Section I, Next Section
Chapter 1 Posted on Sunday, 7 November 1999
Somewhere in Michigan…
It was a beautiful August day. The sun shone through the leaves of the forest and a slight breeze carried the scents of late summer with it. The birds sang, bees buzzed, crickets chirped… Well they would have, had it not been for two very loud and obnoxious reasons. Annabelle and Leigh Ashton were hiking along and old trail, screaming, errrr… singing, an extremely bawdy song, which does not bear repeating. This had been their occupation for several hours until Leigh called a halt.
"Are you sure you know where you're going Belle?" demanded Leigh. "We have been walking for hours!"
Belle rolled her eyes. "Of course I know where I'm going. The campsite is not that much farther."
Leigh narrowed her eyes, staring at her sister. "That's what you said 5 hours ago. I thought you said you've been here before. Ha! I bet you don't even know where we are!"
"I know exactly where we are." Belle grinned. "We're on a trail, in the woods, in Michigan, in the USA, on the North American continent, in the Western Hemisphere, on the planet Earth, in the solar system…"
"I know, I know," finished Leigh. "In the Milky Way galaxy, in the universe. Ha, ha. Sooooo funny. As if I hadn't heard that a thousand times before."
"Well I think it is. Besides, you wouldn't know a good joke if it hit you in the face."
"Oh yeah! Well the way you act, nobody would believe you're the elder sister. And besides…," Leigh broke off from her tirade and glared at Belle. "Don't change the subject! Do you know where we are?"
"I think I know although I'm not absolutely certain." Leigh started to retort angrily but Belle cut in. "Before you say anything though, it is getting dark. I think we should set up camp here—a night's rest and daylight will help us better to know where we're at."
Leigh nodded and the girls began to set up the tent. Once that was done and their fire lit, Leigh pulled out her old copy of Pride and Prejudice. She and Belle took turns reading it aloud, giggling at each other's portrayal of the different characters. Eventually, the girls were reduced to rolling on the ground in a helpless fit of laughter. Some considerable amount of time passed before they regained control of themselves.
Staring up at what stars could be seen through the foliage, Leigh remarked, "Wouldn't it be cool if Pride and Prejudice was real and we had lived through those times?"
Belle grinned. "Yeah… We could see the whole thing happen. Though we'd have to be rich also."
"Of course! And then we'd find ourselves a Duke or an Earl maybe. Marry them and become Lady So and so. They'd have to be handsome. Mine would look like Scott Stapp from Creed."
"Hmmmmmmmmmm…" Belle thought for a moment. "Mine would look like Brendan Fraser, I guess."
They lay on the ground a couple of more moments before Belle yawned. "It's getting late. I'm gonna turn in now since we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow."
"I'm not tired yet," Leigh replied. "I'll stay up a little bit longer."
"Ok, just don't forget to put out the fire," Belle said as she crawled towards the tent. "Night Leigh."
Belle was lost in a world of turbulent dreams. Time and space drifted through with no apparent meaning when she heard her name being called. She ran towards a shadowy figure…
Sweating and breathing hard, Belle awoke suddenly. She looked about her, confused for a moment. "Where am I?" she thought. Reality came crashing back—yesterday's hike, being lost, and eventually camping out. She smiled with relief… That is until she noticed the tent was missing, and she was wearing strange clothes. Again she heard her name being called. She looked down at Leigh, who was still asleep and oblivious to all.
"Leigh!" Bell hissed, shaking her sister. "Leigh wake up!"
Leigh, not happy having her sleep interrupted, mumbled, "Go away. Need sleep."
After some more shaking and by mere persistence did Belle managed to wake her sister.
"Leigh did you take down the tent last night?"
"No! Why would I? And why are you dressed like that?"
"I don't know! Look at yourself—you're wearing the same type of clothing I am! And does this look like the area we pitched the tent in last night?"
Leigh looked around. "I don't think so, but it was almost dusk when we set up camp. How would we know for certain? I know what you mean though… It feels different." She was quite for a moment. "Belle, I don't like this one bit."
"I know." Belle looked grimly at her sister. "Somehow I don't think we're in Michigan anymore Toto."
Before Leigh could comment, both girls heard a horse approaching. They scrambled up from the ground just in time to see a strange rider come into view.
"Ah! There you are! We have been looking everywhere for you," he said.
Chapter 2 Posted on Monday, 8 November 1999
Belle and Leigh stared at the horseman incredulously. Neither could believe their eyes. His face was a familiar sight with his thick black hair, serious eyes, and a good-humored smile, although the smile was missing now…
"James!?" Belle exclaimed. "What are you doing here? And where are we?" she demanded of her elder brother.
"What do you think?" replied James Ashton. "We have been looking for you all morning. When your maids found your rooms empty, we naturally came looking for you! You must have been wandering around all night to make it this far! Would you care to explain?"
Leigh and Belle only had time to exchange one quick glance before another horse could be heard coming towards them. A tall, distinguished looking man rode in to view and pulled up beside their brother.
"Ah, Darcy there you are! As you can see I found my wandering sisters," James said. "Where are the others?"
"Bingley and Col. Fitzwilliam will be joining us in a moment. I have sent the others home." Darcy replied. At this moment two other horsemen could be seen approaching.
During this exchange, Belle and Leigh exchanged astonished looks. What had happened? Where were they? Their attention was recalled to the party before them as James said, "You are just in time to hear my sisters' explanation as to why they felt it necessary to take a midnight walk!" He looked at them expectantly. "Well?"
Belle's mind worked quickly. Clearly she couldn't tell them the truth since they would never believe it. What could she say?
"Ummmm… Uhhhhhh… I… We…" Belle began. Suddenly she had it! "Leigh was sleepwalking!"
"I was?" Leigh asked, confused. She looked at her sister puzzled. Upon receiving a discrete kick to the shin, she said, "Ouch! I mean, oh yes of course I was!"
"Yes and I had to follow her!" Bell continued. "You wouldn't want her running off by herself now, would you?" Anticipating the next question, she said, "And I would have woken her up, but I had heard that one never does so with a sleepwalker." She put her arm around Leigh. "The poor dear was so upset when she finally did awake."
Leigh looked at her sister who shot her a meaningful glance. She quickly whipped up some tears. "WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!! I DID NOT MEAN IT BROTHER. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!! HOW C-C-CAN I HELP IIIIIIIIIIIIIIT!!!"
Belle glared at the gentlemen. "Now you've done it! You've upset her again!" She began to cry also. "AAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!! I DON'T KNOW WHEN I'VE HAD SUCH A CRUEL BROTHEEEEEEEEEER!!!!!!!! HOW COULD YOU D-D-DOOOOO SUCH A THING!!!!!" she wailed.
The gentlemen watched the crying women helplessly and traded nervous glances. Belle and Leigh, who were supposedly lost in a storm of wailing, could hardly keep from laughing at the men's expressions. Indeed, even the horses were nervous at the noise the sisters made. James dismounted and attempted to comfort the sobbing duo, but to no avail. They only shrieked louder to the dismay of every creature in the forest at that particular moment.
After having his eardrums assailed for another minute, Darcy finally said to James, "I suppose we should escort my cousins to Pemberley. Georgiana may be able to comfort them better than we." He looked at the two banshees for a moment. "At least I hope so."
After a tortuous ride to Pemberley, for the sisters had not once stopped wailing and sobbing, the gentlemen gave Belle and Leigh over to the care of Georgiana. The only reason that prevented Georgiana from being in awe of her screaming cousins was that they had been like sisters to her. She installed them into a guest room and went out to bring them some tea. When they were certain nobody else was around, the girls stopped crying and started laughing.
"Did you see their faces?" Leigh said as she gasped for breath.
"Y-Y-Yes! I know! HA HA HA!!! They didn't quite know what to make of us!" she howled. "Mr. Darcy looked as if he'd been sucking on a lemon!"
That set both women off into gales of laughter. When they calmed down, both realized the full import of Belle's statement. Both were silent for a long time, each lost in a similar train of thought. Mr. Darcy? Pemberley? How could this be? How did they get here? Why?
Leigh was the first to speak. "Do you remember last night when we were talking about Pride and Prejudice? How we'd like to be there and everything?" When Belle nodded, she continued. "I think that's what happened. Someone or something out there heard us and granted our wish. I've pinched myself over and over again just to make sure I'm not dreaming. My arm will be one mass of bruises in the morning. I just would like to know who we are, you know, in the story."
