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Vampire and Prejudice

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My sister played the piano, and I tended to my correspondence—that was the general morning routine for the Darcys of Pemberley. Left alone with no company, we never bothered with breakfast; instead, a single large glass of red liquid was served for each of us—the only sustenance we needed anyway. I had finished my portion directly, but Georgiana still had her glass half full, and if the previous experience was to be believed, it was unlikely to get any emptier. Scolding Georgiana did little good these days, so I kept my thoughts on the subject to myself. Besides, there was another matter that would likely upset her, but keeping quiet on that front was not an option for long.

“Bingley has written,” I said, keeping my eyes firmly set on the papers. Georgiana did hate to be studied, and I thought it the best course save for giving her the letter and abruptly leaving the room for her to experience her anxieties in solitude and without much need for composure. But then of course I would directly show my mistrust in her abilities which might serve only to hurt her further.

Georgiana kept playing without so much as an interested word in my direction. True, Bingley writing to us was hardly news, he or his sisters did so with some frequency.

“He has decided on a property in Hertfordshire and means to move in soon,” I continued. There were many polite questions Georgiana might have asked, but she did not, keeping her fingers busy with the keys. The melody was even and lovely, unmarred by the news for now.

“He is asking for us to join him,” I finally surrendered the crucial piece of information and sure enough the piano fell silent. I allowed myself to look at Georgiana, immediately being assaulted by her pain and evident feelings of betrayal. Directly, she communicated those feelings into words.

“So, you mean to leave me,” she accused. I allowed myself a moment of composure, to stifle the want to go to her, to comfort her. Her usual response for such actions were hysterics and I rather save her—and myself— the embarrassment of a scene.

“You could always come with me,” I suggested in the gentlest tone in my possession. She violently shook her head, declining to entertain the idea.

“Georgiana, please,” I said and rose. She did the same, baking away from me, so I dared not move closer.

“I cannot go,” her voice had only the barest tremor. “I will not.”

The look of her broke my heart. She had not improved these 10 years against all promises. If anything, she had gotten worse, time neglecting to bring her any solace from the memories of the unfortunate events of her youth. She had always been a shy child, and now she was a positively unsocial woman—a generous term, considering the circumstances— crippled with nervousness and anxiety. The wave of panic was clear on her face and her only hope of salvation was the assurance of staying where she was.

“Of course,” I consented, and she seemed to relax just a little. “I can stay, too.”

“No, you should go,” said Georgiana in a small voice, suddenly embarrassed.

“Bingley will understand.”

“You cannot keep declining his invitations,” she said and sat back at the piano. I followed suit, sitting down at my desk. “He will start to think we do not like him and even someone as amiable as Mr. Bingley might take offence. I would hate for you to lose all of your friends because of me. Write to him that you are happy to go and in return secure his promise to visit us in Pemberley.”

It was a pretty speech and she delivered it with the poise that could render her earlier behavior almost imagined. It was also a sensible decision on her part—she did not dare to venture into the world, but she could afford to let a little bit of the world into her home—but there was still fear in me that as soon as I left, she would start to degrade rapidly, and when I would come back, I would not find a ready hostess but an utter wreck.

“You doubt me,” she said, interpreting my silence. To call such an assessment inaccurate would be a lie. “I do not blame you but let me prove you wrong.”

I glanced at the half-empty glass and mistrust found its way to my lips despite her plea.

“How can I? Just a moment ago you accused me of leaving you.”

“I want you to stay. But I see the necessity of you going. I am a hermit—you cannot afford to be.”

I saw at once her meaning and swallowed my rising anger. Georgiana last broached the subject of the necessity of my marrying someone—anyone—six months ago. Truth be told, she screamed those words at me during a particularly violent argument. I had wanted her to assume the social duties that might be expected of Miss Georgiana Darcy of Pemberley. Bingley actually had given me that misbegotten idea, or rather his sister had. Miss Caroline Bingley took on all the affairs that otherwise a wife would resolve, and she did it so naturally that it made me believe Georgiana—older than Miss Bingley, though she would never look it—capable of small steps in that direction as well. Not without some venom, my sister had made know to me that I could expect no such thing from her. If I wanted a lady to tend to my comfort and fill the role of a Mrs. Darcy in the neighborhood, then I was more than welcome to bestow such a blessing on a suitable lady before I considered myself too old to court girls who might have called me a grandfather under different circumstances. As things stood I had willingly signed away my God-given right to die a mortal death and become a vampire locked in the body of my 27-year-old self. I was 37 now—not terribly old, but soon approaching a threshold when asking the permission to marry a girl of 20, who could be considered a mere child in comparison, would seem exceedingly distasteful, thus leaving me to choose from the small pool—a puddle, really—of equals who were fashionable, predictably rich, and vampire. Considering my odds, I had made peace with spending an eternity as a bachelor.

Georgiana had other ideas. She also was utterly silent for a week after our argument, and I did not want to inspire such behavior again.

“My books disagree with you entirely,” I managed to say.

“It is good to be rich, leaves you many avenues to choose from.”

I swallowed my inquiries about any possible choices she had considered for me. The idea of her playing a matchmaker was dreadful; it seemed not only improper but given her geographical constraints I was sure to be settled with an ill-behaved kitchen maid.

“And it is good to remember, dear sister, that not every single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

***

In a few days, I was in London greeted by my close friend Mr. Charles Bingley. He was a young man of a sizable fortune and had no master but himself, therefore he could pick his friends where he liked. Perhaps that is how he ended up with me. The society was strictly divided on this matter—the matter of vampirism—and angering the wrong people might cost a young man, but Bingley was sure to make friends anywhere he went, even with me by his side. Sometimes, because of me. Not because of my supposed importance and interesting background, but because with me as a background he was sure to stand out as the most amiable of men. I was not sure if he himself was aware of this fact, but our dichotomy often struck me in the face. Still, he was a cherished friend—young, lively, and unexperienced—a soothing balm for my usual stuck-up race who took themselves all too seriously, exaggerating their importance and ruling it over everyone. Bingley lacked that artifice, but he was also vulnerable, and I often thought of myself as a kind of protector, a figure of an older brother who steered him in the right direction.

“I do wish Miss Darcy was with you,” said Miss Bingley. If the brother could easily be thrown off course, always at the mercy of the wind, then the sister was the captain of her own journey, often mercilessly so. She possessed beauty and fashion, and what she lacked in mercy, she compensated with a great deal of determination to appear pleasing to those she would have be pleased. “The honor of her exquisite company will be sorely missed. Where shall I find a friend of such elegance in Hertfordshire?”

“And I suppose my presence amounts to nothing?” said Mrs. Hurst, her and Binley’s sister upon entering the room, conveniently having misplaced her husband.

“Luisa, darling, you are the unquestionable heart of this party,” Miss Bingley replied with an easy manner, “but Miss Darcy would have been the light.”

“Then we must walk in darkness, or you must fill that role yourself,” said Mrs. Hurst and smiled at me pointedly. I suppose she silently requested me to pay a similar compliment to her sister or support her own, but she got nothing from me. Miss Bingley did not seem to wait for it, perhaps, knowing me better.

“And yet, it will be so hard to give out harsh opinions and know ourselves correct with only the two of us. Mr. Darcy, you will have to oblige us and be the third.”

“I shall endeavor to fix any incorrect observations you might have,” I said, which might not have been entirely the answer Mis Bingley wished for, but she smiled just the same.

“There shall be nothing to criticize!” exclaimed Bingley. “The estate, the views, the countryside, the people—all is loveliness itself!”

Nobody in the present company was inclined to believe him for a second.

***

The estate was fine, the views were average, the countryside was a countryside, but the people, however, were a dreadful bunch of awful wretches, and I wanted to desert during the first minutes of assembly at Meryton. They stared, they whispered, they smiled at me their wicked, calculating smiles, eager to peel me back bit by bit and find a bloody prize in the middle.

I was a young man—I looked like a young man—which seemed entirely a reason in itself to pierce me with hungry gazes, uninhibited by politeness or propriety. I felt naked and probed by the stares of the curious. They were ravenous and I was the supposed pray which was not a position I would accept without a fight.

I was wealthy—wealthier than Bingley—which for them was an unexpected novelty, a circumstance they were not accustomed to, and the implications sickened me. My dislike was not reduced to their lack of wealth; the dislike stemmed from their schemes, from their equating me and Bingley with bags of money. I could not forgive them on my account, and I vehemently despised them on my friend's account. Nobody doubted that Bingley was a gentleman with a happy disposition, but to think that their friendship was contingent on him having money beyond their dreams was an outrage without measure. They sought to extend such warm feelings towards me also, and I was ready to all but throw it back in their leering faces.

And lastly, I was a vampire which was an oddity unrivalled in these parts. This was a bit of information I did not particularly hide, but the fact that it was advertised on my behalf made me uneasy. Suddenly in the bland bag of my accomplishments was that fashionable fact which some looked upon with awe, others with disgust. Rumors of what I did in my spare time as a vampire—filthy rumors, too, I had no doubt—permeated the minds in this assembly and if they were not spoken about aloud, I was sure to have the insult of them spoken about behind my back in tearooms, morning visits, and bedchambers.

I wanted to leave, but I made myself stay still and suffer. Damn Bingley and his joyful demeanor. He could not possibly guess my suffering; his smiling face was blind to all he did not wish to see. He was engaged in conversation and dancing, while I was sure to bite—no, not like that—anyone who tried to press on me their company for a prolonged period of time. I trusted myself with nobody beyond my own party and blessedly Miss Bingley kept her guard over me as much as possible.

In a course of a single evening, my reputation was decided, and I was crowned the prince of disagreeableness. I should have felt sorry at least that I was probably the first vampire people here were meeting and I gave the most sordid impression of all my brethren, but truth be told, I knew not of a single vampire who would care anything about the opinions of people such as these.

“Come, Darcy!” I was at one point accosted by Bingley. “I must have you dance.”

 His demand had no effect on me. I would have rather jumped out of a window than oblige him in this particular way. If he kept insisting, I might take him with me when I did so.

“I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance,” he continued, undeterred by my general lack of enthusiasm.

“I certainly shall not. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.”

Distinctly I felt the lack of Miss Bingley at my side. I was sure she would have this conversation with her brother in my stead, being my unconquerable advocate. There was not a matter yet as far as it concerned me where she would take her brother's side. Alas, she was suffering the attentions of another.

“I would not be so fastidious as you are for a kingdom!” exclaimed Bingley. “Upon my honor, I have never seen so many pleasant girls in my life, and there are several of them uncommonly pretty.”

This was a poor advertisement, especially since I had observed—and no doubt everyone else here came to the same conclusion—that Mr. Bingley had eyes only for one particular lady. His desire to offer me his castoffs as a gift was not appreciated.

“You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room.”

This seemed to derail his attention from me, and his eyes sparkled with delight either with the mention of Miss Bennet or my approval of her.

“She is the most beautiful creature I have ever beheld!” he announced with such feverish devotion that I could only hope was the effect of the wine. Miss Bennet indeed was rather handsome, but surely Bingley was surrounded by youth and beauty enough for his head not to be turned by such a sight. His eyes told a different tale and mocked me for a bitter old fool.

 “But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable,” said Bingley, and I wished he had stuck with the admiration of his Miss Bennet. “Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.”

I turned and sure enough, there was a girl of some claim to beauty—if one was keen to look for it—sitting behind me. Not beautiful enough by the common vote if she was not dancing already. I suspected this to be a ploy from my friend who evidently was trying to please his beautiful partner. I could oblige him and let him play the hero of the dance floor by rescuing the other Bennet girl, but I rather quickly decided not to.

“She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me. I am in no mood to give attention to young ladies who are slighted by other men,” I said. “You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.”

The calculation between spending his time with me and Miss Bennet was an easy one, and Bingley departed smiling and not at all displeased with his loss. After all, in matters of persuasion, he must have been used to losing so often that he probably barely noticed it. 

 

Chapter Text

“She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me,” said Mr. Darcy and soon enough departed, an uncaring air to his rude manners. I, about whom this praise was uttered, stared in shock for a moment and then burst out laughing to an immense relief to my companions. To have a girl burst in tears at such words might have been expected, but I had opinion enough of myself to not take it to heart too much.

“I suppose the verdict is in—Elizabeth Bennet is no temptress! Mamas far and wide may cease hiding their sons and bring them to balls so that all women can have their share of dancing—even the barely tolerable ones!”

“Miss Elizabeth! My word, to laugh at such a matter,” exclaimed Miss Robinson. “You should instead plot your revenge. I certainly would.”

“Isn’t laughing at such a fastidious nature vengeance enough?” I asked. “Mr. Darcy of Pemberley believes in his importance, and my punishment for him is not to see him as important at all. His opinions cannot harm me but certainly can harm him.”

“Harm him?”

“It is the habit of newcomers, I suppose, not to give much consequence to the strangers they insult. For such as myself, who has spent my whole life in these circles and will likely count my last days among them, exclamations of a most fastidious nature are forbidden for a simple fear that they would become known to everyone, and everyone would hold them over my head for the rest of my days. This incident might not haunt him for the rest of Mr. Darcy’s days, but it may haunt him for the rest of his stay.”

However short it may be.

“What have you vexed Miss Robinson with?” cried Lydia, my youngest sister, fresh from a dance.

“I have done nothing, it is all Mr. Darcy’s fault,” I explained with an air of haughtiness.

“Mr. Darcy? Mr. Bingley’s friend? I thought he was too good to converse with anyone.”

“That he is, but he feels himself much more capable of conversing about someone.”

“Tell me!” Lydia demanded.

“Tell you what?” Catherine, my second youngest sister, joined us.

“Lizzy is telling tales about Mr. Darcy,” Lydia explained.

“Out with it at once!” cried Catherine, fond of new gossip just as much as Lydia, especially since new information about Mr. Darcy was hard to come by. He was of Pemberley, he was rich, he was a vampire, he was unpleasant—those were the lone facts known about the prince of disagreeableness.

“Well, he stood just there, proud and stately, and was accosted with a possibility of an introduction to a certain Miss Elizabeth Bennet so that he would be able to ask her to stand up with him. He recoiled from such a nightmare as if from the sunlight itself and hissed, ‘HER! She is barely tolerable to dance with, certainly not handsome enough to tempt ME!’ After these words, he promptly turned into a bat and flew into the night.”

