."
"Longbourn?" he echoed. "Why were you there?"
"Perhaps because I live there, Mr. Darcy? Now, if you have finished your sport for the morning, would you be so kind as to escort me to my sister?"
Darcy felt like an idiot. Of course this wasn't his Elizabeth. He had left her in London, and had taken the time machine with him. There was no possible way this could have been her. Not that he wasn't still surprised -- to have walked three miles, and in the mud he could clearly see staining her petticoats, all for her sister? He hadn't remembered Miss Bingley saying that Miss Bennet's cold was so bad.
A sound of impatience roused him from his contemplation and he doffed his hat politely to her and gestured toward the house. Upon entering through a side door, they were almost immediately greeted by a passing footman, who bowed upon seeing his master's guest in the hallway. Darcy was glad, as he couldn't for the life of him remember where Miss Bennet was.
"Ehm ... you there," he said to the footman, cringing as he noticed Elizabeth's hastily concealed sneer -- undoubtedly for his inability to remember the servants' names. "Would you please show Miss Elizabeth to the room in which Miss Bennet is installed? She, er, has come to care for her sister. I happened to run into her in the garden, purely by accident, of course, entirely innocent and everything, and, ehm..." He trailed off, noting the look on the servant's face and that on Elizabeth's. He was babbling, and for no purpose. Feeling his cheeks flush painfully, he bowed abruptly, not even bothering to direct the gesture in anyone's direction, and made his escape. Good Lord -- he hadn't been so embarrassed since his university days, when in the middle of standing to answer a question his braces had failed him.
He hurried up the stairs, not bothering to look back at the people he had left behind, and quickly found the stairs to the third storey. There he found an empty room -- clearly unused for quite some time -- and, taking down the coordinates, jumped back to London.
Elizabeth was in the middle of sitting down when he appeared, and she startled, dropping her book. He retrieved it as he set the time machine down on the table. "Well, that was rather efficient," she said, taking the book from him and sitting down as she intended in the chair behind her. "Hardly a minute, even."
"It was an eternity on my side, unfortunately," he said, taking the seat across from her. "I felt like an absolute idiot."
"Oh, I am sure it could not have been so bad."
"It was," he said, glancing around. "What, have they not brought in the tea yet?"
She laughed. "I told you, you were gone hardly a minute. They'll be here shortly, I'm sure." She set her book on the table in front of her and looked at him keenly. "So what happened?"
He sighed and began to relate the tale. But he had hardly arrived at the point in his story where he had met Elizabeth in the garden when she suddenly let out a guffaw, quickly putting her hands to her mouth to cover her laughter. "Oh, I remember!" she said between laughs.
Darcy groaned, putting his head in his hands. "Was I that bad?" he asked, looking up at her between his fingers.
She pursed her lips together, trying not to laugh. "You were hilarious!" she said. When she noticed his pained expression, she took one of his hands in hers and patted it, trying to contain the chuckles that escaped in spurts. "Rest assured I didn't tell anyone how little of a morning person you were, and when I met you later in the morning room I made no mention of our encounter as you seemed not to wish to recall it. I merely assumed," she continued, "your wits did not wake until after breakfast."
A servant came in just then with a tea tray, and Elizabeth sat back, smoothing her skirts and her expression. When the girl had left, closing the door behind her with a curtsey, Elizabeth poured a cup for each of them. She added just the right amount of cream and sugar to his, and he took it with a grateful smile.
"You have the coordinates?" she asked as she stirred her own tea.
Darcy patted his pocket and nodded. "Written in my tablet."
"Good. So we should be able to leave after tea?"
And after a few sandwiches, of course. Darcy even put a few in his pockets for later, as getting provisions while they were hidden in Netherfield would be tricky and a few snacks would be welcome.
The jump went smoothly; they arrived in the afternoon, which allowed them light to arrange their chosen quarters. Elizabeth took one bedroom, and he took the adjoining room. They hid their luggage under the dustcovers and together carefully shook out the bed covers in each room to give themselves places to sleep. They then arranged everything exactly as it had been before.