"Well if James is still our brother, I'd assume that we are still Annabelle and Leigh Ashton. Did you hear what Mr. Darcy said though?" Leigh looked confused so Belle went on. "He said, 'We should escort my cousins to Pemberley.' "
Leigh smiled a little. "I think we've just been given ringside seats for the story. I was wondering though… If James is here, do you think Mom and Dad would here also? It would be nice to see them. I barely remember them."
Just then they heard a knock at the door and Georgiana entered. A maid followed her with a tea tray.
"Set it down on the table Hannah," she said. Then to Belle and Leigh she asked, "I hope you are feeling better? I brought you some tea, if that would help."
The sisters smiled warmly and exclaimed, "Oh yes, we are quite better!" and "Thank you for being so thoughtful!"
Georgiana offered a shy smile in return. "My brother said that if you both were feeling better, to come down and join us for dinner."
"Thank you, we shall," replied Belle. "What of James? Is he still here?"
"Yes. He is in the library with my brother, Col. Fitzwilliam and Mr. Bingley. You are all to stay the night here and then go home to Lockwood Manor tomorrow. James did say something about riding back tonight after dinner though. I think he had some business that needs his attention."
"Thank you Georgiana. Leigh and I will be down for dinner shortly." After Georgiana had left the room, Belle turned to Leigh and said, "Well we know a little more than we did."
"Lockwood Manor," Leigh mused then sighed. "I assume if our brother must attend to business there, then it his estate entirely. I had hoped that Mom and Dad were alive."
"I know. But they'll be wondering where we are. I think it's time to go downstairs."
Chapter 3 Posted on Monday, 8 November 1999
Finding the dining room was easier said than done. They walked here and walked there, went in circles but to no avail. Every turn either brought more stairs or three more turns. After about half an hour, they were hopelessly lost. They decided to rest a large hall that they always seemed to come back to. Sitting on a bench, they looked at the huge portraits on the wall, which stared down at them.
"That man looks like a dead fish," said Belle, pointing to one portrait.
Leigh giggled and pointed to another. "That one looks like the back end of a cow."
Belle grinned. "You know this place has a lot of echoes." She stood and in her best Charleston Heston voice said, "Repent! And thou shalt be SAAAAVED!" The announcement thundered throughout the hall and house.
Leigh proclaimed, "Begone spawn of SATAAAN!" Both girls fell to giggling again.
Their astonishing proclamations could be heard by all below. Mr. Bingley wondered aloud what everyone else was thinking, "What in the world was that?"
James grimaced. "Most likely my sisters. Only they could be that… boisterous." He turned to Darcy. "Would you like to have the honor of escorting Belle and Leigh to dinner or shall I?"
Darcy sighed, "I shall fetch them since they are my guests." With that, he walked out of the room.
It wasn't difficult to find the girls since their antics could be heard all over the house. He merely followed the sounds until he entered the hall. Belle and Leigh were finishing an extremely bad (total understatement of course) version of… well Darcy couldn't say what it was since the words were so completely unintelligible. The "song" ended in a shriek that made him cringe. Darcy never remembered his cousins being so loud. He considered turning back but Leigh had already noticed him.
With a knowing grin to her sister, Leigh asked, "Did you like our singing, Cousin Darcy?" "Yes!" joined in Belle, "Wasn't it the most beautiful thing you have ever heard?"
Caught between propriety and unable to make an honest compliment, Darcy stammered out a, "Y-y-yes, it was most… interesting." Quickly changing the subject, he said, "I have come to escort you to dinner." Then offering an arm to each, he directed them out of the room.
Dinner was a simple affair. The conversation was mostly dominated talk of a Netherfield Hall, an estate Bingley intended to lease as soon as he had a look at it.
"I plan on setting out for Hertfordshire tomorrow morning. If the estate is to my liking then I shall take it," he said. In his enthusiasm, he extended an invitation for everyone to come and stay as soon as he settled in.
Col. Fitzwilliam declined, stating that he had to return to his regiment in three days. Georgiana declined also since she was to go to London with Mrs. Annesley. Bingley, disappointed, eagerly entreated the others to accept.
Darcy, seeing his friend's disappointment, said, "I shall be happy to join you there Bingley after I get Georgiana settled in London."
Bingley turned to James. "And will you and your sisters be joining us?"
James smiled, "I'm sorry to disappoint you but I cannot since I have business to attend to in town. However I cannot answer for my sisters." He turned to them, "Would you like to go? I can take you to London when I go and from there you may travel on to Hertfordshire with your cousin Darcy, if he is agreeable."
Darcy nodded his assent. "Indeed I would be happy to escort them to Netherfield Hall."
Belle and Leigh grinned at each other. An invitation to Netherfield!
"We thank you for the invitation Mr. Bingley and are happy to accept it," said Belle.
Mr. Bingley beamed, "Excellent! Excellent! I shall be honored with your presence Miss Ashton and Miss Leigh. We shall all be a merry party indeed!"
The next day found Belle and Leigh on the road home with their brother. When they arrived at Lockwood Manor, they were whisked upstairs to begin preparations for their departure. Three days later, they were on the road to London.
Leigh looked out the window as their carriage pulled up to the Ashton townhouse. "What a beautiful house!" she said to her sister.
Belle stretched and yawned, "Mmmmm… Yes." She yawned again, "Is it just me or did that trip take forever? It felt like we crawled the whole way."
"I know," Leigh agreed. "What I wouldn't give for my car right about now. I wonder how James could stand riding that horse all the way here. I have a sore bum just from this carriage."
James opened the carriage door and handed his sisters out. They walked into the house and went to their rooms to change for the evening.
The Darcys joined them for a late supper that evening. Mr. Darcy announced that Bingley had taken Netherfield Hall and would arrive in a week to collect his two sisters and brother-in-law. "We are to travel with them. Have you ever met Mr. and Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley, cousins?"
"I don't believe so but Belle and I are looking…" Leigh glanced at her sister, "forward to meeting them."
Belle had to stifle a laugh. "Yes, we are eagerly awaiting the moment."
The week passed as they do. Visits were paid to various acquaintances; each one uncomfortable since Belle and Leigh had to pretend as if they knew these people. Bingley finally arrived to gather siblings and friends alike for the journey to Hertfordshire.
Chapter 4 Posted on Tuesday, 9 November 1999
The day before their departure to Netherfield, Belle and Leigh spent the evening at the Bingley townhouse with their brother, Mr. and Miss Darcy. Bingley introduced them to his two sisters and Mr. Hurst. Miss Bingley greeted them with a barely concealed contempt, as she considered them rivals for Mr. Darcy's attention. Mrs. Hurst was more polite than her sister was and Mr. Hurst merely bowed, mumbled something incoherent, and waddled back to the couch in a drunken stupor.
When the entire company sat down to tea, Belle and Leigh retreated to the other end of the room. In low whispers, they began to discuss their new acquaintances.
"Well? What do you think?" asked Belle, arching an eyebrow.
Leigh grinned wickedly, "I think Miss Bingley looks like a peacock with all those feathers and that pointed nose!"
Belle chuckled softly. "My dear, I think a peacock would have a better fashion sense." She looked over at Miss Bingley, watching as the feathers waggled in every direction. "I will say this though. She had better stay indoors while the men are out shooting!"
"Yes. Well at least she's original. I doubt Mrs. Hurst can think for herself. And why on earth did she marry that… that… blob!?"
The sisters looked over at the thing, which had taken root on Bingley's couch. At that moment he was sprawled out on his back, drooling and snoring. Both started giggling until James recalled their attention.
"Annabelle! Leigh! Did you not hear me calling? The carriage is waiting," he said.
Belle looked at Leigh and laughed. "It was many and many a year ago…" Leigh joined in, "In a kingdom by the sea, that a maiden there lived whom you may know by the name of by the name of Annabel Lee!" **
"Did I miss something?" asked Miss Bingley as the other exchanged confused glances.
Leigh winked at Belle, "Why no, Miss Bingley! In fact you are quite a few years early yet."
Belle choked back a laugh and took her sister's arm. They swept out of the room in search of their shawls.
Darcy walked over to James and murmured, "I have known your sisters their whole lives and still cannot understand them."
James stared at the retreating pair, "Neither do I."