“But he’s standing right there!” cried Lydia.

“Obviously he has just returned,” I explained.

“What nonsense stories you tell!” accused Catherine.

“I have witnesses.” I turned to Miss Robinson and so did my younger sisters.

“He did not recoil, he did not hiss, he did NOT turn into anything and remained to be himself,” she said. “But the words did escape him. Most ungallant of him. I dare say he would not act so disagreeably towards a young lady if she had a brother present to defend her.”

“He would not dance with you because you are not pretty enough?” Lydia recounted with disbelief. An accusation of this nature to one of the beautiful Bennet sisters might have been an accusation to them all.

“That indeed seems the case.”

“Is it in any way possible that vampires are blind?” asked Catherine, but none of us could answer with any certainty. “I shall go and ask Mary; she must know. And if she doesn’t, it will annoy her to no end.”

With this plan in place, my youngest sisters scurried off in search of Mary, my younger sister also. I was the second eldest, and we were five Bennet girls in total. As Miss Robinson observed, I had no brothers, which was a great source of anxiety to my mother. My father, still living, but not present due to a severe case of reading alone back home, was resigned to the circumstances which perhaps doubled the natural anxiety my mother possessed on this subject. Upon my father’s death, we would lose our home and most of our income, so her only hope was to get her daughters advantageously married—a scheme which had not come into fruition for any of us yet.

“Lizzy, what is it I hear about Mr. Darcy?” My mother had joined me with a most peculiar worry on her face. I struggled to keep laughter only in my eyes. The tale of Elizabeth Bennet and how she almost had the misfortune of dancing with a vampire circulated the room. Disbelief, indignation on my behalf, incredulity at such manners, laughter at his ridiculousness, and a pleasant evening spent among friends who by the end of it knew Mr. Darcy as the most disagreeable company—all of it certainly soothed any ruffled feathers of my pride. The ultimate consensus was this: it was not that Miss Elizabeth Bennet wasn’t good enough for Mr. Darcy, but that Mr. Darcy was certainly not good enough for her.

After the assembly, my family went home to Longbourn in high spirits. Jane my eldest—and favorite—sister had been much admired, and my mother was pleased above all else about the principal admirer—Mr. Bingley. He was a charming man of fashion and fortune come from London and, according to our mother, here to marry one of her girls, presumably Jane. I had laughed at the notion when it was presented to me, but regardless of Mr. Bingley’s original intentions, his attentions to Jane were unmistakable. I was pleased for my sister’s sake because generally there was never a man I thought good enough for her, but during the evening Mr. Bingley seemed like an uncommonly strong candidate.

At home my father was still up, lost in a book and the peace that was afforded to him in our absence. It was shuttered immediately by my mother’s need to retell the finest points of her evening. Bingley was at the center of them, a subject my father could hardly stomach any more after weeks of speculation, and thus my tale was recounted and I freely laughed all through it, trusting my father would find some delight in its ridiculousness, even as my mother was much distraught over it.

“Not handsome enough to dance with! I wish you had been there, my dear, to have given him one of your set-downs. I quite detest the man.”

***

Jane would not plague our father with Mr. Bingley and her thoughts of him, however she stripped her caution with her dress and found a willing and trustworthy listener in me. As a rule, my eldest sister was shy and reserved with other people, but she could be as open as she wished with me. True, Mr. Bingley was a ridiculous subject to hold with our father, but his importance after the assembly could not be neglected and ridiculed as before because now it was of some certainty that Jane liked him.

“He is just what a young man ought to be: sensible, good-humored, lively,” she said. “And I never saw such happy manners.”

“He is also handsome,” I added since Jane could not yet muster to give voice to that adjective—I was free of such reservations, “which a young man ought likewise to be.”

I decided we could admire him as handsome; surely, he admired my sister on similar basis. Of course, I would hate him if that was all he saw, but he had the good sense to hide such a disposition for now, and if he were to ere, I would quickly take back my blessing.

Mr. Bingley had brought more from London than good manners and Mr. Darcy, he also brought his sisters—Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst—and his sister’s husband Mr. Hurst. I could not extend my blessing to them also and I plainly said so.

“They are very pleasing women when you converse with them,” said Jane in their defense which I was not willing to accept. Jane always saw the good in people even when there was scarcely any good to be found.

“Miss Bingley is to live with her brother and keep his house, and I am much mistaken if we shall not find a very charming neighbor in her,” she continued and I listened in silence, not wishing to upset Jane. Truth be told, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst were handsome, educated, and fashionable; they could be pleasing and hold a conversation, but there was a cold bite to their demeanor that Jane refused to see but was plain to me. To an extent, Jane had charmed them, but I refused to acknowledge the sisters as anything more than playing their parts well.

“And what of his friend?” I asked, testing her unparalleled skills of niceness. “What excuse can you give for him?”

“I cannot!” she exclaimed. “He was very rude; I can say nothing to excuse that. Only that he may endeavor to right himself in the influence of his friends who are sure to correct him.”

“If beauty and naivety go hand in hand, I am surprised Mr. Darcy found me to be tolerable at all.”

“Lizzy!”

“Permit me to speculate that Mr. Darcy is not recently in their company which leads me to two possibilities: either they cannot influence him for the better or they see nothing that is faulty.”

“What if they do not dare to speak to it directly?”

“Because he is at least twice as rich and a vampire?” The idea struck me as plausible. I would have loved to say that I would speak about such behavior to my friends regardless of their wealth or status of mortality, but then again, I did not possess such friends, and if I did, might lose them as soon as I had gotten them.

“I suppose he is very proud, but I would not consider him someone to be feared.”

“Why not?” Jane asked. I wondered if that was a more immediate concern with her than she wanted to let on.

“Because then I would have to fear him and I am in no humor to fear people, especially those who cannot summon the courage to dance with me, barely tolerable or not.”

***

The discussion of the assembly continued the next day—such was the power of Mr. Bingley and his companions. If people from London always made such a fuss around themselves, I did not wonder at my father hating town—all of them in one place would be a spectacle too bright to comprehend. But Mr. Bennet escaped the conversation of freshly arrived Londoners, so it was up to us ladies of the house to keep it alive and burning. In this enterprise we had some neighborly assistance from Lucas Lodge, from whence Charlotte Lucas, the eldest child of Sir William Lucas and Lady Lucas, had recently come. She was a young lady of twenty-seven—rational, clever, and an indispensable friend to me.

When we had talked over the undisputed pleasures of the evening in question, namely how much Bingley was taken by my eldest sister, the conversation turned to Mr. Darcy who was the absolute scandal of the ball.

“Poor Eliza!” said Charlotte. “To be only just tolerable.”

Her eyes twinkled, and I knew she said it in good humor, though my mother deemed it necessary to defend her offspring from the slights of fashionable gentlemen.

“I would ask you to not put it into Lizzy’s head to be vexed by him,” my mother warned. She took the matter close to heart, which only made me want to laugh about it more.

“I would be vexed, mama, had he not a plausible excuse. He is a vampire after all and there is no accounting for the taste of vampires.”

“True,” Charlotte joined me. “He is probably 208, losing his sight and hearing, and Elizabeth—or girls her age—could hardly tempt him. I do believe he would pay the compliment of dancing with Mrs. Bennet had she been inclined to accept him.”

“Oh Charlotte, what nonsense! My dancing days are long gone,” said my mother briskly, though the remainder of her youth gleamed with vanity.

“Nonsense indeed,” said Mary. “Vampirism came into vogue in England only after 1789, so he could not possibly be 208. Unless he is French.”

“Could he be French?” wondered Lydia, unpatriotically excited by the prospect.

“Certainly not,” Mrs. Bennet smarted. That a gentleman and a vampire might snub one of her beautiful daughters was one thing, but a Frenchman—this was a cause for a whole new kind of war.

“Then Mr. Darcy is not 208,” concluded Mary. “I dare say he is quite unable to be more than fifty and likely much younger.”

This somewhat soured my expression. For a young man of consequence to have no manners was one thing, but for a man of fifty or about that age to behave as he had was beyond ridiculous. It also stamped out his friends' ability to influence him one way or another—by fifty a man’s character was unlikely to change.

“Then his face does him injury by not reflecting that,” said Charlotte. “If it did, nobody could fault him for not dancing with you. Nobody would laugh if Mr. Robinson declined a kind offer to dance with you.”

The example made me stifle a laugh. How many gray men of advanced age were prepared to offend me at balls? I rather thought Mr. Robinson—if indeed put into such an impossible position—would do his best to oblige, no matter the awful results.

“It is fortunate then, that he has precisely the disposition of someone who feels not the injury,” I said instead.

“He is a vampire, but surely he has a heart,” offered Jane.

“Does he? I would expect him to be entirely heartless—a prerequisite for the transformation. How else is he supposed to have a stomach for other people’s blood?”

“Lizzy!” my mother chastised me, but I only smiled in apology. The morning was too early apparently to talk about people consuming blood; in a handbook of good manners such conversations were reserved to dinnertime after three glasses of wine—not a moment sooner.

“An indelicate subject, but there is certain veracity of his drinking blood,” said Mary.

“And how would a young girl know about the overall veracity of blood consumption?” My mother by this point was getting quite annoyed.

“Reading.” Mary was all puzzlement. “Papa has several books on the subject. I would expect nothing else, considering the king is a vampire and one can hardly be ignorant on the subject and consider oneself well informed.”

After some more stern words from the mistress of the house, we retired the subject, but my curiosity was engaged. I thought I knew exactly what was the source of Mary’s information, and I decided to acquaint myself with the thoughts and observations of the author as soon as possible. The scheme could scarcely fail since my father’s library was open to us without censure—the aspect of our upbringing which never bothered my mother as she rarely read herself and cared nothing about the reading of others.

Chapter Text

As the ball—they called it that with all seriousness—came to a close, Bingley was beaming with his triumphant outing, Mis Bingley and Mrs. Hurst were tired, and I was eager to leave. Mr. Hurst, a lesser element to the party, was drunk, but nobody minded him, and he minded nobody likewise. Bingley was full of energy and ready to conquer two more balls if he could but find them in this desolate place; I, however, wanted to wash the stares of people off me with due heist. If it was too late to trouble the servants for a bath, I would gladly find a pond to drown myself in. Such a place as Netherfield was sure to have a piece of water big enough.

The estate was generally very fine; I had commended Bingley on becoming its tenant as soon as I had looked at the place. He did disclose that he had made his decision within half an hour from first seeing it—a rashness which was very characteristic of him—at which I showed some concern, but a brief inspection had detected no serious faults, and I was only left to congratulate my friend on his good fortune. His sisters were of a like mind, but their enthusiasm would have been greater had he become an owner. Then again, after meeting their neighbors, they might reconsider the option of purchasing this very estate. That is, if they could convince their brother to give it up.

“Such pleasant people I have never seen, and I have never felt so welcome in my entire life!” Back at Netherfield, Bingley was still on the subject, scarcely needing encouragement from anyone else. His sisters were stifling signs of fatigue, Mr. Hurst had fallen asleep, and I was somber and not moved by his raptures. He might have felt welcomed; I felt like I could not have a place hate me more had I paid for them to do it.

“Everybody showed such kindness and appreciation that I fear I might become too full of myself. And the dancing—oh, done with such spirit—could not rival any I had before. The ladies here are of such elegance, grace, and natural beauty—I have never seen the like anywhere I have ever been. I felt so free, as if I had been friends with these good people for years and not mere hours. They welcomed me so sincerely. And such pretty girls in one place!”

“For heaven’s sake, Charles!” cried Caroline. I am glad she did, for I could not bear it much longer without my ears bleeding from the profusion of happiness.

“Do you disagree?” Charles asked, looking around the room, but his sisters were feeling too delicate to give their true feelings on the subject.

“I dare say you mean you were enchanted by a particular beauty instead of the entire room and your sisters would rather hear the truth of that fact.”

“Miss Bennet is a very sweet girl and I pray we enjoy more of her company,” said Mis Bingley. Mrs. Hurst agreed.

“She is an angel among women,” said Bingley with a dreamy gaze which was an expression I feared. He was rash in all things, but I had never seen him be rash in the matters of the heart. I decided then and there I had to keep an eye on this affair. Hopefully, it would burn itself out, but if not, I was willing to intervene. The smallest nudge was likely to bring Bingley to his senses.

“Do not you think her the most beautiful girl you have ever beheld?” Bingley asked. I was startled to have the question directed at me. Perhaps he valued my opinion a little too much if he could not resolve the issue at hand by himself.

“She is pretty,” I said. I could not very well say she was not, thus tainting my famed skills of observation. “But I think she smiles too much.”

“She has a wonderful smile,” observed Bingley.

“She does smile a lot. Not a tremendously fashionable thing, I admit, but it becomes her country manners and liveliness of spirit.” With this, Miss Bingley came as close to opposing me as she ever did, but a glint in her eyes told me she intended to tease me about smiling beauties later.

With Bingley delighted even more by our acknowledgment of Miss Bennet, we each departed to find our nightly rest. It seemed that mine alighted on the branches of the trees, on the field, and in the garden. Sleep was never the same when you became a vampire. It did not quite consume you during the night and the hours spent sleeping were fewer than they ever were when I was mortal. I slipped back in through the door I had asked to be left open for my return and finally retired to my room. It was not yet sunrise, but it could not be far off either. 

My thoughts were on Georgiana, the misery of the ball forgotten. What was she doing now? Was she also restless? Had she drunk enough to be well—or as well as she ever was? I craved to look in on her, but I had forsaken that privilege coming to Netherfield. They told me they would write to me as soon as something was off, but—as with everything—I could not be easy without supervising the thing myself. How quickly, I wondered, I could depart this place without giving offense to my friends? There was nothing pleasant here to keep me otherwise.