"Perfect," Elizabeth said, dusting her hands together. "Not a soul will know we're here."
"Who are you?"
Darcy and Elizabeth spun around to find a little girl, doll in arm and thumb in mouth, looking at them with wide eyes. They shared a glance, speechless.
"Are you ghosts?" the little girl asked.
"Er, yes," Elizabeth said hesitantly. "Yes, I suppose we are."
The girl smiled around her thumb before popping it out and declaring, "I knew it."
As she didn't seem to be in any way frightened by the thought, Darcy knelt down at her level and asked, "Did you run away from your nurse again, Miss Hurst?"
She nodded. "And then I heard people in here. But I guess ghosts aren't people. Are you the ghost of Mr. Darcy? Did he die?"
"Not the Mr. Darcy you know, Miss Hurst," Darcy said with a smile.
"Oh," the little girl said, thinking. "Well, that's good, because I like him. He brings me biscuits sometimes and doesn't tell Nanny when I am hiding in the library. You look a lot like him."
Darcy shot a wary glance at Elizabeth, who shrugged. "Did you know Mr. Darcy had a father?" he asked.
Miss Hurst shook her head. "Did he die?"
"Yes. Five years ago, now."
"And you are his ghost," she concluded. "Can you walk through walls? Does it hurt? Can I stick my hand through your head?" She poked him in the eye.
Elizabeth laughed as Darcy groaned in pain. "No, we're a bit more substantial than that right now, Miss Hurst."
The little girl didn't seem horribly repentant when she apologized to Darcy, but he accepted the sentiment as gracefully as he could while sitting on his bottom. Her thumb went back in her mouth before she took it out again to ask Elizabeth, "Who are you? Are you Mr. Darcy's mama?"
Elizabeth flushed in embarrassment, but Darcy, with a mischievous glance at her as he settled himself back onto his knees, said, "Not at the moment."
Miss Hurst took that in. "Oh, because you are ghosts. I still have a mama and papa. They are here, but I've not seen them very much for a while. Mama comes to visit us sometimes before we are put to bed. Nathaniel is sad when she doesn't come, but I know she has a lot of things to do. He is too little to understand."
The downturn in her lips, Darcy thought, made it obvious it wasn't just Nathaniel who was sad their mother didn't always visit. "What does she do when she visits?"
"She tells us stories. Sometimes she tells us about the parties and balls she goes to, or about ogres that drink too much bad potions or witches that put spells on men to make them fall in love with her. But the spells never work," she added with a giggle.
"Which stories do you like?" he asked.
"I like the ghost stories," said the little girl. "Nathaniel always gets scared, but he's just a baby."
"But you're a brave young woman."
She nodded, ducking her head and putting her thumb back in her mouth. After a moment of scuffing the toe of her slipper on the floor, she looked up and took her thumb out long enough to ask, "Would you tell me a story?"
Darcy thought for a moment. "I cannot right now," he said. "Your nurse is probably looking for you, is she not?" When she nodded, he said, "But perhaps, right before you go to sleep, if you are very good, I can come tell you a story."
"A ghost story?" she asked.
He smiled. "Perhaps -- but only if you are good. Now, run off and find your nurse before she becomes too upset with you."
Miss Hurst nodded obediently, and, dropping a crooked curtsey, she dashed out of the room, pigtails flying.
"You were very good with her," Elizabeth said softly after the door closed. Darcy didn't turn, hanging his head at the sound of her voice. "Do you ... do you have children?"
He couldn't bring himself to speak for a moment, hearing the sound of wistful pain she couldn't conceal. The question itself had also raised for him painful emotions best left covered. At last he pushed himself off his knees and turned around. "No," he said, shaking his head. "My wife ... miscarried early on in our marriage, but..." he paused and looked away, his jaw clenching before he continued tightly: "it wasn't mine."