It was then that Darcy began to have serious misgivings about escorting his cousins to Netherfield.
** Annabel Lee by Edgar Allen Poe
Darcy's carriage stood outside the Ashtons' home the next morning. After a frantic hour of getting various trunks and packages arranged, Belle, Leigh, and Darcy began their trip to Netherfield. The first hour passed quietly because the girls, neither of who had slept the previous night, were fast asleep. Darcy heartily wished they would sleep the entire journey but luck, it seems, was against him.
Belle woke first, yawning and stretching. After looking out the window for some moments, she nudged her sister, "Leigh. Leigh! Wake up!"
Leigh gave a loud snort, then slowly opened her eyes. "Whaaaaaaaaaaat??" she whined.
"I'm bored. We need something to do."
"I've brought along several books, or you might work on your sewing," said Darcy, anxious to head off any mischief.
Belle made a face. "Boooooooriiiiiiing! Besides I can never concentrate in a carriage." She thought for a moment, then smiled widely.
"What? What are you thinking Belle?" asked Leigh.
Darcy looked nervously from Belle to Leigh, inexplicably feeling like a trapped animal.
"99 BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL, 99 BOTTLES OF BEEEER! OH TAKE ONE DOWN, PASS IT AROUND, 98 BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL!"
Leigh laughed and joined in, "98 BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL, 98 BOTTLES OF BEER! TAKE ONE DOWN, PASS IT AROUND, 97 BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL!"
Much to Darcy's dismay, the girls sang their way through all 99 bottles and then some. His ears where ringing when the sisters had finally finished. Bored with that entertainment, Leigh let down the side glass and stuck her head out the window.
"Belle, look! Cows!"
Belle stuck her head out next to Leigh. "Don't smell too good do they? Hey moo cows! MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!! Both women began to laugh and the next 15 minutes were filled with mooing at every cow they encountered. A dog escaped from his master to chase after the carriage.
"BARK BARK! WOOF! AAAROOOOOOOOO!" Leigh howled. She sniffed at the wind and panted until Belle exclaimed, "EEEEEEWWWW! GROSS! YOU ARE DROOLING ALL OVER ME!"
Darcy developed a massive headache as their arguing continued until the carriage arrived at Netherfield. The journey had been interminable and his release from it was a blessing. Fortunately, he was shown directly to his room where peace and quiet reigned…
Chapter 5 Posted on Thursday, 11 November 1999
The evening after their arrival, the Netherfield party was at dinner when Mr. Bingley announced his intention to attend the ball at the assembly room in Meryton. This was met with mixed reactions. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst protested that a country dance was insupportable since no people of good breeding or fashion would be in attendance. Mr. Darcy, although detesting balls in general, agreed to go to oblige his friend. Nobody could make anything of Mr. Hurst's reply, as he was stuffing his face and slobbering while trying to talk. In all, Belle and Leigh expressed the only enthusiasm for the dance.
"Good, good," said Bingley. "We shall have a marvelous time."
Belle smiled, "That we will Mr. Bingley, but I fear Leigh and I are a bit rusty at dancing. It has been ages since we've attended a ball. I doubt we remember a thing."
Leigh stared at her sister for a moment before catching on. "Oh yes! I can't remember the last time I danced!"
"Well ladies, I would be most honored to teach you both this evening," offered Bingley gallantly. "What fun is a ball if one cannot dance?"
The sisters accepted this offer gratefully. Both had wondered how they were to dance at balls if neither knew how.
After the gentlemen had joined the ladies in the drawing room, Bingley entreated his sisters for some music and Darcy to help with the lesson. Everyone was astonished at how little the sisters remembered. Fortunately they learned quickly and would be able to pass with some degree of credit the next evening.
The dance was already in full swing when the Netherfield party arrived. Belle and Leigh felt the stares of everyone in the room until Sir William Lucas came over to greet them. They were introduced to his daughter, Charlotte Lucas, whom Mr. Bingley immediately asked to dance. Belle and Leigh were introduced to a couple of gentlemen and were asked for the next two dances also. Both managed not to make too many mistakes and were relieved when the last set was finished.
"I wonder when Bingley will notice Jane?" Leigh whispered to Belle.
Belle, who had been keeping an eye on him, said, "I think he has already. We better stay close to him." Leigh nodded and they walked over to stand near Bingley. He asked and was introduced to the Bennets. After asking Jane for the next two dances, he introduced Belle, Leigh, and Darcy, who also happened to be near.
"May I present Mr. Darcy and his two cousins, Miss Ashton and Miss Leigh Ashton?" asked Bingley. The ladies curtsied and greeted one another while Mr. Darcy merely bowed and stalked off without saying a word.
Annoyed with their cousin's behavior, Belle and Leigh tried to smooth things over by making immediate conversation with Jane, Elizabeth and their mother. Mrs. Bennet was still affronted and unable to say anything beyond an occasional, "Insufferable man!" The young women liked each other almost at once and talked with great spirit until Bingley came to claim Jane's hand.
Belle and Leigh were able to dance a few more times before the scarcity of gentlemen obliged them to sit down. Looking around the room, they noticed that Elizabeth was also sitting down.
"Shall we go speak to her?" asked Leigh. Belle nodded and they began to make their way across the crowded room. Before reaching her, they saw Bingley walking over to Darcy. Belle gave Leigh a look and crept up next to a tall plant where they could listen and observe unseen.
"Come Darcy," said Bingley, "I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance."
"I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At an assembly such as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, I do not see my cousins anywhere about, and there is not another woman in the room, whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with."
"I would not be so fastidious as you are," cried Bingley, "for a kingdom! Upon my honor, I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life, as I have this evening; and there are several of them you see uncommonly pretty."
"You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room," said Mr. Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennet.
"Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I have ever beheld! 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?" and turning around, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, "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."
The sisters watched as Bingley walked away and rejoined the dance. Elizabeth had an offended look on her face until she suddenly smiled and walked over to Charlotte Lucas. Belle looked at Leigh and said, "And I thought we were the rude and obnoxious ones."
"It is different hearing Darcy say it than it is to read it," Leigh agreed.
Belle sighed, "I suppose we should go and apologize for our cousin's behavior." The girls walked over to where Elizabeth and Charlotte were standing.
"Miss Elizabeth, Leigh and I would like to apologize for our cousin's abominable behavior. We overheard his remarks and have never seen him act in such a manner," said Belle.
"Yes," Leigh agreed, "most unpardonable. Mr. Darcy is usually not so ungentlemanly but it may be because he is in a strange place among strangers. He is quite shy. But I should not make excuses for him; there are none to be made. I hope this will not affect our acquaintance."
Elizabeth smiled brightly, "Thank you Miss Ashton, Miss Leigh. I can assure you that no permanent damage has been done. Actually I find it quite amusing. As for our acquaintance, I would also like it to continue."
The sisters smiled. Then on hearing a particularly lively song begin, Leigh said, "I do so wish there were more gentlemen present for I love to dance." She was silent for a moment then her eyes lit up. She turned to Belle and bowed deeply, "May I have this dance, sister mine?"
Belle laughed and curtsied, "I would be honored my dear!"
"I assure you, the honor is all mine," Leigh replied, offering her arm.
Elizabeth watched the laughing pair walk off and observed to Charlotte, "Strange girls. Nothing at all like their cousin but I quite like them."
As Belle and Leigh took their place in the set, they could feel the puzzled stares. They ignored the questioning glances and began to dance. As they reached the bottom of the set, Belle noticed Darcy gawking at them. "Leigh, I don't think Cousin Darcy approves of our conduct."
Leigh rolled her eyes, "Like he can talk! Who does he think he is, insulting people he just met?"
'Why," said Belle, mimicking Darcy's voice, "I am Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley! The man with ten thousand pounds year! And I can act like a pompous jerk because of it!" Both sisters started giggling until they realized their cousin was standing near them. They quickly assumed serious expressions and finished off the dance.
Darcy approached them soon after. "I think it is time to be going. Go and gather your things; the carriage will be here in a few minutes."
Leigh opened her mouth to protest but Belle nudged her, shaking her head. They retrieved their shawls and bonnets and donned them. Darcy escorted them outside and handed them into the carriage. After he settled in, the door shut and they headed back to Netherfield.
Chapter 6 Posted on Friday, 12 November 1999
Once everyone had returned to Netherfield and gathered in the drawing room, the discussion of the ball began.