***
I awoke later than usual but sooner than the rest of our party, which left me to devote my time to correspondence, awaiting my habitual glass of refreshment. The large glass—as was the refreshment itself—was my own, managed by my people. I would not dare to insult the staff employed at any house by saying that I mistrusted them, rather that I felt I should take care of my condition as discreetly as possible. It would not do to ask the butler to tend to a glass recently emptied of blood or for a footman to deliver it; therefore, my people, a small retinue with which I traveled, were an essential weight any time I wished to leave Pemberley.

It was easier to maintain the supply at my estate, but I could not very well stay locked inside forever. Prolonged travel was a chore: anything above two weeks made me weary, and anything above a month made it necessary to send for “new blood”, according to the good doctor who was at my constant employ. Mr. Lamb was an older gentleman, educated on the flesh straight out of the battlefield and knew his way around blood more than satisfactory. I had no complaints, and neither did his charges—the suppliers—and I was happy to report that nobody had dropped dead during his practice of bloodletting. One Mr. James Barrel had died in a riding accident, but in this particular case, Mr. Lamb could hardly be held accountable.

It was no coincidence that vampirism was reserved for the wealthy, who could not only hold true the moral values of humanity but could also afford the additional expense for the foreseeable generations, for immortality was taxing in more ways than one. If the morals or the pocket of a man would give, the disaster was imminent. A vampire gone long enough without blood was a menace to society and it was imperative to avoid any variation on this theme. Nothing short of a death sentence would be the price for ill management—a thought which had lain heavily on my brow for 10 years.

During the course of the morning I was witness to more than my ill thoughts and brooding over my family matters—ladies were marching back and forth, framed by my window, no doubt for the privilege of seeing Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley. Bingley’s sisters would have been great patronesses and leading ladies of the neighborhood had their intention did not lie in laughing at the characters met here. They at least would be able to wring out some anecdotes from their time in Netherfield, whereas I would have to contend with hiding in my rooms as much as possible.

One of the troops marching on Netherfield inevitably were that of the Bennets. I could not have missed them, for they were a loud and disgustingly happy bunch. I previously had accused Miss Bennet of smiling too much, but at least she was a pleasantly quiet and tranquil creature. Her sisters, along with their mother, were a loud and laughing menace which was bad in itself but also brought my thoughts back to Georgiana back in Pemberley. She never had enjoyed such ease with another person, she never had a sister to be free and unreserved with. Georgiana maintained some frail friendships—Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley among them—but nothing close to resembling this unruly scene. She had a brother, true, but I was her senior by more than 10 years and our relationship was always that of concern and gentle care on my part and respect and obedience on Georgiana’s.

When it was finally safe, I went downstairs and had a full report over tea. Miss Bennet was again mentioned and lauded over her beauty and pleasing manners, but the rest of the family had garnered a general disapproval, except that slight praise was given to Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

“Where Miss Bennet is all beauty and gentle docility, Elizabeth is whit and vivacity,” Miss Bingley explained her choice.

“She does seem rather well educated. Not in a fashionable way, of course, by any means,” added Mrs. Hurst.

“And she is spirited, but I cannot fathom why would she be proclaimed a beauty. I always thought I had a keen eye for these things, and I rather think I am not mistaken even now, though I have sufficient opposition in Hertfordshire. What do you think, Mr. Darcy?” 

I was to understand that Mis Elizabeth was the sister I had declined to dance with during the Meryton assembly and had already proclaimed her beauty alone not to be worth my time.

“Country manners and country eyes have little range and therefore are not equal to your own,” I said. This seemed to please Miss Bingley to no end.

“You do not find her pretty at all?” she asked.

“I can hardly commend her on one good feature of her face; she lacks both fashion and symmetry. I confess myself unable to formulate a full critique—having studied her face but briefly, however, my assessment at the moment is firmly not in her favor.”

Bingley and his evident popularity gave me plenty of chance for a more thorough analysis, though I was secretly more concerned with Miss Elizabeth’s sister and had decided to use the skills of observation in the service of my friend.

***
I attended most of the gatherings with a goal to keep an eye on Bingley, especially whenever Miss Bennet was present. Dinners were the worst, since I had to make apologies beforehand about not eating anything, which left me with a disagreeably large amount of time to enjoy the company. Mostly I watched and my conclusions were troubling: if polite manners would allow Bingley to drool all over Miss Bennet, he certainly would. He was always seeking her company, jealous of it when he had it, and sulking—in a most cheerful Bingley manner possible—when he did not.

Miss Bennet seemed indifferent, at least from what I could gage from watching her in company. She smiled and was perfectly pleasant to everyone; not a look, not a flutter of lashes, not a gesture made me think she had any particular feelings towards Bingley. If he would ask anything of her, she would say yes out of a complete inability to decline the wish of the other. She was built to please, not to feel—not a terrible characteristic for her sex, but it resolutely hid her affections if she indeed had any.

The Bennets had a distinct dynamic: the youngest sisters were running wild as much as possible, Mr. Bennet was largely absent, Mrs. Bennet was generally together with Miss Mary who could always be counted upon to fetch, to bring, to deliver, or to quote the dictionary, and the eldest Miss Bennets spent their time together in unequivocal superiority of nature. They really were the two unlikely gems in the family such as this, but even the general recommendation of Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley left doubts. Their sentiments were meant to complement their brother’s infatuation and not to give a true and heartfelt appraisal.

Watching Miss Bennet also meant that I was watching Miss Elizabeth. I found my previous assessment of her to be faulty at best, marred by my mood and not entirely stemming from the objective reality around me. She had faults I quickly ceased to dwell upon, instead being drawn by her exceedingly pleasing manner, playful nature, and friendly disposition. She was sure to bring out feelings of delight in whomever she was talking to, and her dark eyes captivated with intelligence beyond her years. 

Soon, I could not feign any objective feelings on the matter and stood firmly in the land of the subjective. This time, my opinion was all in favor of Miss Elizabeth. Lacking any meaningful words to explain my observations, all I could come up with was that she was entirely alive. If Miss Bennet was a flame, then Miss Elizabeth was a bonfire; more often than not, I found my attention favoring the younger sister, when I should have been closely examining the elder. During one evening, when Bingley and Miss Bennet were conversing, I was instead entranced by observing from a distance a conversation Miss Elizabeth had with Miss Lucas against my better judgment. They were friends—there was nothing more I was going to learn by watching them; still I could not make myself part with the enjoyment of watching the interaction.

After I had done all I could by merely looking in regards to Miss Elizabeth, I indulged myself by listening to her conversation with Colonel Forster, wishing to be part of the exchange and yet saying not a word. I had not the talent of Miss Elizabeth’s charm or Bingley’s easy manners to insert myself unbidden, but I still hoped her face would turn to me, smile, and ask for my assistance. She did not, and I allowed her independence. I was rewarded, however, with a question from her lips some time after the interaction with the Colonel.

“Did not you think, Mr. Darcy, that I expressed myself uncommonly well just now, when I was teasing Colonel Forster to give us a ball at Meryton?”

“With great energy,” I permitted myself to give her some praise for the sake of being truthful and not seem entirely disagreeable, “but it is a subject which always makes a lady energetic.”

“You are severe on us,” she said, but not an inch of her gave in to any displeasure at my severity.

Miss Lucas opened the instrument and beckoned Miss Elizabeth to be the first to play—an honor she accepted with a grave glance in my direction. I flattered myself that she was not entirely pleased with being whisked away from a conversation barely begun between us, but I decided I would delight in her performance on the instrument all the same, even if I had to share her with the rest of the room. 

A few simple songs, unassuming and pleasing, were all we would have from her; her sister quickly succeeded her, and I lost interest in the music altogether. I would listen to HER and be content, but I very much doubted anyone in the room could best Georgiana—she had treated me with her talent daily and left me spoiled. Soon music turned to dancing, and I turned sour. Attempts at a conversation with my creature of choice were unlikely to be held under these circumstances.

“What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy!” said Sir William Lucas to my left. I had not noticed the presence of our host and now could hardly avoid answering him without giving insult. “There is nothing like dancing, after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies.”

“Certainly, sir,” I said, doing my best to be agreeable, but my nature would not allow me to leave it at that. “And it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world—every savage can dance.”

Silence followed, and I felt I had squashed our exchange, but Sir William spoke again.

“Your friend performs delightfully.”

Damn Bingley and his inability to stay still during a dance.

“I doubt not that you are an adept in the science yourself, Mr. Darcy,” he continued.

“I believe you saw me dance at Meryton, sir.” I clearly did not lack skills, but enthusiasm for the activity was buried somewhere in the graveyard of disdain. Often I wished that I could give the strangers the same excuse I gave for dinners—my constitution would simply not support participation in the activity. It was not that food was completely beyond my body, but anything resembling a meal would be rather taxing and require an increased consumption of blood. I did eat, but solely for pleasure and very little. The same could be said of dancing. 

“Yes, indeed, and received no inconsiderable pleasure from the sight. Do you often dance?”

“Never, sir, if I feel I can avoid it,” I said as my eyes lingered on the approaching figure of Miss Elizabeth. Sir William followed my gaze and a knowing smile spread across his face.

“My dear Miss Eliza,” he called out to her, “why are you not dancing?”

She approached, though she seemed not entirely willing to do so. Perhaps the two of us were not her desired goal after all, but she came nonetheless, and I was suddenly glad of the insistent pest beside me.

“Mr. Darcy!” Sir William turned to me. “You must allow me to recommend this young lady to you as a very desirable partner.”

I was reminded of the Meryton assembly, where I was unwilling to accept any of the strangers I was accosted with. The same girl was offered to me then, and I had declined with all the venom at my disposal; now, I could not fathom a greater pleasure than accepting this gift.

 “You cannot refuse to dance, I am sure, when so much beauty is before you,” said Sir William and took Miss Elizabeth’s hand with fatherly familiarity to place it in mine. But it would not be—the lady snatched her hand back.

“Indeed, sir, I have not the least intention of dancing,” she said with an unmistakable note of hurt pride. “I entreat you not to suppose that I moved this way in order to beg for a partner.”

The indignation in her voice cut like a sharp blade. I felt it keenly, though the smiling fool beside me stood there completely unaffected by my bleeding wounds.

“I beg you would do me the honor of dancing with me, Miss Elizabeth,” I said with all the gallantry and propriety that good breeding had bestowed upon me. If she was offended by Sir William’s presumption of handing her over with detestable impunity, then she could not be offended by me asking her properly, like a gentleman.

“Pray forgive me, I must decline.”

“You excel so much in the dance, Miss Eliza, that it is cruel to deny me the happiness of seeing you,” pressed Sir William, “and though this gentleman dislikes the amusement in general, he can have no objection, I am sure, to oblige us for one half-hour.”

This—unsurprisingly—did nothing to entice her. To do a chore was one thing, to allow another to suffer a chore of dancing for an amusement of an elderly neighbor—well, the lady’s unwillingness was more than understandable. I was slightly disappointed, but not offended in the slightest.

“Mr. Darcy is all politeness,” she said with a smile and a light in her eyes—all directed towards me. It was all the balm I could ever wish for my wounds, had I needed an inducement to award my forgiveness to her. 

“He is, indeed,” agreed Sir William. Every time he spoke, I was brought to the realization that he was still standing there; in the absence of his voice I could barely conceive of his existence—a most peculiar sensation. “But, considering the inducement, my dear Miss Eliza, we cannot wonder at his complaisance—for who would object to such a partner?”

She smiled again, looked pointedly at me, and excused herself. That look had the effect of a slap—a playful slap delivered by a haughty creature—that transported me to a different gathering where I did object to her being my partner. I had not realized she was aware of my snub, but the knowledge in her face was clear. She did not seem too cross at me for my transgression, and I had to take heart in believing her unable to bear ill will towards any person, though she may tease and scold. Her eyes betrayed her—their dark depths were full of happiness and joy, if one dared to look long enough.

“I can guess the subject of your reverie.” I was, after a time, accosted by Miss Bingley. The frequency with which people surprised me with their appearance this evening was unnerving. It was my fault, I supposed; I was too distracted.

“I should imagine not.” Mostly because my thoughts had nothing of their usual pattern.

“You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this manner—in such society,” she continued, undeterred. “And indeed, I am quite of your opinion. I was never more annoyed! The insipidity, and yet the noise; the nothingness, and yet the self-importance of all these people! What would I give to hear your strictures on them!”

I was tempted to point out that she should take care with her words since she was almost describing herself, but having given away all my charitable thoughts towards another lady, I decided on a path yet more cruel.

“Your conjecture is entirely wrong, I assure you; my mind was more agreeably engaged. I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.”

This fully grabbed her attention, and I almost felt bad for her. Really, I should not indulge this behavior—she was my friend’s sister after all—but having been taught a lesson, in turn, I felt the need to teach one myself.

“Pray tell me who might have the honor of inspiring such reflections.”

“Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”

“Miss Elizabeth Bennet!” exclaimed Miss Bingley. I did my best not to smile. “I am all astonishment. How long has she been such a favorite? And pray when am I to wish you joy?”

I should have foreseen her bitterness and the need to retaliate. For me, to enjoy someone’s company was a rare enough occurrence, but that did not mean I harbored any dangerous feelings. It was not my fault that Hertfordshire was so barren to afford me little to no people of interest, and the one person who seemed to engage my curiosity was a girl half my age. I took refuge in Miss Bingley’s company often enough because I felt a certain kinship in our relationship; however, I was sure she did not spend her day’s imagining becoming Mrs. Darcy because of it. 

Miss Bingley’s evident unhappiness about being briefly overshadowed by a country girl elicited from her this childish reaction—tough in truth, she indeed was a spoiled child—and talk of matrimony was a ready weapon at her disposal. I had done her harm and decided that no matter what she said next, I would forgive her fully.

“That is exactly the question which I expected you to ask,” I said with an unaffected air. “A lady’s imagination is very rapid—it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment. I knew you would be wishing me joy.”

“Nay, if you are so serious about it, I shall consider the matter as absolutely settled. You will have a charming mother-in-law, indeed, and of course she will be always at Pemberley with you.”

I bore her speech with a calm composure, until she had said all she could think of—none of it had any effect—and finally she stilled, feeling quite secure in my indifference towards the subject at hand.