"Oh, I'm so sorry," Elizabeth said, her eyes wide and her hand coming up to cover her mouth. "I shouldn't have asked. I just thought--"
He shook his head again, taking her free hand in both of his. "Don't be sorry. I made my choice long ago." Her other hand came to cover his hands, and their eyes met. After a moment he released her, moving a few feet away before asking, "Did you and Wickham have any children?"
"No," she said, her voice hoarse. "We never did."
The room was silent for a while as they both were lost in their thoughts. At last Darcy, with a small shrug, said, "Then it's a good thing we're doing this, for I was informed we'll have a whole passel of children to raise and grandchildren to spoil when we are married."
Elizabeth smiled, the expression tempered by the sadness that lingered in her eyes. "A very good thing. Now all we have to do is make that happen." She paused and, with a sigh, went to sit on a chair still covered in its Holland cloth. "So, what do you remember of today? Is there anything we might do?"
Darcy shook his head. "I do not recall anything out of the ordinary. I think this might be a good opportunity to study the routine of the household: where the servants habitually travel, when the house retires, who is in what room. It will hopefully help prevent us from being caught."
She laughed. "As if we need to worry about that. We're ghosts, right?"
He sighed, coming to sit on another chair. "I thought we'd had done with disguises, madam."
"Well, you must admit we are ghosts, in a way -- ghosts of the future," she said, wiggling her fingers at him. She laughed at his expression. "Well, and aside from that our impersonations are over, really -- after all, one cannot truly impersonate oneself. One either is or is not oneself."
"Your logic, as always, is flawless."
"Fallacious, you mean," she said with a dramatic sigh. "Please do not pull your punches, my dear sir. I can accept my faults."
With a shared smile, they settled into an easy silence. After some time, Darcy was inspired to remark, "This isn't wholly a well-thought-out plan."
Elizabeth shrugged. "Hardly any fault of mine, really," she said with an ironic glance at him. "If you would only allow us to do a bit more travel, we would be able to discover more of the essential events other than those we can recall of the immediate past."
Darcy shook his head, leaning forward to lean his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped tightly. "We cannot take that risk," he said with a sideways glance at the time machine, sitting on the floor between them. "What would happen if it were to break? We know so woefully little of its workings; we would have no recourse to mend any failure. And then where would we be? Lost in the past, with no identities and no resources but those in our current possession, with no discernible history but the future."
"A situation which could only be to our advantage," Elizabeth pointed out. "We could play the markets, make a fortune, live in comfort the rest of our lives. How could we fail to succeed if we know what is to happen?"
"But would you truly want to live like that? Is it right? Is it ethical?" Darcy said, more to himself than to her. "And, truly, if that were the case, how could we not be succeeding now?"
They were silent for some time as they each in turn thought over this.
"Perhaps," Elizabeth said after a moment, "we are succeeding. Perhaps this is how it is meant to proceed."
"But then we would not exist anymore," Darcy said, shaking his head again and standing to pace. "If we had fixed the future, you would not still be married to Wickham and I would not be similarly encumbered. Our lines of the future have not been eliminated. We have not succeeded. You despise me, and I am attracted to you, but certainly not enough to overturn my preconceived notions of your suitability and my duty to my patrimony."
"Duty to your patrimony?" Elizabeth repeated, scorn dripping from every word.
He paused in his pacing and turned to her with a slight smile. "The feelings of my younger self, my dear, by no means survived long into my marriage. I have been sorely disabused of any belief in my superiority -- intellectually, socially, or otherwise."
She raised an eyebrow. "But without your marriage, how are we possibly to disabuse you? I certainly do not wish for me to marry you as you were. Your opinions of us, of my family and my neighbors ... I could never love someone who treated us with such disrespect. I should rather marry Mr. Wickham than be tied forever to a snob like you."
"Our trouble in a word." Darcy said with a wider smile. "Now it is only to say where we go from here."Continued In Next Section