"Well," said Bingley, "I've never met with pleasanter people or prettier girls in my life. And I could not conceive of an angel more beautiful than Miss Bennet."
"You surprise me Bingley!" Darcy cried, "All I had seen was a collection of people in whom there was little beauty and no fashion. I do not feel the slightest interest in any of them and received attention and pleasure from none."
"Come Darcy! This is fine talk! But you must admit that Jane Bennet is a beautiful girl."
"Yes she is but she smiles too much."
"Yes!" said Caroline, "But Jane Bennet is a sweet girl and I should not mind knowing more of her. What did you think of her sisters Mr. Darcy? I heard that Elizabeth Bennet was reputed as a local beauty."
"She a beauty!—I should as soon call her mother a wit," Darcy replied.
Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst snickered at this. Belle listened to their exchange with a rising temper. Leigh, who recognized the danger signals, gripped Belle's arm in alarm.
"But Mr. Darcy is quite right," continued Miss Bingley, "No fashion or beauty and very little good-breeding. But what can one expect when one is in the country?"
That did it. Belle could no longer contain herself. She stood up angrily, "The only evidence of ill-breeding that I've seen today, is in this room! How dare you insult people whom you barely know! They may not have fashionable manners but they are good-hearted people. If you constantly group others in the 'You are all country hicks, therefore I'm above you' category, you will be excluding some truly wonderful people from your life. One day you will heartily regret it, I assure you. Come on Leigh. I refuse to listen to anymore of this talk." She turned to Mr. Bingley, "We are pleased with the neighborhood you have chosen. I hope to have more evenings as pleasant as tonight's ball. Goodnight Mr. Bingley." She glared at the others, "Goodnight."
Belle stormed out of the room with Leigh only a few steps behind. Leigh stopped at the bottom of the stairs, watching her sister stomp up to her room. She stopped a passing servant, "Would you bring a bottle of brandy up to Miss Ashton's room?" She glanced up at Belle, who was talking to herself and waving her hands in the air. "You had better make it two."
THUMP! CRASH! THWACK!
Leigh ran up the stairs and down the hall to her sister's room. She opened the door and just managed to dodge a flying shoe before she hastily closed it again and retreated to the hall. Belle's incoherent screeching could be heard through the door. A servant appeared with a couple of glasses and the brandy. Leigh took them from him and drew a deep breath. She quickly opened the door and dashed into Belle's room.
Belle had run out of shoes and was now throwing books. "I can see why Elizabeth hated him!" she yelled. "How can they act so terrible?!"
"Belle, calm down! Here, have a drink, " said Leigh, pouring out two glasses.
Belle quickly downed the first and poured herself another. After drinking three in succession, she said, "Now I-buuuurrp-feel better." She hiccuped.
Four hours later, both bottles were empty and the girls were seeing who could ram their fist in their mouth the furthest.
"Haurah, mmmph," mumbled Belle around her fist.
Belle took her fist out of her mouth, "I saaaiiid… Ha! I win!"
"Like it's something to be proud of! I'm boooored. Let's go down to the place with all those paper thingys that have words on them. You know-hiccup-They kill those moo-thingys to decorate them."
"You mean the li-hiccup li-hiccup libraryaryaryaryaryary?" asked Belle.
Leigh thought about it for a moment, "Yeah! Let's go down to the liberry."
The giggling duo stumbled to the door and out of the room. They staggered down the hall, running into the walls and each other. Belle bumped into a table, "Scushe me shir!"
"Quiet!" Leigh whispered loudly, "You'll wake everyone!"
They reached the stairs and Leigh's eyes lit up. She giggled and climbed onto the banister. "Going down!" she said as she began to slide. "Weeeee!" She fell off when she reached the bottom. Belle, who had followed suit, fell off and landed on Leigh.
"Oof! Get off me you big loaf!"
"Don't you mean oaf?"
"Whatever! Just get off!"
They got up and had only walked a short distance when they ran into a servant, who had come out to check on a strange noise.
"AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!" the servant hollered.
"HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEELLLLLLLP!!!!" the girls shrieked. They knocked the man over in their haste for the safety of the library. Once inside, they burst out into hysterical laughter.
Belle wandered over to one of the bookshelves. "Hey! It's Julius Caesar Salad! Et tu Brute?"
"No I don't eat tofu! Ewwwwwwww!" said Leigh, making gagging noises.
The door suddenly burst open; Darcy and Bingley strode into the room. They stared in astonishment at the two sisters.
"Why Coushin Darthy! You look dumbfounded!" Belle slurred.
"Dum da da dum da da dum dum DUMB!" shrieked Leigh, galloping around the room. "YEEEEHAAAAAAW!! RIDE 'EM COWBOY!"
"What are you doing? You are drunk!" exclaimed Darcy.
Belle stood indignantly, swaying slightly. "How dare you shuggest shuch a thing shir! I am a ladyyyyyy, a daughter's gentleman, and would never shtoop to shuch at thhhing!" she slurred. "Drunk indeedy doody. I've never been sho inshulted in my life!" She picked up a candlestick, "On the guardsh shir!" and promptly passed out, falling flat on her face.
"Tiiiiiiiiiimbeeeeeeeeeer!" yelled Leigh, giggling uncontrollably.
Bingley looked from the inert form of Belle to Leigh. "How much did you drink?"
"Ummmmmmm…" Leigh staggered, trying to keep her balance.
"How many bottles did you drink?" Bingley asked again slowly.
She thought hard for a moment then smiled drunkenly. "One!" she said, holding up three fingers. She reeled and collapsed on the floor in a drunken stupor.
Chapter 7 Posted on Saturday, 13 November 1999
When Belle and Leigh awoke the next morning, they had no memory of what had happened after passing out. Neither was prone to hangovers and this day was no exception. They were soon dressed and ready for breakfast. Darcy and Bingley were shocked when the girls entered the breakfast room and took their seats across from each other at the end of the table.
"Good morning everyone," said Leigh, "I trust you all slept well?"
Caroline, who had been oblivious of last night's adventure replied, "Perfectly, I thank you. And yourself?"
"Like a baby!" Leigh grinned.
Bingley looked from Belle to Leigh, "I say, aren't you ill?"
Belle winked at her sister, "Why Mr. Bingley! Where ever did you get that idea? Did we miss something?"
"I… Well… Last night… You… We…" stammered Bingley.
"Yes Mr. Bingley?" Leigh smiled innocently.
Bingley looked helplessly at Darcy, who was just as confused. "Ah… Never mind." He cleared his throat, "Well Darcy, Hurst, shall we do some shooting today?" so turning attention away from the sisters.
Leigh looked down at her place, noticing the different pieces of silverware. "What do I need all these for?" she thought to herself. She looked up at Belle, who was stuffing her face, and grinned wickedly.
Belle looked up in astonishment at the knife stuck into the back of her chair. She glared at her smirking sister and quickly went back to eating when the others looked their way. Both girls seemed oblivious to the knife sticking out of Belle's chair, not one inch away from her head.
After staring for a few moments, they went back to eating.
A fork sunk into the back of Leigh's chair, still quivering. The others glanced up again but as before, neither sister behaved as if anything was out of the ordinary. Not knowing quite what to think, they went back to eating.
"Leigh, may I have my fork back? I would like to eat my breakfast."
"Of course sister, if I may have my knife back."
The ladies of Netherfield and Longbourn soon visited each other. During this time, the Miss Ashtons and two elder Miss Bennets grew in each other's esteem. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst likewise indicated a preference to Jane and Elizabeth, though they treated their mother and younger sisters with a barely concealed contempt. Though Mrs. Bennet and her youngest daughters grated on everyone's nerves, Belle and Leigh still accorded them the respect they deserved.
At various evening parties, the sisters were able to observe Jane and Bingley's growing attachment. They also witnessed Darcy becoming smitten with Elizabeth. One such opportunity was at Lucas Lodge.
"Look at him," said Belle, "staring at her like a star-struck calf! He's been following her around all night, listening to every word she says. Duh! Like she's not going to notice.'
"Look! I think she just did. Oh man… I am so embarrassed for him. I can't watch." Leigh buried her face in her hands.