Chapter Text

A militia regiment had arrived in Meryton and was to remain there for the duration of the winter. This had brought much happiness to Longbourn. When Mr. Bingley arrived, it was very much noted that he was but one man and could have but one partner for a dance; when the militia arrived, it meant that a literal army of men had invaded the neighborhood gatherings and there was little hope for a young woman to be sitting down during a dance. This prospect had Lydia and Catherine in raptures, a particular scheming glint appeared in my mother’s eyes, I had the pleasure of meeting new and interesting people, and papa had more occasion than ever to make fun of us—all was well in Longbourn.

I had gotten my book on vampires and vampirism and spent leisurely hours drawing knowledge from it. Luckily, reading was not an uncommon pastime for me, so nobody spared it any thought or was curious about the title. Somehow, I knew I would feel embarrassed if they did, but I could not say why. I suppose an accusation might be made regarding a particular interest in Mr. Darcy—the only vampire known to us—but for that I had a ready if somewhat unwholesome answer: know thy enemy. Mr. Darcy wasn’t really my enemy. He was more of a lingering shadow that sometimes lingered too close for my liking and peace of mind.

Occasionally, I did not find the book entirely trustworthy, and sometimes it conveyed nothing at all for pages on end, and more than once, it started a thought without ever finishing it. First published in 1802 after the transformation of the king, the principal goal of the text was to soothe the gentle perceptions and extinguish all notions of the demonic in the condition. The passages on the history of vampirism interested me particularly, though it gave me little practical application for the present day.

Vampirism, it declared, had originated in the east, was tamed in Russia, and refined in France. Reading about the exploits of French vampires seemed a little too much for my English sensibilities, but Russian vampires were a different matter entirely. I wondered whether there was a book on that subject alone to entertain me and keep me up at night. Then one had to become acquainted with the English vampire and the King was made out to be the guardian and the finest example—this dated a book a lot, considering the madness of the King and the consequent negative associations with vampirism in general. Unfortunately, it was nothing like a bad haircut—you could not grow it out. Once a vampire, a person could never change back. This was at the root of our current governmental problems: the King was unfit to rule, the King was a vampire, a vampire could not die of old age, and the King could not be executed for being mad. Regency was the solution, and a never-ending regency probably would be the future of the English monarchy.

A letter from Netherfield—a most ostentatious invitation for Jane to dine with the ladies as the gentlemen were engaged elsewhere—disturbed the reading of the exultation of the moral superiority and rigid habits of an English vampire. According to the letter, the two sisters were incapable of spending the day together for fear of a bloody battle. Half of me understood the letter was meant to be fashionable and not entirely truthful, but the other half of me composed vicious paragraphs on their characters. Having four sisters, the idea of not being able to spend a single day with just one was insupportable.

They extended a kind and friendly offer to my favorite sister—I tried to concentrate on that and bite my tongue on other matters; I smiled and looked pleased, at least until mama decided on the capital idea to send Jane on horseback when the rain was inevitable. Nothing I could say would sway her, and so Jane went as was recommended without a thought of resistance, and the rain soon followed.

“It was a foolish thing to do,” I said. My worry turned toward the window where the heavy drops blurred the view.

“Papa said the carriage could not be had,” observed Mary. “Her only options were to go on horseback or not to go at all.”

“Not to go at all!” exclaimed Lydia in indignation.

“To stay home and not to go to Netherfield to dine? I am sure I wouldn’t mind getting a little wet for the honor if someone bestowed it on me,” said Catherine.

“I am sure I wouldn’t mind going on foot through the rain to be granted the honor to stay the night,” countered Lydia.

“And meet a vampire in a dark hallway,” teased Catherine.

“I wouldn’t mind a vampire for the pleasures of Netherfield. A handsome prince lives there, and he would save me from all that is ill.”

“Jane should have stayed home.” Mary had no romantic notions about the matter. “To arrive at Netherfield wet and muddy can do nothing to lady’s dignity or health. Imagine being presented to two fashionable ladies in such a state!”

“Oh, I dare not. It would be dreadful," said Catherine. "They are quite formidable, they talk very cleverly and hardly smile—and when they do, it is a cold kind of smile that I do not like at all.”

“There is no fun in them,” added Lydia, “but I do not fear them at all.”

“Neither do I, but I do fear for Jane,” I confessed. “I hope she is back soon.”

“Unlikely,” observed Mary. And sure enough, we heard nothing of her until the next morning.

***

During breakfast, a servant delivered a letter to me which was far from the flamboyant style of yesterday. This was a cry for help addressed to the only one who would dare answer it.

“My dearest Lizzy,” I read aloud, “I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is due to my getting wet through yesterday.”

I shuddered at the idea of delicate Jane being caught in the cold November rains and gave my mother a look of righteous anger. In my mind, this was her fault, and that fault was made heavier by her not regretting it all. What was suffering in the face of possible matrimony? I swallowed all the bitter words I might hurl in her direction and continued, “My kind friends will not hear of my returning home till I am better.”

“See, Jane is staying with them—how marvelous! Even better than I intended,” said my mother, seeing nothing of my feelings on the matter. My youngest sisters giggled, papa looked thoughtful, and Mary was the only one who spared me an anxious glance. 

“They insist also that a doctor attend me, therefore do not be alarmed if you should hear of his having been to me. Excepting a sore throat and headache, there is not much the matter with me,” I finished and was consumed by misery. If Jane was on her deathbed, she would use those same words—there is not much the matter with me. I was eager to leap up and race to her; I could not be easy otherwise.

“Well, my dear,” said papa after a pause, “if your daughter should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr. Bingley, and under your orders.”

The words felt like a knife to my heart, but had no effect on my mother.

“People do not die of little trifling colds—she will be taken good care of. As long as she stays there, it is all very well. I would go and see her if I could have the carriage.”

“Perhaps you should go on horseback,” I muttered, already rising from the table.

“What was that, Lizzy?”

“I said I am going to see her. It is not a long walk; I will stay with her as long as I can and will be back before it gets dark.”

Protests erupted from the table, but I was not to be swayed. Somebody should go to Jane, and I was not going to let a little inconvenience stop me. Jane was probably feeling horrible and too embarrassed to complain, considering she was a guest. I had no faith in Bingley’s sisters in the matter even if they did insist on a doctor—Jane herself would not dare to bother anyone with such an inconvenience, though I did not believe for a moment that her cold was little or trifling.

Catherine and Lydia offered to accompany me as far as Meryton, but their actions were not guided by benevolence or an impulse of sisterly feeling—all their sympathies were reserved for seeing the handsome men in uniforms.

***

From Meryton, my walk was a lonely one, and my pace was quick. As a rule, I was an excellent walker, crossing field after field with little difficulty, but by the end, I was an unquestionable mess. There was no avoiding the dirt, and my stockings bore the truth of it. I begged my eyes to avoid any reflecting surface, so as not to be confronted by the state of my face and my hair, lest my pride defeat me and make me bolt straight towards home. Not that I particularly wished to show myself in all my disastrous appearance and garner the dislike of people who already thought themselves much higher than me, but Jane was more important than their sneers and I willed myself to embody that conviction as I entered the Netherfield House.

“Miss Elizabeth,” Mis Bingley greeted me soon after, her face not masking an ounce of her surprise as she regarded me.

“Miss Bingley,” I said, ignoring her wandering eyes, “I am so sorry to intrude this early in the morning, but I received word that my sister is ill, and I had to come directly to see her.”

“I pray you do not think of us as neglectful hosts. Allow me to assure you that Miss Bennet receives every attention. I was just going to see her.” She gestured for me to follow, and I endeavored to express that I meant no offence by coming here. 

“How is she feeling?” I asked, hoping for a truthful assessment.

“I fear not well at all. She is up now, but feverish and not strong enough to leave her room. Mr. Lamb should come to see her any moment to assess her health more thoroughly.”

“Mr. Lamb?”

“Mr. Darcy’s doctor. We are fortunate that he never travels without him.”

I dared not ask why Mr. Darcy had a doctor at his disposal at all times, and conversation ceased until we came to my sister’s door. Miss Bingley knocked and entered when she was bid.

“Miss Bennet, I have a guest for you. I hope you are feeling well enough to receive her.” She let me come into the room, and I saw for myself that my sister was not well at all, but such a circumstance could hardly keep me out.

“Lizzy!” she smiled and regarded me with tired, shining eyes. “You shouldn’t have walked for me all this way. I am quite fine, I assure you.”

“Of course I should have. Aren’t you happy to see me?”

“I am very happy, thank you.”

Miss Bingley excused herself and promised to come again later. I attended to my sister, trying to convince her to eat something, to persuade her to go back to bed if she was feeling poorly, but my sister still kept firm that she was quite fine as she was and in a small voice kept lauding her hosts for their treatment of her as if they were here to hear their kindness rewarded with praise. As far as I could tell, she was shown much attention. The room was very comfortable and afforded much quiet, which Longbourn was not known for.

Mr. Lamb came with a maid as her assistant. He introduced her as Annie and bid us rely on her for any of our needs.

“May I examine the patient?” he asked and was afforded consent. He soon declared that Jane had a severe cold and should go back to bed directly.

“Allow me to be bold and say, Miss Bennet, that you should not exert yourself for appearance’s sake and I dare say you will conquer this ailment quicker with plenty of rest. I can give you some draughts to manage your comfort and there are other steps we can take to aid you.”

He left instructions with Annie and departed, soon to be replaced by Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, who surprised me by being very attentive and almost always present. They declared it not a grand chore if it benefited their friend since the gentlemen were out and there was nothing better for them to do. I tried not to bristle at this and hoped that the gentlemen would stay out of the house as much as possible until Jane improved.

“Jane?” Lizzy called softly, not wishing to disturb her, if she was asleep—she drifted in and out a lot. “Jane, darling, I am afraid I must go.”

“Please, Miss Elizabeth, allow me to offer our carriage to take you home,” said Mis Bingley.

“Are we going home?” Jane asked weakly, barely opening her eyes.

“No, Miss Bennet, indeed you are staying where you are—you must rest as the doctor said.” Mrs. Hurst tidied the blankets Jane was trying to unsuccessfully get out of. “But your sister is going, so you must say goodbye.”

“No, Lizzie, don’t go. Please.”

I bit my lip in uncertainty at having to abandon my sister in a state of distress, but Miss Bingley played the gracious mistress of the house, though looking not entirely pleased as she did so.

“Perhaps, Miss Elizabeth, it can be arranged that you remain at Netherfield to care for your sister if your parents can spare you?”

“Thank you, I believe they will have no objection.”

“Then we should send for your clothes.” Miss Bingley’s critical eye appraised me, and I did my best not to appear offended. “Would you care to write a note?”

I addressed the letter to papa, explaining the arrangement and expected no opposition to the plan. A room next to Jane’s was prepared for me, but I did not suppose I would spend much time there, preferring to stay with Jane and sleep in the chair next to her bed. I could only hope she would improve quickly. As dinnertime came closer, I dreaded the idea I would have to spend my time under this roof. I professed bravery in the face of vampires and ladies of fashion, but my heart did not feel at ease as the darkness surrounded the house and crept in its corridors.

I have to bear it, I thought. For Jane.

Chapter Text

My morning was disrupted by a disturbing image—Miss Elizabeth was walking towards the house, quite alone, and it seemed that she had been walking in this manner for quite a while. A moment passed as I stared out the window, all but pressing my nose to it until I leaped up and tore through the house in a decisively ungentle fashion. It was imperative that I reach the breakfast-parlor before Miss Elizabeth reached the house in the state that she was in. The object of her coming undoubtedly was her sister who, apparently, we had kidnapped and gotten sick—I confess to not being entirely familiar with the details—but the mode of her coming posed a number of questions. My first thought was that her parents had not given her leave to come, therefore she had effectively run away from home; my last thought before I entered the breakfast-parlor was that we had in fact killed Miss Bennet and now her sister had come to rain her fury and vengeance on us like some wrathful Hertfordshire spirit.

“Miss Bingley, pray excuse me, but I have an urgent need of you,” I said with as much calm as I could muster.

“Is it Miss Bennet?” Bingley—the wrong one—immediately jumped up. I shook my head emphatically.

“Miss Bingley, if you would please follow me.” I turned around and exited the room.

“How intriguing! Take care to run back and tell us everything as soon as you are able,” I heard Mrs. Hurst say. Sure enough, Miss Bingley followed me directly and when I had come to a stop a safe distance away, I turned around and took her into my confidence.

“Miss Elizabeth is outside, and I do believe she is about to come in. Do not be disturbed—she looks quite wild.”

“Was there an accident? Has some harm befallen her?”

“I do not believe so, but it is better that she meets you alone, for you will be able to take care of her without the stares of others. I trust you are the best person to handle this.”

She nodded her acceptance, and I departed, hearing an additional pair of footsteps that must belong to the charming runaway. I went back to the breakfast-parlor, not wishing to return to my room and accidentally meet the two ladies. I would wait until Miss Bingley returned and hear her account.

“What was that about, Mr. Darcy?” Mrs. Hurst asked as I returned. One look at Bingley’s face made me think about disclosing the information at once before he exploded in his chair, but I resolved to keep quiet. Mr. Hurst was the only one who cared nothing about it, his breakfast being the more pressing matter at hand.

“Really, Darcy, it was all very dramatic for you not to tell us,” Bingley said.

“I apologize for disturbing you.”

“Shall you have some tea, Mr. Darcy?”

“No, I thank you.”

Mrs. Hurst started a one-sided conversation about something or other as I watched the door and Bingley followed my example until Mis Bingley re-entered looking rather satisfied with herself.

“Now, Caroline, you must tell us, for Mr. Darcy will not.”

“It was Miss Elizabeth come to inquire after her sister. I took her upstairs.”

“Well, why didn’t you bring her here first?”

“She came to see her sister, Bingley, not exchange pleasantries with you,” I said.

“She was truly anxious about her sister,” added Miss Bingley with a softness of manner I seemed unable to convey. “I dare say more than Louisa would have been for me.”

“It is a cold, Caroline. What is there to be anxious about?”

“Has the doctor seen her?” Bingley asked.

“Any moment now. I will hear his report and inform you immediately.” I took this opportunity to escape and went back to my room, fighting the urge to walk by Miss Bennet's room and hear sisterly whispers coming from it. Mr. Lamb found me with a pen in hand, though I had written nothing since the unexpected arrival of Miss Elizabeth; I was too distracted by her coming and by how good and generous I could be—I did save her the embarrassment of appearing like a fright before all of the house. Unfortunately, the prognosis was not good.

“Mr. Lamb says she is very ill,” I informed the breakfast-parlor. Miss Bingley looked worried; her brother looked aghast. “She is likely to recover in his care, however, and he recommends not moving her.”

“Of course we are not moving her!” cried Bingley. “Oh, this is all my fault.”

“Charles, how can it be your fault? You were not even here.”

He had no answer to this, but his face still conveyed the unequivocal belief in him being complicit. I feared no amount of logic would help in this situation.

“Now that the matter is resolved, I suppose we should be going, if we are to keep our engagements,” I said.

“Naturally, I am not going. Miss Bennet is gravely ill.”

“Miss Bennet has a cold. A bad cold, but a cold nonetheless, and the doctor is not worried,” insisted Mrs. Hurst, who thought all of this to be exaggerated excitement.

“Still, seems like ill manners to leave.”

Miss Bingley regarded me with pleading eyes. If Bingley was to stay, he would be a nervous nightmare and a true annoyance, unable to be helpful and unable to keep still. We were in agreement there.

“Bingley, come now. What do you suppose you can do in the matter? Miss Bennet needs rest and care, which will be provided for her here by your sisters, Miss Elizabeth and Mr. Lamb. Do you wish to be in their way and an additional burden to take care of; not to mention disappoint your friends and neighbors?”

It did not take it long to convince him and we left the house to the ladies. Bingley bore his anxiety much better in public—even if he was a wreck on the inside, on the outside he was his cheerful self. The notion that Miss Bennet would still be at his house probably helped, while I was warmed by the idea that Miss Elizabeth had come but was unlikely to stay.

***

“Miss Elizabeth is staying,” Miss Bingley informed us upon our return. Bingley thought it a grand idea and wondered why he himself did not think to offer it; however, I was seized by terror. I was not at all prepared for Miss Elizabeth to stay.

“Miss Elizabeth is staying?” I repeated as if I might have misheard.

“Her sister is very unwell—worse than in the morning. When it was time for Miss Elizabeth to go, Miss Bennet got very distraught about the idea, and I thought it best to invite her to stay,” Miss Bingley explained apologetically for my ears only.

“You did well,” I acknowledged and, thus, was rewarded with her satisfied smile.

A strange mixture of dread and excitement took hold of me—dread because she was likely to be upset and I hated to think of her as unhappy; excitement because I liked the lady and selfishly was pleased that I had an excellent excuse to see more of her. My excitement soon won, which was an issue in itself—I hardly wished to seem too pleased, considering the circumstances.

Miss Elizabeth joined us for dinner, thankfully looking more put-together than in the morning, though scarcely more energetic. She was likely worn out by the day and saddened by her sister’s predicament, which gave her eyes a melancholic look of such magnitude and beauty that for several moments I could only stare and wish most inexcusable things.

“Pray tell us, Miss Elizabeth, that your sister is feeling better,” Bingley lost no time to prance on the subject that most interested him.

“I am sorry to say I cannot.”

“But is she comfortable? Perhaps there is something we can bring her so that she will feel more comfortable?” inquired Miss Bingley.

“Please don’t feel too shy to ask. We really are at your service,” added Mrs. Hurst.

“My sister is as comfortable as she can possibly be. I thank you for your generosity.”

“Are your parents very angry with us?” asked Bingley.

“I do not think so.”

“I beg you not to try to spare my feelings—you can be honest. If I have angered them, please know I will do everything in my power to make amends.”

“I do not believe my parents to be angry, according to my best judgment. And I have not gotten any communication from them on the subject to suggest otherwise.”

“I shall write to them and apologize. Or would it be better to go in person?”

“Charles has convinced himself that your sister’s illness is his fault. Pray, Miss Elizabeth, help me convince him that it is not,” said Miss Bingley. I felt curiously jealous—I had not uttered a word so far and I did not believe myself capable of choking out anything valuable on the subject, while Miss Bingley had no trouble conversing easily.

“Mr. Bingley, do not blame yourself. It would give my sister such heartache to know that she was causing misery to others.”

“No, indeed, that is not my intention.”

“See, Charles, we must not upset Miss Bennet.”

“Not more than she is already. I always get so cross when I am ill, but Miss Bennet is an angel and bears it without complaint,” said Mrs. Hurst.

“It is vexing to be ill. You miss so much of the world around you,” observed Miss Bingley. “You are so lucky, Mr. Darcy, that you do not have to suffer colds—it has no power over you.”

I inclined my head by way of response. There was no polite way to explain the finer points of my condition over dinner, nor did I wish to. Colds had no power over me, but I had other ills to contend with which Miss Bingley was lucky in my estimate not to experience.

“But I am shocked how the cold took over poor Miss Bennet,” continued Mrs. Hurst.

“Not as shocked as I am, sister. It is very grievous indeed.”

“It is terrible what a little rain can do to a person. You know once I got so drenched in the rain that…” Mrs. Hurst began a tale of her own adventures and Miss Bennet’s predicament did not enter the conversation again during dinner, and Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst were their cheerful selves without a trace of a bleak thought. The same could not be said of Miss Elizabeth, who felt the hurt deeply. Bingley paid her much attention and attempted to cheer her up with conversation and I was thankful for his manners, though I suspected he did so also for his benefit—he was not permitted to do much for one sister, so he tried his best to aid the other. I could only hope he was successful because I had nothing to offer.

***

After the dinner, Miss Elizabeth resumed her duties, and the conversation by a vile necessity turned to her.

“Poor Miss Elizabeth, how pitiful she looked, how wretched. She really had no place at the dinner table—she added nothing as an ornament, nor had she any conversation,” observed Miss Bingley.

“I dare say her clothes looked like rags next to you. A horrid offence, really, considering she has no natural beauty.”

“No style, no taste, no beauty—an unforgivable combination. Not to mention the way she looked this morning: a petticoat six inches deep in mud, hair in disarray, face red. How very unconscionable to come in such a state at all.”

“Absolutely horrid!” exclaimed Mrs. Hurst.

“It is an unmistakable sign of poor manners. An impertinence, really, to thrust herself on others in such a way. If I had ever a good opinion of her, it has been utterly ruined by her unforgivable behavior.”

“I find nothing unforgivable,” said Bingley. “I only see concern for her sister which can only enhance my opinion of her.”

“Her sister was perfectly fine here without her assistance and her coming was utterly unnecessary. To walk for miles—alone—in dirty weather, arrive at a neighbor’s doorstep unfit to be seen, and claim sisterly affection as her only cause? It can only be folly that drove her so,” said Miss Bingley. “I would not wish my sister to make such an exhibition, and Mr. Darcy, I dare say, would not think it appropriate to see his sister do the same.”

“Certainly not.”

It was a harsh picture she painted because something dreadfully similar had happened before, and I was assaulted by memories of Georgiana walking across the fields—barefoot, muddy, confused. I had seen Miss Elizabeth walking and though I could not assess the faults in her appearance close-up, there were many distinctions that I could draw between the two images that made me admire one and fear the other. Miss Elizabeth walked with purpose, in control of all her faculties, the exercises giving her a wild fairytale kind of beauty; Georgiana walked around lost, stumbling, her eyes hollow, devoid of coherent thought.

I could not fault Miss Bingley in evoking these painful memories for she knew nothing of their existence, but I could readily fault her with abuse of Miss Elizabeth. She did it with too much purpose for me to think it was an idle conversation. Did she try to sway her brother against their guest, or were her tactics aimed at me? When I asked her to take care of the situation in the morning, I thought Miss Bingley was the perfect candidate, but now I wished I did it myself against my better judgement. Nobody would hear me degrade Miss Elizabeth in such a manner.

“And what is more—these actions show an unhealthy independence, a surprising roughness and such abominable indifference to appearances,” said Miss Bingley.

“Perhaps being an excellent walker is an accomplishment in these country-towns, but fashionable society demands more,” added Mrs. Hurst.

“Since I place no such demands on country ladies, I say she has risen in my favor, even if she has fallen out of yours. And seeing as she is such an excellent walker, I might take advantage of that and have her as a companion for my long walks, since you see no value in her coming here. What say you, Darcy, shall we take Miss Elizabeth on a prolonged walk which town ladies could faint attempt?”

“Please remember that Miss Elizabeth is not here for your amusement, Bingley. She is here for her sister and stealing away her time from Miss Bennet will hardly bring her any pleasure—if indeed you aim to reward her for her sisterly devotion.” My voice was cold, almost chastising as I said it. Not that I did not want to praise Bingley for standing up to his sisters in defense of that most beguiling creature, but if there was a chance of a long walk with Miss Elizabeth, I would rather Bingley not be there to drain all of her attention from me. A walk—quiet, long, peaceful, with almost no other people to spoil it—was an excellent idea that I aimed to see fulfilled.

“Miss Bennet is really a very sweet girl.” Miss Bingley saw an opening to change the subject to restore her authority. “I have an excessive regard for her.”

“I do too, I am sure,” added Mrs. Hurst.

“I wish with all my heart she was well settled. But with such a father and mother, and such low connections, I am afraid there is no chance of it.” Miss Bingley’s voice was full of pity and her eyes held none of it.

“I think I have heard you say that their uncle is an attorney in Meryton?” Mrs. Hurst asked, filled with feigned innocence.

“Yes; and they have another, who lives somewhere near Cheapside.” The sisters laughed at this information, and Bingley finally took the bait.

“If they had uncles enough to fill all Cheapside,” he announced, “it would not make them any less agreeable.”

That was not at all the reaction everybody was counting on, and it only furthered our worries. It was clearly intended to put Bingley’s thoughts off Bennets—he was free to be their friend, but he should think nothing of a closer attachment. His reaction was dangerous and in need of correcting, so I opened my mouth to be the voice of reason.

“But it must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world,” I said, and Bingley made no answer. We saved our cries of victory and moved on with our evening.

Miss Bingley found a moment to lean in and whisper in confidence. “I am afraid, Mr. Darcy, that your admiration for a certain pair of fine eyes has been rather diminished.”

“Please allow me to express my deepest apologies for worrying you,” I said and watched her expression fill with delight, “but your fears are unfounded—my regard remains unchanged.”

At this, she shrunk a little and my icy stare drove her to tend to the conversation with her sister. We were in agreement that Bingley had to be saved against his immediate wishes, but no such contract could be applied to me. I was in no danger from Miss Elizabeth, and I had no rash designs upon her, but if I did, Mis Bingley could scarcely hope to sway me from them. It was a truth she needed reminding of once in a while.

Chapter Text

Dinner was an uncomfortable affair, except for Mr. Bingley’s sincere worry over my sister. I loathed to admit it, but my mother did have a point—Jane being stuck in Mr. Bingley’s house was a beautifully executed maneuver to bring the pair together. While one was confined to bed, the other was all agitation to see her out of it. If I had any doubts about his regard for my sister, then this was proof enough that we were witnessing a bloom of a happy union. My joy would be immense if Jane was not suffering this very moment.

I gladly left the dinner to run back to Jane as soon as politeness allowed. I was anxious over her and, sure enough, I found her to be just as poorly as before. I wiped her brow with a cold cloth, brought her water to drink, administered Mr. Lamb’s droughts, though Jane was reluctant to take any. Mr. Lamb had my trust, at least as far as his trade went. He had taken one look at Jane and sent her immediately back to bed. Of course, his connection with Mr. Darcy made me uneasy, but I had to push all the dark thoughts to the side. Jane needed me and I was here to help in every way that I could—that was what mattered.

I would not mind spending the rest of the evening in my sister’s delirious company, but we were joined by Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. That they would leave the company of the gentleman almost surprised me, but I supposed they could ill hold on to the approval in their brother’s eyes if they did not show Jane every sign of care and affection. This behavior only strengthened my belief in Mr. Bingley’s feelings. That I might soon call him a brother was a strange idea. I liked the man well enough, but the company he kept left me uncomfortable.

“Miss Bennet, let me entertain you.” Mrs. Hurst sat down next to the bed. “It must be so boring to be stuck in bed with no conversation to be had.”

I almost hurled the lady out of the room by her hair—Jane had no need of entertainment; she needed peace and quiet to try to fall asleep after an excruciating day. One of Mr. Lamb’s droughts had precisely that effect and I hoped it would show results sooner rather than later. Jane gave her guest a placid smile, but I do not believe she heard a single thing she said.

“Miss Eliza, you must be exhausted.” Miss Bingley approached me. “Allow me to escort you to your room so you may get some rest. We will gladly stay with Miss Bennet.”

“I thank you, but I am not tired.”

“I admire your resilience. It must be a strength gained by enjoying so much of the country air.”

I only smiled at her, at a loss for what to say. I had a feeling she was laughing at me, though I could not discern how or why, but I decided not to mind it—her venom was a poor poison and had no effect on me.

“But Miss Bennet is far more delicate, poor thing,” she continued. “I believe it is a sign of her genteel soul. At least she can be sure to have such a dutiful sister to take care of her. It must be nice to have so many sisters—your duties in the house spread so evenly that the removal of two is barely missed. If Louisa were to fall ill, I am afraid I could not spend so much time by her side as you have, and if I were to fall ill, I do not believe she would sit by my side much at all. We have far too many duties between us to let them be left unattended. But being sick as a guest must be a much pleasanter experience than being sick with a house to run. At least here Miss Bennet has no duties to perform and nobody expects anything of her.”

She prattled in this way for a while, and I could not bring myself to say but a word, nor she expected it, I think. She instead enjoyed her dominance over the conversation, and I let her voice flow. At least it was a soft and quiet voice—not likely to disturb Jane any more than Mrs. Hurst was torturing her.

Annie came and announced that coffee was served, and Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst were happy for an excuse to leave the room. I was happy also for them to leave, but in understanding that I was staying, they tried to coax me to go with them.

“Your sister would not wish to have you deprived of refreshment, would you, Miss Bennet?” Mrs. Hurst applied to Jane, who only smiled a little. I suspected she was not strong enough to trust herself with her voice and pain was written across her face.