From their position, Belle could see Elizabeth say something to Darcy. He looked surprised at being addressed by her but replied with a little smile. As the conversation continued, Belle could see that Elizabeth was laughing at him but he was too dense to see it. Soon Charlotte opened the piano and Elizabeth sat down to play. Belle and Leigh enjoyed her performance immensely and were disappointed when she allowed Mary to take over. They stifled yawns through her first concerto and were relieve when she began to play dance music.
As they walked towards the dancers, they overheard Sir Lucas saying to Darcy, "What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy!—There is nothing like dancing after all.—I consider it one of the first refinements of polished societies."
Darcy frowned and replied, "Certainly, Sir;--and has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world.—Every savage can dance."
Leigh grinned and said to them, "Yes! And Belle and I are living proof of it!" Both sisters giggled as they walked off to join the dance.
As they went down the set, Belle and Leigh watched as Sir Lucas attacked Elizabeth and dragged her over to where Darcy was standing. Sir Lucas urged her to dance, to which Darcy added his own request. She finally managed to refuse politely and escape.
"Ha!" said Belle. "Take that, Mr. Darcy!"
The look on Darcy's face first registered total astonishment, which changed to a dreamy smile, then finally to disgust when Miss Bingley walked over and began to talk to him. The change was so rapid that Belle and Leigh could barely stop giggling. Miss Bingley's expression as Darcy told her whose eyes he was contemplating, finally sent the girls running out into the night, howling with laughter.
Several days later, the gentlemen of Netherfield were to dine with some officers. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, anxious not to spend the evening alone with the Ashtons, invited Jane Bennet over for dinner. She arrived soaking wet as a result of riding horseback in the rain. During dinner, Miss Bingley managed to pry information about the Bennets' family out of an obviously sick Jane. Only when Jane was feeling faint, did Miss Bingley have her taken upstairs.
Belle and Leigh stayed with her the rest of the evening. Although they were worried about Jane, they were equally relieved to have an excuse to avoid being alone in Miss Bingley's company. A note was dispatched to Elizabeth the next morning when Jane had shown no improvement.
Chapter 8 Posted on Sunday, 14 November 1999
Imagine the shock of the entire Netherfield party (well five of them at any rate) when Miss Elizabeth Bennet appeared, to inquire after Jane, on foot and alone. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst both looked like pickled fish. Mr. Hurst, barely noting Elizabeth's presence, was appalled that breakfast was delayed for several minutes upon her arrival. A somewhat goofy expression replaced the surprised look on Darcy's face. When he noticed his cousins laughing at him, he at once assumed a proud and distant look. Mr. Bingley, though surprised, was truly the only one, besides Belle and Leigh, overjoyed to see her.
Elizabeth asked immediately to be shown to her sister. Miss Bingley took her up to Jane's room and returned with a look of contempt on her face. She was silent though, as the others were engaged in conversation and she had no audience for her "witty" observations.
Belle and Leigh quickly finished their breakfast and raced upstairs to join Jane and Elizabeth. Miss Bingley, not to be outdone in her concern for Jane by the Ashtons, soon joined them with her sister. All, excepting Jane, were shocked to see Caroline and Louisa behave with more kindness and thoughtfulness than any had ever before witnessed. The ladies spent most of the day with the Bennet sisters, the Ashtons out of real concern for Jane, and Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst out of boredom. At about three o' clock, Elizabeth felt she should return home. Caroline offered her the use of the carriage, which Elizabeth had just gratefully accepted, when Jane voiced her wish at not parting from her sister. Caroline then reluctantly offered for Elizabeth to stay at Netherfield until Jane was well enough to return home. This was accepted and a servant was sent with a message to the Bennets and for some clothes.
At five o' clock, the ladies and gentlemen of Netherfield assembled for dinner. Elizabeth joined them and much to Bingley's disappointment, bore no good news of Jane's health. Caroline and Louisa expressed a minimal concern and promptly forgot about their dear friend. Bingley, Belle, and Leigh made up for their rudeness and tried to make Elizabeth feel welcome. When dinner was over, Elizabeth returned to Jane's room.
As soon as she left the room, Caroline began insulting her, "I must say Elizabeth Bennet's manners are horrible, a mixture of pride and impertinence. She has no conversation, no taste, no style, no beauty."
Mrs. Hurst added, "Yes! She has nothing, in short, to recommend her but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild."
Belle glared and opened her mouth to speak but Leigh kicked her under the table and shook her head. Caroline continued speaking, "She did indeed, Louisa. I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister has a cold? Her hair so untidy, so blowsy!"
Leigh rolled her eyes and whispered to Belle, "Don't they remind you of a couple of crows?" She mimicked them in a screechy voice, "Her hair so tidy, so blowsy! Caw caw caw! Nevermore!"
Mrs. Hurst nodded and said, "Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it, not doing its office."
Bingley started to defend Elizabeth when Leigh interrupted him, "Who cares about a stupid petticoat? And I'd hate to think that either of you, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, would not go and visit the other, if she was ill, just because you are afraid of ruining a petticoat?"
Caroline, anxious to avoid the question said, "You observed it, Mr. Darcy, I am sure; and I am inclined to think that you would not wish to see your sister make such an exhibition."
"Oh come Miss Bingley," said Belle, "from the way you speak, I would say you were jealous of Miss Elizabeth. Just because she looks better after a few hours exercise when you cannot look half as well with a whole day of beauty rest, does not mean we should insult her."
Caroline gaped at Belle's audacity. "Why I never! Miss Ashton, what are you implying?"
Belle grinned, "I thought it was obvious. Come on Leigh, let us go check on Elizabeth and Jane." Leigh followed her sister out of the room, smirking at Caroline.
"Charles! How can you let them say such things to me?" Caroline demanded.
Bingley, who privately thought his sister deserved it, said "What was I supposed to say?"
Belle and Leigh retired early for the night, both claiming headaches. This was the truth as spending the entire day in Miss Bingley's company affected them both. This, unfortunately, left Elizabeth to fend for herself for the rest of the evening. Belle and Leigh were sorry to leave her in such company, but knew that she could hold her own.
Just before sunrise of the next day, Leigh burst into Belle's room. She ran from the door and leaped onto Belle's bed, knocking Belle onto the floor.
"HOLY #@%&!!! WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING!" yelled Belle.
Leigh grinned stupidly and said, "Good morning to you too, sister mine!"
"Do you know what time it is!? What do you want?"
Leigh grinned even more stupidly, "I've got an idea! Get dressed and follow me!"
Belle sighed and dressed quickly. The sisters crept silently downstairs. After some searching, they found two (clean) chamber pots and ran outside.
The residents of Netherfield awoke to the sound of yelling and screaming outside. Looking out their windows, they could see Belle and Leigh fencing with sticks, wearing chamber pots on their heads.
"Ha ha! En guarde ye bloody wench!" yelled Leigh, waving her stick frantically.
"Victory shall be mine!" retorted Belle. "Resistance is futile!"
They fought for several minutes until Belle knocked Leigh's stick out of her hand and pushed her over.
"WHOO HOO! I won! I am woman! Hear me ROOOOOAAAAAR!" Belle did a victory dance, causing the chamber pot to slide over her head. "MRPH!"
Leigh burst into hysterical laughter. "Ha! That's what you get for being so arrogant!"
Something resembling a growl could be heard from Belle. Though unable to see, she chased Leigh around the lawn. Leigh ducked behind a tree, into which Belle smashed, face first. At that precise moment, Darcy walked out to see what his cousins were about. He helped Belle to her feet and after several sharp tugs, managed to pull the pot off her head. He looked from her to the incapacitated Leigh.
"Do I dare inquire as to what you two were doing?"
"No!" Leigh said in gasps, "I wouldn't advise it!"
Belle, able to see again, glared at her sister. Leigh yelped and ran back into the house, with Belle in pursuit. Darcy sighed and shook his head.
Chapter 9 Posted on Monday, 15 November 1999
Later the same day, Mrs. Bennet and her younger daughters arrived at Netherfield by Elizabeth's request. Mrs. Bennet gave her opinion that Jane was still too ill to be moved. After torturing everyone with their presence for another half an hour, the Bennet ladies took their leave. During that space of time, Lydia managed to drag a promise out of Bingley to give a ball at Netherfield.
The post had arrived and with it a letter for Belle and Leigh from their brother. The sisters went upstairs to read it, leaving the others to complain or rejoice over the ball as they wished.
"I wonder what James has to say," said Belle.