“You see, Miss Eliza, Miss Bennet wishes for you to come downstairs.” Mrs. Hurst translated the expression according to her wishes, and I was tempted to bend to her will simply for her to be gone from the room.

“Thank you, but I have no need for refreshment and I would rather stay where I am.”

“You are exhausted, just like I said,” declared Miss Bingley. “I did say she looked exhausted, did I not, Louisa? Miss Eliza, you are exhausted and I must insist you to rest in your room until the morning.”

“Pray believe me, I am not exhausted.”

“Then there is not a reason for you to stay,” insisted Mrs. Hurst. “Come downstairs. Oh, do come. My brother will be so cross with us if we let you stay.”

And there it was—the reason for their insistence. I wanted to scream and push the two harpies out of the room; instead I smiled as meekly as I could manage, gritting my teeth against my anger.

“I shall come as soon as I trust Jane to be settled for the night.”

“Please do. If you do not, I and Caroline will come and fetch you.” That sounded as a threat if ever I heard one, but at least they departed and left us be. I closed the door and closed my eyes and wished myself to be in another place. Then there was nothing to do but to pull myself together and go to Jane. 

“They mean well,” she said as I took her hand. Her voice was small and tired, and fear crept inside my thoughts. I was suddenly eager for Mr. Lamb to come again and tell me that Jane will be alright. If anything were to happen to her because of this insufferable misadventure, I was sure to go mad and mourn her for the rest of my days.

“Rest, sweet girl,” I said. “Close your eyes and try to sleep.”

She obeyed and drifted toward uneasy dreams, waking twice with bizarre notions about happenings about her and her place of rest. I was unlikely to get much sleep tonight, for I feared to leave Jane unattended. She was still for a long while before I rang for Annie to sit with her awhile. I had to do my duty and show my face downstairs lest the harpies of Netherfield-house descend again. And I did harbor pity for Mr. Bingley, who had no trustworthy news source.

***

I entered the drawing-room and observed that cards were the preferred entertainment of the evening. Everyone was playing—Bingley cheerfully, Mr. Hurst drunkenly, Mrs. Hurst with a feverish enthusiasm, Mr. Darcy with a furrowed brow, and Miss Bingley with a devoted look at that brow.

“Miss Eliza!” Mrs. Hurst was the first to acknowledge my entrance. “Come and join us. I am winning all of Mr. Darcy’s money and he is sure to be cross with me without a stranger playing.”

Mr. Darcy did not deign to respond, and I did not deign to join.

“Pray excuse me, I will not stay long enough to play.” Instead, I moved to a little table of books and appraised the collection before me.

“I must commend you, Miss Eliza, on your sisterly devotion—I know of nobody who would perform so selflessly as you,” Mrs. Hurst said, and earned a look from Mr. Darcy which she did not notice, being too excited by the game. I picked a book of poetry, new and crisp. It looked recently purchased, marred not by time or touch. My plan was to read awhile to have a pretext for staying in the room, then make my exit.

“I know of nobody who would prefer reading to cards,” Mr. Hurst said; it sounded like an ill compliment. I sat down and opened the book, hoping to be left alone.

“Miss Eliza is a great reader and despises cards,” Miss Bingley joined in. “And she thinks us all very common and uneducated by our mode of entertainment. See that glint in her eyes—it is her judgment that we do not join her in her singular pleasure.”

Had I known that my appearance would cause such notice, I likely would have stayed upstairs. Both sisters seemed to be of a sort that grow meaner by the hour, and I had to check myself to not go on the offensive. But likewise, I could not leave such words unanswered, seeing that Mr. Hurst seemed to take them in earnest.

“Miss Bingley is teasing both me and you, Mr. Hurst. I am a reader and a card player, and I take pleasure in many things.”

“Like walking!” cried Miss Bingley. I turned a page of the book more angrily than I should have, instantly being rewarded by a sting and the knowledge of the cut on my finger. I froze and looked over at the table, but nobody—especially a certain somebody—seemed to react to it. There was a look of mirth between the sisters about the last remark, and Mr. Darcy gave Miss Bingley such a look that she demurred instantly, shrinking in her seat and taking a renewed interest in the cards with great concentration. Only Mr. Bingley rose, abruptly leaving the game and coming over to save me from having to respond to his sisters. 

“I hope you are satisfied with my collection. I cannot sing praises to it and be truthful—I do wish I read more, but I never seem to have enough time.”

There was no mention of my cut finger, there was no glance at it, and I decided I must be safe.

“I am sure I will find no faults in it.”

“If you would like to try, I’d be happy to show you the library. Your opinion on it can only improve my collection, and I seldom can secure an appraisal of this kind.”

I smiled at his offer and tried not to look at the table of cards, at his sisters. Surely this was a slight in their direction, but they thoroughly ignored us, as if commanded to do so.

“And once there you could pick something to bring with you upstairs, if you wish.”

“Thank you, I would like that very much.”

I rose, happy to make my exit so soon, which everyone in the room was welcome to translate as my profound love of books. I liked books, and I loathed the notion that it was something to be made fun of. Eager to get away, I closed the book and returned it to the table, trying not to see the drop of blood I had bestowed upon it. If nobody read here, nobody was likely to notice it.

I pressed my fingers into nervous fists and hid them behind my back, giving the party a last look before departing. Nobody paid me undue attention, and I reassured myself again that I was safe as Mr. Bingley led the way and talked about the subjects he had in his library: history, philosophy, politics, natural sciences, poetry, some lighter subjects.

“I am not sure if your sister would find any of this to her liking,” he said. I had to check my surprise. Of course, he meant to read right now; he did not mean as the mistress of this house whose likes and dislikes he would like to accommodate.

“I am not sure if my sister is able to read or listen to a reading at the moment,” I confessed.

“Of course.” He had that look of guilt about him again. I did not rejoice in his pain, but I was glad of what it represented—regard for Jane. Genuine regard, too; his sisters could learn a thing or two if they cared for their performance to gain some natural feeling.

We came to the library, which was an agreeable room of some substance that I was curious to explore more. I picked out a few books to either pronounce my judgment, having read them, or interest, having not read them. Mr. Bingley noticed the minuscule wound; he did not comment on it, but his gaze gave him away.

“Yes, I cut myself; it was an accident.”

“Do not trouble yourself over it.”

“Are you certain I should not?”

The unspoken hung around us like a cloud of smoke, delicacy and a lack of concrete knowledge choking any attempt at furthering the issue of blood and Mr. Darcy.

“I am sure it is fine,” Mr. Bingley finally managed. I nodded, embarrassed.

I chose two books I had not read and one I had for the comfort of the familiar, should I need it. Returning to Jane’s room was an ordeal of fear, which I pushed back as well as I could.

It is just that it is dark. It is only because I am alone.

And there is a vampire in the house.

Chapter Text

Miss Elizabeth had the unmistakable misfortune of having cut her finger. I did everything in my power not to look in her direction since looking had made me aware of the fact and being aware was dangerous. She did not strike me as someone prone to hysterics, but I had known her but a short while. She was discrete and quiet on the subject, and her departure gave me much relief.

I did not crave her blood. I was not famished. There was no reason for me to retrace her steps, looking for a stray drop just for me.

“I win again!” Mrs. Hurst cried. Her delight was, thankfully, distracting. 

“To prefer books over cards—what nonsense. Miss Eliza has country manners and country joys.” Miss Bingley’s decision to renew that subject was even more distracting. Her fixation was becoming worrisome; I suspected it to be my fault. Had I not singled out Miss Elizabeth, I am sure Miss Bingley would find her much more palatable. For them to be friends might be a stretch of imagination—they were rather different—but I could not entirely disregard my wish for them to be friendly towards each other. To what end, I was not entirely sure.

“Do not you yourself take some pleasure in reading,” I remarked.

“Not while in company. To neglect a party of people all assembled at a table and stand out by being so arrogantly employed—I would not think of such a thing, I would strive to be as amiable as possible.”

There was nothing amiable about her, instead spiteful venom was pouring over an undeserving subject. I felt it was me she wanted to punish, but I was much harder to abuse directly, so she used other means at her disposal. If I started to ignore Miss Elizabeth, if I was indifferent to her, if I paid more attention to Miss Bingley, I was sure her crusade would stop.

I must admit, I was not as benevolent as that. I did not wish to hide my regard for Miss Elizabeth; I wished to know more of her; I wanted to hold a lecture on Miss Bingley’s faults; I wanted to give her a good spanking and send her back to London. That, however, was Bingley’s domain and responsibility, and I had to remain restrained. And Miss Elizabeth had to suffer.

“I do believe she did it for your benefit,” Miss Bingley continued. “For your gaze to be drawn to her once again.”

“Then perhaps you can perform the favor of sitting next to her, given the chance, so I can admire you both without straining my neck.”

“And shall I also read? Will you pick my book for me? You are more familiar with books than I and can recommend one that would most improve me.”

A list of severe suggestions entered my mind, but I remained silent on the subject. Mrs. Hurst urged us to play, and we did, until she had lost most thoroughly and Mr. Hurst had fallen asleep.

“Shall we play again?” I did not want to be left alone.

“It is late,” Mrs. Hurst complained.

“I did not know you had such love of cards,” said Miss Bingley.

“I don’t.”

My response was not encouraging enough to persuade even her, and it was a unanimous decision to go to bed. It would not be too strange for me to remain, but I left in favor of my room regardless where I took to pacing. Really, I should have gone for a walk, but I could not bear to leave the house.

I was not hungry, but I felt an uncomfortable wish to have some blood on my tongue. Ringing for blood at this hour would be a disturbance, so instead I paced the room and tried to dissuade myself of intrusive ideas that I had no wish to see fulfilled.

I was being undone by curiosity—that was it. Spilled blood presented itself to me, and I was sure to want a taste. I generally never wanted such a thing; blood was sustenance—I felt nothing in particular about my sustenance unless I went without it. I was well fed. I did not crave blood. I craved HER blood.

The thought was a horrifying one. It was insupportable, yet I could not stop. My thoughts had no salvation from Miss Elizabeth in this house and every thought of Miss Elizabeth led to her blood, that fine streak of red on her finger. Did it leave a drop on the floor, the furniture, the book? What would I do if it did? Worse—what would I do if it did not?

Villainous thoughts filled me. Could I stoop so low to find her room? Could I persuade Mr. Lamb to somehow deliver me a sample? Could this behavior be grounds for action against me?

Unable to bear this tumult, I left my room and went downstairs. I examined the floor and found nothing. The furniture also bore no mark, so my only hope for sanity rested with the book. I could not remember which she chose, so I examined them all—thankfully there were not many—and a red mark on one of the pages was my reward.

I regarded the dried spot for some time. I tried to persuade myself that I did not need to do this. I was not famished. I did not crave her blood.

There were dangers, too, which I knew but could not make myself to consider as important. Drinking blood was essential, but not all blood was fit to be drunk. Miss Elizabeth did not bear the marks of sickness or feebleness, but it did not mean that her blood would be compatible with my body. Georgiana could not drink the blood that I drank—it would make her sick instead of strengthening her, and I could not drink the blood that she drank. We had our own circle of carefully selected suppliers. If we drank the wrong blood, pain, fever, and unconsciousness would befall us.

The spot stared at me and beckoned nonetheless; such a small amount—the painful consequences of drinking untested blood could not possibly apply here. It was a tease, barely a taste; it was inconsequential. But my thoughts were filled with poison—I could not trust them. I could not give in.

And as I resolved to see reason, to put the book down and tie myself to my bed if needed, I brought the page to my tongue and held it there, soaking the paper in my saliva, awakening the dried blood and having my treat. I had to will myself not to devour the page—this was the depth of my depravity.

Once done, when I could taste nothing but the paper, I closed the book, meaning to take it with me. I could not very well leave it here in this condition. In the morning, I would endeavor to order a new copy and nobody was likely to notice the absence in the meantime—this was not a family of readers. My crime, I was sure, would go unpunished.

“Mr. Darcy?” Miss Elizabeth’s voice rang behind me, small and nervous. I clutched the book to my chest and cursed my existence.

“Miss Elizabeth,” I returned. There was nothing much else to say. I could not begin to find the words to explain my behavior. Any attempt surely would cause me to perish from shame, therefore silence was my trusted friend and I would employ it with due effect. I turned to face my accuser. Miss Elizabeth was agitated, but not as horrified as I expected.

“I realize it is late, but can it be possible to call for Mr. Lamb again?”

What?

I thought about her request for a moment and could not marry it with the shameful scene before her until it came to me with a jolt. “Your sister?”

“Jane is much worse and I must beg for assistance.”

“Return to her room. Mr. Lamb will be with you directly.”

She complied and was gone, and I felt the immense relief of being saved. She saw nothing; I was still a respectable member of society.

I went in the opposite direction to find Mr. Lamb. The physician had retired, and I took it upon myself to rouse him.

“Miss Bennet?” he asked.

“Much worse. I do not know the particulars.”

Mr. Lamb summoned alongside him a few maids to do his bidding and was off to see the unfortunate lady. There was nothing more needed of me, so I returned to my rooms, hid the book which was almost the cause of my ruination, and prepared myself for at least some suffering.

It was a minuscule amount of blood, yet I did not know if that would matter. Incompatible blood was strictly not to be tasted if it could be helped. In the early days after my transformation, I had experienced the excruciating effects which drinking incompatible blood provided. There was no way around it then—finding a compatible supplier was a matter of trial and error, with a much greater chance of error. Mr. Lamb explained that compatibility was likely found in family members and at the time I hoped my suffering would prevent Georgiana’s, but it was not to be. What my body accepted, her body rejected.

The doses that we had then were no bigger than a single mouthful, but the effects were unmistakable in the case of incompatibility. I was never presented with a single drop, so there was reason to believe that my dalliance with insanity would have no repercussions whatsoever. If I was wrong and would receive some punishment for my sins, I could only hope that Mr. Lamb would not notice. He had a patient that was doing poorly and I was prepared to suffer in silence if need be to not give him two incredibly sick charges. The ordeal of explaining how I came by my illness would be too much for my pride.

I laid back and cursed my actions. What was I thinking? I was not thinking at all, I had to confess, instead giving control over to something other than reason. Was this a sign of insanity that was sure to follow? Vampires liked to hold heads high whenever someone dared mention the cause-and-effect relationship between the two afflictions, but no matter how high and mighty we might project ourselves, fear was always there. If public opinion were to decide that we were all going slowly mad, the decision to exterminate us would not be far off.

Hours passed, and nothing happened. My tumultuous thoughts were poor company, and I craved a distraction. Perhaps Mr. Lamb was up and able to provide me with some news about Miss Bennets. I indulged myself by walking past their door and could discern quiet voices, clinks of cutlery, water being poured. It was likely that Mr. Lamb was still inside because I did not find him in his room.

I wandered the house, lost. No room could bring me solace. I felt haunted. Indulging my curiosity, I walked past that one room several times until even it fell quiet, succumbing to the pressures of night. I was just out of sight when I heard a door open and close. A maid, I decided and worried nothing of it, but then heard a few stifled sobs.

There was a familiar urge to round the corner to provide comfort and a learned reflex to freeze in place. Georgiana never wanted comfort I might provide; Miss Elizabeth was not Georgiana, but that did not mean she wanted her nightly respite to be interrupted by me. She had stepped out of the room to seek solitude and I would provide it for her, battling my own feelings.

Miss Elizabeth did not take long. I heard her take a steading breath, imagined her wipe her tears away and then the door creaked again and she was gone. A strangely intimate sensation overtook me, as surely as she had wept on my shoulder and I had held her, stroked her hair. I could imagine her tear-filled eyes looking at me, and felt tenderness deep in my heart. I was trapped in this dream until I heard footsteps far away and silently slipped away.

*

I was the first at the breakfast-parlor and had my choice of the newspapers. I could not bear to stay in my room as was my habit during the morning hours, instead trading the dreadful peace for company and possibly distracting conversation. My own thoughts had to be kept at bay lest I might act on one of the silly notions that pervaded my head—all regarding a certain lady with fair eyes.

“Do you know if Mr. Lamb has seen Miss Bennet this morning?” asked Bingley.

“He is with her now.” I did not mention that he had been with Miss Bennet for a considerable portion of the night. He did not need much persuasion to see her again, and I urged him to send Miss Elizabeth away from the room if it was at all possible for her own benefit. I could live on no sleep for a week without it influencing me negatively; persons imbued with mortality had no such advantage.

“I do hope she is feeling much better,” Bingley said, optimism pervading his every cell. I remembered with a start that he had no idea about the events of the night, having been sound asleep. Should I tell him? It would surely wipe that smile off his face.

“Do not worry, Charles, I am sure she is fine and soon will be able to go home,” said Mrs. Hurst, and her brother’s cheerful expression faltered a little. The dear boy wanted Miss Bennet to be well, but did not want to have her out of his house, I realized. I, on the contrary, could not wish both sisters away soon enough, so that I could regain control over my faculties.

“Mr. Darcy, allow me to pour you some tea,” Miss Bingley offered, and I acquiesced. I would not drink it, of course, but she may pour it to make it seem that my breakfast comprised more than news, poor news at that. The biggest concern of the day was princess Amelia’s transformation—she was the first royal to enter into vampirism after her father had done so. I could not commend her actions. By all the reports I had received, she was a sickly creature, though her ills differed from her father’s. She would continue to be sickly as a vampire—her body immortal and in pain. There was speculation that she chose this step out of fear of succumbing to her illness, which complicated matters further. Vampirism was not a cure for ailments, it was not a cure for death; it was accepting the duties put upon you for the rest of existence. One in poor health could hardly perform them with the necessary devotion. Was not Georgiana proof enough?

Miss Elizabeth entered the room, and I hid behind my newspaper. Bingley was the first to greet her.

“Miss Elizabeth! Pray, what news of your sister?” 

I knew the answer and could not watch his hopes dashed. Bingley was an annoyingly happy fellow, but to see him unhappy somehow was like watching kittens be tortured. Silence followed; perhaps, Miss Elizabeth felt similarly towards Bingley—people often did.

“Jane is a little better,” she managed, “but she had a difficult night and Mr. Lamb bid us not to disturb her. I am sorry to say she is not to be moved, so I must ask to trespass on your hospitality a little longer.”

“Moved? Of course she is not to be moved, I would not think of it! Caroline, I am sure, is horrified by the very idea.”

Miss Bingley was, in fact, not at all horrified by the idea, but Bingley saw what he wished with little encouragement.

“I beg you to accept every comfort I might provide. Please stay with Miss Bennet as long as she remains here. You, I am sure, help her more than all Mr. Lamb’s potions.”

“I would never presume to impeach that honor from Mr. Lamb. Indeed, I am most thankful for his presence.”

A sort of heat spread throughout me—it was as if she was thanking me directly, and I could scarcely handle the pride of being of service.

Miss Elizabeth joined us briefly for breakfast, eating little, and then departed, hopefully, to her room to get some sleep. I felt free to abandon the newspaper I had stopped reading ever since she came into the room.

“What should she mean by saying that her sister had a difficult night?” asked Miss Bingley.

“Surely she did not mean to insult the comforts of the bedchamber,” said Mrs. Hurst. 

“No, she meant that her sister was incredibly ill during the night,” I answered, gazing into my tea.

“What!?” cried Bingley.

“Perhaps that is what she wanted us to believe, so we would feel sorry for her and be softer regarding our judgment. Frailty, of course, being one of the many womanly wiles.”

“I am sorry to say, Miss Bingley, that your conjecture is entirely wrong. I have received my intelligence from Mr. Lamb who spent the night laboring to improve her condition.”

“What?!” Bingley repeated, all the cheerfulness draining from him and being replaced by helpless panic.

“Miss Elizabeth’s account leads me to believe that he was successful.”

“I have never been more glad to have you as a guest, Darcy.”

I nodded my acknowledgment.

“But what are we to do now?” he continued. “Should we send for a more established doctor from town? What if this is no mere cold? What if the illness is more serious, and we have missed it! What if Miss Bennet is in imminent danger?”

“I have every faith in Mr. Lamb. If he felt himself out of his depth, he would communicate it immediately.” Because the loss of his patient would summon my wrath and that was not something any of the people working for me cared to bear. “As for what you can do, you can acquaint your housekeeper with the situation and make sure she ensures that every attention is given to Miss Bennets. And take care to make sure that Miss Elizabeth is eating, sleeping, and takes an occasional walk while she is under your roof—it would be an appalling state of affairs if both ladies fell ill while under it.”

Bingley nodded agreement and tore from the room, while Miss Bingley gave me a sullen look.

“I apologize. Of course, you were going to give your brother that same advice, or truer still—see to it yourself. I beg your pardon for my interference.”

Miss Bingley was no fool and saw my words for what it was: a charade and an accusation. Her response gave none of this away, for she was a polished woman of society where falsehood was the honey that slathered the bitter tongues on every occasion both between friends and enemies. In this particular situation, I felt we were both.

“Naturally,” she said. “I was simply momentarily overcome by worry. You who have little stake in the affair had more composure than I could gather.”

By a way of self-preservation, I decided to heed these words as a declaration of war. 

Chapter Text

I was summoned to dinner and got chastised by Mr. Lamb after my reluctance to go.

“Think not so little of our skills in this matter, Miss Elizabeth,” he told me with a stern expression. “We are more than capable of taking care of your sister. And as you see, she has no need for company.”

Jane was sleeping again, and she seemed to have gone through the worst of it last night, but though she had improved, she was by no means well. But there was another reason for my staying upstairs so much—sitting with the party at Netherfield was a punishment in itself. Perhaps I was just too tired and too worried about Jane, homesick and starved for my usual company. What was sweet Charlotte doing right now? I felt I had not seen her for months, not mere days.

I suffered through dinner, though Mr. Bingley was very attentive to my person, and we all moved to the drawing room. I asked permission for writing to my family and was provided with all the instruments of that occupation. Curiously, Mr. Darcy decided to be likewise employed and where Mr. Darcy went, Miss Bingley surely followed.

They were a curious pair. I had never heard a mention of an official attachment, but Miss Bingley’s regard was too intimate for simple friendship. Mr. Darcy’s coldness had me reassessing the matter for a moment, but upon closer inspection it was clear that he was grand and cold towards everyone, so it could not be a determiner for his general affection.

I tried to compose a letter to my mother, which required all my powers of delicacy and concentration. Hard work indeed, since I had to listen to Miss Bingley’s remarks upon the handwriting or the choice of words of her most favorite person. This was her only employment, and I rather wished that she had joined others for cards, but Mr. Darcy did not beg her to stop and I hardly could have. My chief fear was that she might cross to my side and start comparing our styles. Such insolence and intrusion into my correspondence, I would not take willingly and I was rather surprised that Mr. Darcy had the patience to tolerate her attentions.

“Oh, you are writing to Pemberley,” Miss Bingley exclaimed. “Charles, he is writing to Miss Darcy. Your sister is sure to be pleased to receive such a letter. You are a most generous brother to write to her so often. I would never receive so many letters from my brother. He is too careless to remember to write and if he does, his letters are so chaotic that they have no hope to be understood.”

This speech was met with no answer.

“Do tell her we miss her exceedingly and that we long to see her,” she continued. “Miss Darcy is such a darling friend that I can scarcely think how we have managed without her. Tell her that I am eager to hear her progress on the harp. She is such a talented musician, I am sure she has mastered it to a remarkable level. Oh, and thank her for the miniature that she painted of me. She has such a wonderful eye for color and detail.”

“Perhaps, Miss Bingley, given the volume of your messages, you might like to compose your own letter, for I can hardly have enough space for all of them in mine.”

I all but choked on my laughter, struggling not to make a sound.

“But I suppose I shall see her soon enough to convey all I wish in person. So kind of her to invite us to Pemberley, it is truly one of my favorite places in all the world. I have never experienced such a combination of beauty, elegance, and nobility. And Derbyshire is certainly the finest county in all of England. Charles, when you decide to have your own house, I do recommend you choose Derbyshire—in this matter I am certain there is not a superior option.”

“Derbyshire is a lovely place,” her brother echoed.

“And Pemberley’s grounds are the pinnacle of magnificence,” she continued her raptures.

“Perhaps best enjoyed by avid walkers,” Mr. Darcy murmured.

“Yes, they are rather extensive, but walking would hardly be my preferred mode of reacquainting myself with them. On horseback or in a curricle—now that would be rather stately and I believe your sister would enjoy such a delight.”

“Most stately,” agreed Mr. Darcy, “though it has the disadvantage of missing the beauty of the paths that are better suited to exploration on foot. As to my sister, I rather she enjoyed the delights of the grounds while walking—it is an exercise often prescribed to her but which she seldom attempts on her own.”

“Then you must command us to walk with her and we will do our utmost to comply,” she said, and Mr. Darcy’s gaze landed on me. What was the cause of it I could not fathom and resolved not to be bothered by it. I had not made a sound to be reprimanded by him on that account, therefore had nothing in my actions to answer for.

“Though I wish we could go to Pemberley sooner,” Miss Bingley continued. “Miss Darcy must be so lonely there without company such as this to keep up her spirits. I do wish you had resolved to take her with you to Netherfield.”

“My sister dislikes leaving her home,” Mr. Darcy said, not without a trace of strain. Perhaps he indeed felt guilty for leaving Miss Darcy behind, but surely that was easily remedied. Miss Bingley spoke of her so often that I was rather curious to meet her. I imagined a veritable composite of Miss Bingley’s and Mr. Darcy’s personalities in one person—fashionable, intelligent, arrogant, and cold.

“I am sure she would comply if you but wished it.”

Strain entered Mr. Darcy’s face again, a curious sort of discomfort I did not dream he was capable of.

“I think you would find her more agreeable if she came on her own accord and not out of compliance for my wishes alone.”

“Charles, you must write to Miss Darcy and invite her to stay with us. Say we all wish it and her brother most of all.”

“Certainly,” her brother answered.

“There, then it is settled,” Miss Bingley said, a peculiar smile of victory on her face.

“Far from it, I fear. You suppose Bingley to remember his assignment, actually write the letter and do it with enough eloquence to make a persuasive argument. I conjecture that he will be unable to accomplish even the first step of your plan, therefore you have no hope of success.”

“Shocking. And to say such things of your dear friend.”

“Being his friend, I know well his style and habits. Besides, earlier you yourself admitted your brother has no talent for correspondence, giving us two testimonies that can speak to the truth of my assessment.”

“Charles, are you really going to say nothing in your defense?” Miss Bingley turned to the accused.

“You and Darcy may abuse me in whatever way you wish. I but ask to be excused from participation,” he said.

“Then it is left to the ladies—Miss Eliza, how shall we punish Mr. Darcy for such a speech?”

I was so surprised to be included in the dispute that I almost spilled my ink. What could possibly be Miss Bingley’s motive to apply to me? I could hardly possess any weapons to unnerve Mr. Darcy.

“Tease him,” I replied. “You have considerable knowledge of him, therefore his weaknesses are at your disposal.”

“Tease Mr. Darcy?”

“Yes, laugh at his faults as he has neglected to leave the faults of his friend well alone.”

“And is it really of service to leave the faults of a friend alone?” Mr. Darcy fixed me with a steady gaze and I had the peculiar sensation of being stalked by a dark and ominous presence. I put on the armor of wit and refused to be intimidated.

“Publicly—certainly. One must point them out only in the strictest confidence for the correction of one’s faults is far more arduous when those faults have already been presented to an audience. I would never have guessed at Mr. Bingley’s inability to pen an eloquent letter had I not witnessed such derogatory statements. And now I fear my opinion of him in this regard is quite ruined.”

“Are you so easily led by other people?”

“When I see a cause to be led and suppose it unlikely that a contradictory account could conceivably exist,” I allowed.

“A sound argument. But now you are left with the assignment of teasing me.”

“I have left that in the hands of Miss Bingley. I am sure she is more than capable.”

“I fear you are mistaken in her character—she has little practice in teasing.”

“Only because Mr. Darcy is a poor object to practice on in that particular art,” Miss Bingley tried to defend herself. “I could not find faults in him if I tried for days and days.”