"Well open it, you idiot, so we can find out!"
Belle stuck her tongue out at Leigh and opened the letter.
My dearest sisters,
I hope you are both in good health and enjoying your stay at Netherfield. Unfortunately, I must ask you to shorten your visit. Our godparents, the Earl and Countess of ____, request your presence at a dinner party they are holding on the 29th of November. That is not the only reason, however. I find myself missing your company and would enjoy having you both in London for Christmas. I will send a carriage and manservant for you on the 27th of November.
"Well," said Leigh, "there's an end to our fun."
Belle sighed, "We will have to inform the Bingleys' of our imminent departure. We had best get it over with."
They went in search of the others, but found only Mr. Bingley. He informed them that Darcy, Miss Bingley, Mrs. Hurst, and Miss Elizabeth were walking out on the grounds.
"Unfortunately, Mr. Bingley, we have come to tell you that our brother asks us to London. We are to leave on the 27th," said Belle.
Bingley was excessively disappointed to see them go. "But you will miss the ball! Ah! I have an idea. I will give the dance on the 26th before you go."
Belle and Leigh expressed their gratitude by pouncing him and giving him big, wet kisses. (Coleen! Quit molesting Mr. Bingley and write the story correctly!) "Oooooooo," said Leigh, "You're such a hunk! Run away with me now!" and collapsed in his arms. (Coleen! -Tabbi hits Col over the head- Do it right!) (All right! All right! Fine! You're no fun though!) (-Coleen turns back Netherfield time to just after Bingley spoke-)
Belle and Leigh expressed their gratitude for his thoughtfulness then went to find Darcy. Belle ran to him and said, "I love you! Marry me!" (Coleen!) (Sorry! I couldn't help myself! -sighs- Ok they just find Darcy, nothing else. Everyone got that!)
Belle and Leigh arrived at the dining room just as everyone was being seated. They then made the announcement of their departure on the 27th. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst expressed their sorrow while barely concealing their joy.
Sometime during dinner, Belle realized that beans were being served again. She sighed and kicked Leigh under the table to get her attention. Leigh looked up and Belle pointed expressively to her plate with a wicked grin on her face.
Belle leaned towards Leigh and whispered "Beans, beans are good for your heart. The more you eat the more you fart. The more you fart, the better you feel, so eat your beans for every meal!"
Leigh, who had been taking a sip of wine, began to choke. She turned red with laughter. The others stared at the innocent looking Belle.
"What?" she asked. "Did I miss something?"
Jane was able to join the party in the drawing room that evening. Once she entered the room, Bingley forgot that anyone else existed. Mr. Darcy read a book and Miss Bingley walked around the room, pretending to read. Mrs. Hurst played with her jewelry and Mr. Hurst was passed out on the sofa. Seeing that Elizabeth was occupied with her sewing, Leigh and Belle were left to their own amusement.
They sat near Mr. Hurst, tickling his nose with a quill pen. Every so often, he would snort and smack himself in the face. The girls giggled quietly and acted interested in a book when anyone glanced their way. Miss Bingley asked Elizabeth to walk with her about the room. This started a conversation between Elizabeth and Darcy, gaining the attention of everyone else. Belle and Leigh, taking advantage of the situation, grabbed an inkwell and began drawing on Mr. Hurst's face. They could hardly stop laughing as they drew glasses, a mustache, and goatee on his face. Belle drew a cigar hanging out of his mouth and Leigh gave him Groucho Marx eyebrows.
They quickly ran from Mr. Hurst when they heard Caroline say, "Do let us have a little music. Louisa, you will not mind my waking Mr. Hurst."
"Of course not Caroline, wake him."
Caroline walked over to Mr. Hurst who awoke with a snort saying, "Where's the brandy?"
Everyone stared at him, gaping in astonishment.
"What? What is it?" asked Hurst, waggling his bushy eyebrows.
Belle and Leigh could no longer contain themselves. They burst out laughing and ran from the room.
Two days later, Jane and Elizabeth departed for Longbourn. Mr. Bingley, Belle, and Leigh were the only ones sorry to see them go. The sisters did notice that Darcy did not seem as lively after Miss Elizabeth's departure.
"Hehehehehe," said Leigh. "I think Cousin Darcy is in loooooooove. Darcy and Elizabeth sittin' in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G!"
Belle giggled and joined in, "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Darcy pushin' the baby carriage!"
Belle and Leigh made slobbering smooching noises. Darcy curiously looked over at them, wondering what they were doing. The girls just grinned, wiggled their eyebrows, and walked away, giggling.
Chapter 10 Posted on Tuesday, 16 November 1999
The next several days passed with very little excitement. Belle and Leigh spent most their time wandering the grounds or annoying the others. Preparations for the ball were underway which made Miss Bingley more insufferable than usual.
Bingley, anxious to see how Jane was, decided to ride over to Longbourn one morning and asked Darcy to accompany him. They returned in a surprisingly short amount of time. Bingley was dreamy-eyed and full of admiration for Miss Bennet. Darcy stormed up to his room immediately upon arrival, as angry as his cousins had ever seen him.
Bingley chattered on about Jane as Belle tried to catch his attention. "Mr. Bingley? Mr. Bingley!"
He stopped in mid-sentence, "Yes Miss Ashton?"
"Do you know what is wrong with my cousin? He seemed extremely upset."
Bingley looked confused. "He did?"
Belle sighed, "Leigh, I think we had better speak to Cousin Darcy."
They went upstairs and found Darcy's room. Belle knocked on it tentatively, "Cousin? Cousin, are you in there?"
"Go away. I don't want to see anybody," his voice came from behind the door.
Leigh tried again. "Please Fitzwilliam, we are worried about you."
The door jerked open and Darcy ushered the sisters inside. He shut the door again and paced angrily back and forth across the room.
Belle arched an eyebrow, "Well Fitzwilliam? Are you going to tell us what is wrong or not?"
He stopped pacing and looked up at the two women. "Did James tell you what happened with Georgiana this last summer?" when both sisters nodded, he continued, "Bingley and I were riding through Meryton when we noticed the Miss Bennets talking to a couple of gentlemen. We approached them and I noticed one of the gentlemen was very familiar." He sighed, "Ladies, it was Mr. Wickham."
Belle and Leigh looked at each other in dismay. Mr. Wickham had arrived.
The day before the ball, Leigh and Belle decided to call upon the Bennets to say good-bye to Jane and Elizabeth. Taking advantage of a brief respite in the rain, which had plagued the area for several days, Belle and Leigh rode over to Longbourn. Their visit lasted about a half an hour when the threatening skies made it prudent for them to head home again.
"I really shall miss Elizabeth and Jane," Leigh said as they rode back.
"Yes, so shall I," replied Belle. "Though I am glad that we'll be getting away from Miss Bingley. I swear if she whines about Elizabeth one more time, I'll ram those feathers of hers up her nose."
Leigh giggled. "I can just picture that." She shifted in her saddle. "Hey Belle! I'll race you back. Whoever makes it to the grounds first, wins."
"You're on!" Belle grinned.
The girls urged their horses into a gallop, racing through fields and leaping over fences. Leigh slowly pulled ahead of Belle and reached the estate border first. "YES! I WON!" Just then her horse shifted unexpectedly, and Leigh fell from the saddle and into the mud.
Belle laughed outright at her bedraggled sister. "And the victor returns in all her glory!" she smirked.
Leigh growled, "Yeah well glory this!" and pulled Belle off her horse and into the mud.
"Why you… you… ARGH!" Belle tackled her sister to the ground.
They spent the next couple of minutes screeching, wrestling, and flinging mud. Thus engaged, they did not hear the approach of several people until a shriek stopped them in mid-fight. They looked up and saw Darcy and Mrs. Hurst gawking at them. The shriek had come from Miss Bingley. An errant mud ball had hit her in the face and dribbled down the front of her dress.
Darcy buried his face in his hands. "Do I even want to know?"
Belle and Leigh looked at each other. "Well…" Belle began. "Ummm…" Leigh said.
"Never mind," Darcy interrupted them, "I know I don't want to know."
"Well?" said Belle with an expectant look. "Are you going to help us stand or not?"
Darcy grimaced, clearly not wanting to touch his dirty cousins, but politeness soon overcame him. He reached out his hands and each girl took a hold of one. Belle grinned and nodded imperceptibly to Leigh. Darcy, realizing his error, let go of their hands but not before he was pulled off balance and tumbled into the mud. Both girls began to laugh and sprang to their feet. They took off running towards the house, leaving the horses and astonished humans behind them.
Neither Belle nor Leigh slept much that night. Both were excited about the ball and spent half the night dancing around in Belle's room, until Darcy came to see what all the commotion was about. After that, they contented themselves with sending messages to each other by tapping on a mutual wall in a secret code they had worked out years ago.
The next morning, all were gathered at breakfast except for Miss Bingley. When she finally joined them, they were surprised to see dark circles under her eyes. She yawned and said to Bingley, "Brother you must do something about the bugs in this house. They kept me awake half the night, crawling around in the walls."
The Ashtons burst into giggles. Caroline looked at them confused. "Did I miss something?"
When the first people arrived for the ball, the sisters could hardly contain their excitement. The arrival of the Bennets gave them some excuse to vent their enthusiasm by greeting Jane and Elizabeth warmly. The women chatted for some minutes until the Miss Bennets moved on. It was only then that Belle and Leigh noticed the toad that came with the Bennets.
"Oh my word!" gasped Belle. "It's Mr. Collins! Ugh! He's greasier than I imagined! I can't believe that Charlotte Lucas marries him! Ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!"
Leigh shuddered. "Please don't even go there! Gross! It's too terrible to think about." After observing him for several seconds, she said, "Doesn't he kind of remind you of a snail? He leaves a trail of grease where ever he goes."
The girls moved away from the snail, toad, grease ball (whatever your preference) and circulated amongst the guests. The dancing began a few minutes later and the Ashton sisters joined the set with their partners. Leigh noticed that Elizabeth's partner was the toad. She caught Belle's attention and nodded towards the unfortunate Miss Elizabeth. Belle turned green when she noticed the thing called "Collins".
The sisters sat the next four dances out on account of Belle feeling suddenly sick to her stomach. When she was feeling better, she looked up at the dancers and noticed that Darcy was paired with Elizabeth. She watched as his face changed from amusement to anger. She turned to Belle and frowned.
"Drat that Wickham! We're going to have to do something about him one day!"
Leigh nodded. "Yes, as soon as we have the opportunity."
They laughed when Mr. Collins introduced himself to Darcy. Their cousin's disgust at the groveling toad was evident. Unfortunately, they also forgot they were relations to Mr. Collins' noble patroness. He approached the sisters with an oily smile, bowed and kissed their hands.
"I have come to pay my respects to the nieces of my noble patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. I can assure you that your aunt was well when I left her yesterday se'nnight. I apologize for not introducing myself earlier, but my ignorance of your connection with such a great lady must be my excuse. If I have hereby given offense I must beg leave to apologize."
Only concern for Elizabeth and Jane's feelings enabled Belle and Leigh to keep their countenance.
"We thank you Mr. Collins. It was most thoughtful," said Leigh, who was the only one able to say anything. "When you see our aunt again, give her our regards."
Mr. Collins bowed and blathered on for several more minutes before being called away. Belle, who had turned a darker shade of green every moment, escaped outside with Leigh behind her.
"GODS ABOVE!" Belle shrieked. "The slimeball touched me! I think I'm going to be sick." She began to retch.
Leigh began to shiver violently. "I think I lost my appetite. I don't feel so good now."
Both sisters clung to each other for dear life. Darcy found them huddled near a tree by the stable. He was about to admonish them for leaving the guests until he realized they were sick. He instead offered his shaking cousins each an arm and escorted them to their rooms. He went back downstairs to make their excuses. Thus ended Belle and Leigh's last evening at Netherfield.
Chapter 11 Posted on Wednesday, 17 November 1999
Belle and Leigh were to leave early the next morning. As they said their good-byes, they found that Mr. Bingley had the intention of following them in a few hours.
"I find that I have business in town," said he. "I believe it will only take three or four days and then I will be able to return."
"Well then, Mr. Bingley," Belle replied, "You must dine with us tonight. James will be glad to see you."
Bingley smiled widely, "Why thank you Miss Ashton! I believe I shall!"
The sisters climbed into the carriage and waved farewell. Leigh grinned impishly and called out, "Goodbyeeeeee Cousin Darcy! We enjoyed your company as much as I hope you enjoyed ours!"
Belle snickered, "Yes! We must do it again sometime!"
Fortunately for Darcy, the carriage drove off just then, which saved him from having to make a reply.
The carriage ride was uneventful. The girls, not having a companion to irritate, did so with each other to their hearts' content. When they finally arrived to the townhouse door, their brother came out to greet them.
"James!" Belle and Leigh exclaimed in unison.
He embraced them both. "It's good to see you girls again! How was Netherfield?" he asked as he gave each an arm and walked them into the house.
"Oh we had the most wonderful time!" Belle said. "And we met so many marvelous people!"
Leigh nodded her agreement and added, "Yes, and Mr. Bingley was such a wonderful host! So very attentive…"
"Oh James," Belle interrupted, "Speaking of Mr. Bingley, he will be in town for a few days and I invited him to dine with us tonight."
James smiled, "Good! I shall be happy to see him again!"
Bingley arrived in good time. They were a very lively company that evening and Bingley couldn't seem to stop talking about Jane. After he left, James asked his sisters about it.
"Belle, who is this Jane Bennet? Bingley talked about her non-stop after you and Leigh had left the table."
"She is the most wonderful girl, sweet as an angel. Perfect for Bingley really. Her father has an estate in Hertfordshire and she is the eldest of five sisters."
Leigh grinned wickedly, "Yes and our cousin seemed quite taken with her younger sister, Miss Elizabeth."
James stared, "Darcy!? Hmmmmmm… What are the fortunes of the Miss Bennets?"
"Only one thousand pounds each, I believe," Belle replied.
"Hmmmmmmmm…" James said again. "Knowing Darcy, he is trying to squash any feeling he has for her now. He has strange ideas about family pride… That reminds me of two things though." He looked from Belle to Leigh. "Your cousin wrote to me about your behavior in Hertfordshire." Neither sister looked at him. "Chamber pots? Throwing mud? Getting drunk? You two will never change, will you? The sisters grinned sheepishly at him. "No, I don't think you will. Ah well, you gave Darcy a bit of excitement at least."
All three laughed and Leigh added, "Well Fitzwilliam wasn't much better! At least Belle and I didn't insult the inhabitants of Hertfordshire!"
James rolled his eyes, "Above his company again? When will that man ever learn?"
"Who knows?" said Leigh, winking at her sister. "But you mention two things you had to say to us."
"I did?" James blinked. "Oh yes! Your Aunt Catherine wishes for you and Belle to visit her in April."
"Noooooo…ow!" Leigh said as Belle stepped on her foot.
Belle smiled sweetly and said, "Of course brother! We are anxious to see our dear aunt again. Aren't we Leigh?" Leigh, rubbing her foot, could only nod.
James looked at them both suspiciously. "Why don't I trust you? You always make a big fuss about it."
Belle looked haughty. "Well I hope Leigh and I have grown up a bit then." Before James could reply, she added, "Well I am tired. Leigh and I have had a long day and will retire now. Goodnight James."
The next evening found Belle and Leigh at their godparents' townhouse. Lord and Lady Reed, who never had children, loved the Ashtons as their own. The Ashtons returned this love equally and had come to rely upon them since their parents' death. Therefore Belle and Leigh were greeted warmly.
"Belle! Leigh! It is wonderful to see you again!" boomed Lord Reed. "I must say you girls get prettier every time I see you!"
Belle smiled, "Thank you my lord. It is good to see you also."
Lord Reed smiled, "What! So formal! Why you young ladies have been calling me Papa Reed ever since you were knee-high! Give me a hug my girls!"
Belle and Leigh were astounded at his jollity. They had expected the Earl to be stiff and formal, nothing at all like this humorous man before them.
"Charles! Don't be selfish!" Lady Reed admonished her husband with a smile. "I would like to talk to my goddaughters also!" She turned and embraced them. "Hello my dears! I have missed you both immensely. Charles is right though, you do look stunning tonight."
"Thank you Mama Reed," said Leigh. "You look beautiful yourself."
"What a nice thing to say my dear! Come girls, let us join your brother."
They walked over to where James was standing with two other gentlemen. James turned to them and said, "Ah! There you are! Belle, Leigh, I would like to introduce you to Mr. Ethan Caulder and Mr. Edward Harmon. Gentlemen, my sisters, Annabelle and Leigh Ashton."
Both gentlemen bowed. Mr. Caulder, said, "We are delighted ladies. Ashton has talked so much about you both, that Harmon and I were anxious to meet the lovely Miss Ashtons."
"Come, this is fine talk!" said Mr. Harmon. "If you keep flattering them Caulder, they shall not believe a word I say!"
The group talked merrily until Belle and Leigh were swept away for more introductions. When they had a moment to themselves, they talked over the two gentlemen.
"Oh my! Belle, Mr. Caulder is sooooo gorgeous! Tall, dark hair, chocolate brown eyes, good smile!" She sighed happily, "I think I've died and gone to heaven!"
Belle laughed. "Oh you've got it bad!" Leigh protested, then demanded to know what Belle thought of Mr. Harmon. She laughed harder, "All right! All right! Yes, I admit he is very handsome, very much to my liking."
Leigh stared at Belle, who just shrugged and grinned. She was about to torture her sister for information when someone caught her eye.
"Belle!" she hissed. "Darcy is here!"
"What!?" she said while turning around. "He is! That snitch! Oooooooo… I'm gonna get him!" She glared at Darcy, who noticed and looked taken aback. A few minutes later, dinner was announced.
Lady Reed must have been playing matchmaker, for Belle was seated next to Mr. Harmon and Leigh sat next to Mr. Caulder. They talked and laughed all through dinner. Neither sister had ever remembered being so well entertained before.
At times, when attention was called away from the sisters, they would irritate Darcy. At first they just glared fiercely at him. Soon they wore evil grins while sharpening their knives. Mr. Harmon soon noticed them. "Whatever are you two doing that for?"
Belle looked surprised at being caught and then said, "We are irritating our cousin, Mr. Darcy."
Mr. Caulder arched an eyebrow; "May one inquire as to why?"
Leigh grinned, "It's simple! The short of it is that Belle and I did some very silly things while visiting Hertfordshire and Darcy told our brother. Now we are getting revenge." She glared in Darcy's direction again.
The four watched his reaction. His eyes widened, looking like a deer caught in headlights. Belle, Leigh, Harmon, Caulder looked at each other and began laughing. The offended look on Darcy's face only made them laugh harder.
"Bravo, Miss Ashton! Bravo, Miss Leigh! May I never offend either of you," said Mr. Caulder.
Chapter 12 Posted on Thursday, 18 November 1999
The day after the dinner, Belle and Leigh remembered why Darcy was back in town. He had come to visit his cousins with Georgiana and a despondent Bingley in tow. Bingley, once exuberant and talkative, now sat with a forlorn and wistful look on his face. Darcy seemed oblivious to his friend's demeanor. Leigh observed this all with an angry countenance, occasionally glancing at Belle to see if she noticed.
James, observing his sisters, asked, "My dears, is something wrong? You seem very angry."
Leigh spoke up. "Belle and I have just received some unpleasant news. Apparently, a dear friend of ours wanted something very much and was very happy. That is, until a certain over-officious, mean, rotten, sneaky, busybody poked their nose into our friend's business, where it didn't belong. Now our friend is extremely unhappy and depressed because of the pompous, overbearing ass!" She glared at Darcy, who looked somewhat uncomfortable. She let out and exasperated sigh and stormed out the room, slamming the door behind her.
Everyone, excepting Belle, stared at each other in amazement. After several moments, they looked at her expectantly.
She arched an eyebrow. "What? I think she said all there is to say. I happen to agree with her."
"Belle!" James exclaimed in frustration. "She didn't tell us anything! Of whom and what was she speaking?"
"I don't think you need to know James," Belle said primly. "Probably for the best. I had better go and talk to Leigh."
Belle passed Darcy on her way out. She "accidentally" bumped his elbow, causing his teacup to spill down the front of his shirt. He let out a yelp of surprise.
"Oh! I am so sorry cousin! Will you ever forgive me?" She smirked at him then left to find Leigh.
That evening, the Ashton's had several guests over for dinner. Mr. Caulder and Mr. Harmon made two in the party, much to Belle and Leigh's delight. They were disappointed, however, at having to invite Miss Bingley and the Hursts.
"Those three set my teeth on edge," Leigh said to Belle.
"I know but I couldn't insult Mr. Bingley, now could I? Besides, Darcy will have to put up with Caroline all evening," Belle replied with an evil grin.
"What are you two ladies about?" cried Harmon. "You both have such cunning looks on those beautiful faces!"
Leigh laughed, "We were just noting how Miss Bingley seems to attach herself to our cousin."
Caulder chuckled, "Ah yes! The famous Miss Bingley!" He looked over to where she was chattering away at a bored-looking Darcy. "Better him than me!"
The foursome laughed until Harmon said, "But we have not come to talk of Miss Bingley! Caulder and I would appreciate it if you ladies would supply us with some music."
Belle smiled, "Of course! We'd love to!" She glanced slyly at Darcy, who was passing them at the moment. "And Cousin Darcy will vouch for our singing! Won't you Fitzwilliam?"
"I… Uh… Well…" Darcy stammered, turning red.
Belle turned back to Harmon; "He heard quite a bit of our singing these last few months." She smiled sweetly at Darcy, "And I'm sure that he will tell you that Leigh and I are quite marvelous! And what beautiful voices we have!"
Darcy began to sweat. "Yes! Their singing is very, uh, original!"
The sisters smiled and suffered to let him pass. Darcy, relieved at avoiding one disaster, was now faced with another. A feeling a dread overcame him as he watched Harmon and Caulder escort the sisters to the piano. Darcy caught James's eye and pointed frantically towards Belle and Leigh. Belle sat at the pianoforte and Leigh stood beside her. James and Darcy held their breaths, waiting for the first screech to start.
Some say love, it is a river
That drowns the tender reed.
Some say love, it is a razor
That leaves your soul to bleed.
Some say love, it is a hunger,
An endless, aching need.
I say love, it is a flower,
It's the heart, afraid of breaking
That never learns to dance.
It's the dream, afraid of waking
That never takes the chance.
It's the one, who won't be taken
That cannot seem to give.
And the soul, afraid of dying,
That never learns to live.
When the night has been too lonely
And the road has been too long.
When you think that love is only
For the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter
Far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed that with the sun's love
In the spring, becomes the rose. **
The room burst into applause after Belle and Leigh's wonderful performance. James and Darcy gaped at them, for they had never known the sisters to play or sing so well. Harmon and Caulder complimented them enthusiastically.
"Wonderful performance ladies!" Caulder smiled at Leigh. "I must say that song is a new one to me though. Quite beautiful."
The sisters glanced at each other. "Oh," Belle said casually, "it's just an old one Leigh and I have known for years."
Belle and Leigh left the instrument to let the other women have a chance to play. When the others had played to their hearts' content, the Miss Ashtons, by general request, provided music for the rest of the evening.
** The Rose
~ Bette Midler
Later that night, the sisters were in Belle's room talking over the evening's events.
Belle giggled, "Did you see James and Darcy's faces! They looked as though they would keel over!"
"Yes! They never knew we had it in us!" Leigh laughed. "Mr. Caulder noticed them too."
Belle grinned at her sister with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. "Mr. Caulder eh? You've taken quite a liking to him I see." She made kissy noises. "Oh Ethan! You're sooooo wonderful! Run away with me please!"
Leigh blushed bright red. "Shut up!" she demanded, knocking Belle off the bed and onto the floor. She stared down at her giggling sister. "You keep laughing, and I'll tell Mr. Harmon that you're in love with him! That you sigh over that blonde hair and his sparkling blue eyes! And that you practically melt at his roguish smile!"
Belle sat straight up. "You wouldn't!"
"Oh wouldn't I?" replied Leigh, waggling her eyebrows.
"If you do, I'll… I'll…"
Belle grabbed a pillow and whacked Leigh across the face with it. "Hehehehehehehe—Oof!" as Leigh returned the blow. The room erupted in feathers as Belle and Leigh battled with each other. Their shrieks, screams, and laughter finally brought James to Belle's door.
"What are you two doing? Do you know what time it is? Argh! GO TO BED!"
Belle and Leigh broke out into a fit of giggles as James stomped off.
"Goodnight sister mine!"