“You are in an advantageous position, Mr. Darcy, for your friends hold you in high regard and do not dare to see your faults.”

“Which is a weakness in itself because I am robbed of the possibility of correcting them.”

“Yes,” I said, and we regarded each other across the table, locked in this strangely comfortable interlude, where only Miss Bingley seemed to be out of her depth, not being equal to address such haughty speeches to her friend. “But it is not a weakness that I can laugh at.”

We held each other’s gaze for a while longer, silently appraising the opponent, and just as silently deciding on a ceasefire, then simultaneously returned to our respective letters. Miss Bingley’s removal in favor of the cards was our joint achievement. 

Mr. Darcy was an odd ally, and I did not quite comprehend what it would mean to be his adversary. His friends’ reluctance to engage, perhaps, should have been an indicator that the position would hold little by way of advantage, but as long as our merry war was civil and waged with honor, I found myself excited by the prospect. A dangerous excitement, if there ever was one, for who in their right mind would endeavor to do battle with a vampire.

I took pains to finish my letter and was sure that I could expect my mother’s presence in the morning. That she had not visited out of her own accord for several days was quite shocking, but surely she could not refuse a direct plea. If anything, I hoped she could see the rotten fruit of her schemes and hang her head in shame, promising to meddle no more.

Mr. Darcy had finished several letters in this time and upon deciding that his writing for the day was done, beckoned to Miss Bingley.

“Might I beg you to favor us with opening the instrument, Miss Bingley, for this evening could do with some music,” he said.

“I am happy to oblige,” Miss Bingley said and turned to me. “Miss Eliza, will you do us the honor of being the first to play?”

Her smile to me was poison. I tried not to be conscious of Mr. Darcy’s gaze in the likely event that his expression held like disagreeableness.

“Pray excuse me, I have no talent for music.”

“A falsehood,” exclaimed Mr. Bingley, abandoning the cards. “I have heard you play and sing and found it delightful. Was it not so, Darcy?”

Darcy stayed silent, his eyes still on me.

Having no support from his friend, he continued on his own. “Come, Miss Elizabeth! I am sure you will gain much pleasure in enchanting us.”

“I beg your pardon, my accomplishments lie elsewhere.”

“Charles, you must allow Miss Eliza to be shy in front of such a discerned audience. But Mr. Darcy requested music and music he shall have. Come join me so we might have a duet.”

I marveled at Miss Bingley’s capacity to save me and insult me in one breath. Her tongue, however, strayed only with the persons she considered lesser, and I smarted at the idea that she thought me beneath her. Her daring was not equal with her brother or Mr. Darcy, nor Miss Darcy, I was sure.

They started to play and played well, waking up Mr. Hurst with lively Scottish melodies. I tried to relax into enjoying the music, but Mr. Darcy drew near me and his closeness was hardly conducive to relaxation.

“I dare say, Miss Elizabeth, that though you declined the pleasure of enchanting us with music, you would not say the same of dancing, given the chance.”

“And I dare say that you are apprehending my weaknesses to retaliate for our earlier conversation and since you despise dancing, you aim to tease me for loving it.”

“You mistake my intention entirely.”

I made no answer and thought myself safe from further conversation, but Mr. Darcy aspired to disappoint me.

“Will you not ask me what my true intention is?”

“I suspect it will vex you, if I do not,” I said and stayed silent. I could not tease him with much skill and aid of knowledge, which prolonged friendship provided, but it did not mean that he was entirely safe from me. I glanced at Mr. Darcy to see if I had terribly offended him, but his countenance betrayed nothing but perfect ease.

“Then you shall have it without asking,” he said. “I wondered if, given the music supplied to us, you would like to seize the chance to dance?”

The question took all the comfort from me which I had gained thus far in this house. It suggested an underlying cruelty which I long suspected in his character. Like Miss Bingley, he saw me beneath him and would take steps to embarrass me.

To ask me to dance in these circumstances! Nobody else was dancing or exhibiting a wish to do so and the room could scarcely accommodate any genuine attempt in its present state. He either wanted to take my hand and prove me a foolish girl, or hear my agreement and declare me one. I did not believe anyone would contradict him and step forward in my defense.

“I am wary of your intentions, Mr. Darcy. No doubt you want me to say yes and then despise me for my country manners. I might not have a talent for music, but trust in my talent to overthrow such haughty schemes; therefore, I must inform you that I could not conceive of wishing to dance this evening. There! I have thwarted your derision. What have you to say about me now?”

“Only this: you have twice refused me. I must insist there not be a third.”

The intensity of his stare at that moment frightened me to my very core, and my teasing and nonchalant air left me to fend for myself. He must have seen how deeply he had affected me and averted his eyes, allowing me some time to compose myself.

“Depend upon it,” I said as quietly as I could without rendering myself unintelligible, “that should you ask me at a ball, I would accept you.”

That seemed like a promising compromise which left my and his honor satisfied. I did not think it likely he would ask me at the next ball, but by this answer I saved myself from accepting him under inappropriate circumstances.

We stayed quiet for the rest of the evening, all my teasing scared away. I had found a new respect for Miss Bingley’s disinclination to speak against Mr. Darcy, for after such a blow I was sure to search for my courage for quite some time to stand against him again.

I expected Mr. Darcy to leave my side, but he stayed where he was, perfectly at ease, to share my silence. His gaze traveled to me again and again, which I tried to ignore as best as I could, looking anywhere but directly at him. I knew he meant to frighten me further, but I would not deign to acknowledge his success. 

Chapter Text

I could not sleep, and daydreams had infected my every hour. Never could I conceive that such a thing was possible—to be so completely pulled in by another person, but it was a truth I had to acknowledge at least to myself, for there were no other words for this sickness: Miss Elizabeth Bennet had bewitched me. I was always seeking her company—jealous of it when I had it, sulking when I did not. If she would but permit me, I would drool all over her, nibble at her soft skin, reward each round of teasing with a kiss on her lips, play with the strands of her hair, and have her all to myself for every moment of every day.

I was insufferable and could hardly stand myself—how anyone else could bear me was astonishing. Even Miss Bingley, I was sure, would soon lose patience with me and give me a hearty slap to bring me to my senses. Perhaps I should go to her now and demand that she do just that. If it would work, I would be forever grateful.

It seemed that it was a peculiar gift of the Bennet line—to choose a victim and wrap them in their web so thoroughly that there could be no escape. Had not Miss Bennet done the same to Bingley? Perhaps I should go to him and we could commiserate over our obsession with our own particular Bennet girl. No. He no doubt would see it as a gift, whereas I saw it as a curse. It was torture. And the more I struggled against it, the more tortured I was.

My only hope was for her and her sister to leave, for surely my thoughts would become my own again when I was removed from her direct influence. Regrettably, Miss Bennet was not yet well enough to depart—an undisputed intelligence I had received straight from Mr. Lamb and which Mrs. Bennet now used to the utmost, feigning concern for Bingley’s benefit. Where was her concern when one of her daughters was so sick that it drove the other to tears? I despised the woman with all my heart.

“She is such a brave girl,” said Mrs. Bennet, “and she did try not to worry her mama, but I saw right through it and declare her quite ill. I dare not think of taking her back to Longbourn.”

“No, indeed you mustn’t!” exclaimed Bingley. “Mr. Lamb has forbidden it in no uncertain terms.”

They went back and forward on the subject for several minutes and I tried to bear it with the cold and unyielding patience of a rock. Unfortunately, there was nothing in the room to interest me: Mrs. Bennet had brought her two girls who were silly creatures whispering by themselves, Miss Bingley tried to be attentive to the principle conversation and offer her assurances that Miss Bennet would be well taken care of here, and there was Miss Elizabeth who seemed to suffer at least half as much as I did if her face was any indication—a face, I might add, I tried very hard not to study in present circumstances.

“What a wonderful room you have here, Mr. Bingley. I dare say you could not have found a more charming house in all the country.”

“I am very well pleased with it.”

“And are you planning to put a good use to it and give a ball?” asked Mrs. Bennet. “I am sure in a fine house like this it would be a spectacle unequal to our imagination.”

“I dare say it would be,” Miss Bingley sought to remark under her breath.

“A ball?” repeated Bingley. There was nothing of displeasure in his voice. If anything, he sounded inspired. “I think it a marvelous idea!”

My eyes locked with Miss Elizabeth and she quickly looked away, no doubt remembering her promise. I was determined to hold her to it, and was uncommonly pleased about the opportunity. I was pleased even more about her carefully averted eyes; she held immense power over me—it warmed my heart that I had some power over her as well.

“Let us not be hasty, Charles,” said Miss Bingley. “A ball is a grand undertaking and not everyone in the house would feel comfortable enough to participate.”

“We would wait, of course, until Miss Bennet’s recovery to name the date.”

“That is not entirely who I mean.”

“Darcy? He may retire, if he wishes, before it begins. I will not press him to join us if he would rather not.”

“I understand, Mr. Darcy, that in your advanced age a ball is a grand undertaking,” said Mrs. Bennet. For a moment the intelligent part of the party was struck silent with such a daring proclamation.

“I am sure, madam, I do not know what you mean,” I managed an answer in an even tone, boiling with indignation that I had to answer at all to a woman who was so beneath me she should not have dared to speak directly to me at all.

“Oh, we were just speculating about your age and had rather decided that it was too grand for you to truly enjoy such active pleasures as dancing. It must be difficult, for age is such a burden, rendering us blind and deaf. What we enjoyed in our youth we are sure to despise in our advanced years.”

I had absolutely nothing to say to that and faintly registered the reddening of Miss Elizabeth’s cheeks. Bingley opened his mouth to say something several times, but was not equal to the task.

“You mustn’t be shy about it, Mr. Darcy,” Mrs. Bennet continued. “We will all be prone to similar faults, eventually.”

“Allow me to assure you that Mr. Darcy has no such faults.” Miss Bingley seemed to find her voice, and we were all thankful to her.

“See, mama,” one of her youngest said to Mrs. Bennet in a low voice, “he is not French!”

I was so dumbfounded that I scarcely could understand what on earth they were talking about. Only the delicacy toward the feelings of my friends—and perhaps my bewitcher—stopped me from abruptly standing up and quitting the room, probably breaking a few things on my way.

“Then I see no reason why he should object to a ball. All people of quality and with good manners delight in a ball.”

“And I promise I will delight in hosting it,” Bingley chimed in.

“And so good of you to wait for Jane’s recovery.”

“I would not think of having the ball without her.”

“Jane is fortunate indeed to have such good friends who take care of her.”

“We are fortunate to have the pleasure of taking care of her. And Miss Elizabeth is as good a sister as there ever was,” Bingley said and was rewarded with a shy smile from that very lady.

“Oh, but Jane has such a sweet temper and patience to suffer all ills that it is hardly a sacrifice on Lizzy’s part. You know, I often tell my other girls that their characters are nothing to Jane’s. And she is such a beauty, too, there really is no equal to her.”

Bingley was rather unsure what to answer to this.

“At least that is what I am always told. I could not trust my own judgment, for as a mother I would find all my girls great beauties for no other reason than being their mother. But Jane, well, let me tell you, the world has been in love with her ever since she was a young girl. At only fifteen, there was a gentleman in town so in love with her that my sister-in-law swore he would make Jane an offer. At fifteen! Can you imagine? I could not have parted with my child, I am sure. And she has only grown in beauty since then.”

Mrs. Bennet was trying hard to sell a cow that Bingley already worshiped with hardly any encouragement. It was painful to listen to and painful to watch Miss Elizabeth shrink with shame ever so slightly in her seat. I felt keenly the lowness of her connections and what humiliation they brought upon her daily. What possible sins could merit this penance?

“He did write some very pretty verses on his love and that is a compliment that warms every woman’s heart, I think,” she added, and Bingley’s eyes shone with inspiration. I had the urge to break every bottle of ink in the house. Bingley was no poet, and he hardly needed to prove his ineptitude by lowering himself to the suggestions of such a despicable woman.

“And empties the heart of every gentleman,” Miss Elizabeth spoke up. “Verse is such a powerful drug to ward off any feelings of love, apothecaries should start selling prescriptions for it.”

I felt incredibly conflicted on the few lines I had composed in her honor, inspired by a particular volume of poetry she had the misfortune to bleed upon.

“Is not poetry the food of love?” I asked, trying my hardest not to seem defensive. It was not that I had any intention to present my work to her, but to find that she had contempt for it without even seeing it wounded me most peculiarly.

“Poetry demands too much of the surface feelings with which people are often afflicted. In digging for their love, they find the pit too shallow, and a single verse will exhaust it of material.”

I only smiled. Perhaps I should instruct Bingley to write some poetry after all; for me, however, I feared there was no hope, and the only thing that would save me from Miss Elizabeth was my determination not to be ensnared. I grant it was a poor speech by a rabbit to a fox.

“Lizzy, do remember where you are!” Mrs. Bennet spoke. “You are not to behave like you would at home; your wild ways here will not be appreciated.”

I gave the woman a scolding look. How dared she chastise my bewitcher in such a manner, to shame her in front of everybody, even though she was a person who was the most shameful of the party? She had no right to speak to her that way, to treat her that way. To Mrs. Bennet’s credit, it could be said that she was affected by the look. I could only hope she would know her place in the future.

“I assure you, Mrs. Bennet, Miss Elizabeth’s spirit is much appreciated,” said Bingley, and the conversation turned to the business of neighbors. Then it was thankfully the time for the three Bennets to depart, leaving us with the more pleasant part of the family.

*

Miss Elizabeth went to her sister and the loss of her was a grave injustice that I was unwilling to bear. Finding no peace until I had her back before my eyes, I convinced Bingley to ask her down for a walk in the garden—it was unforgivable that such an avid walker was locked in the house for days and fresh air, and exercise would do her good. Bingley, not suspecting anything amiss, complied with cheery air. 

For my part, I invited Bingley’s sisters on a stroll through the gardens. Mr. Hurst was not of a disposition to enjoy walking, so we left him where he was.

“I did not think I could have a lower opinion of that family, but here we are,” said Mrs. Hurst on my left side.

“I can wager my opinion will sink even lower before our stay here is done,” answered Miss Bingley.

“It is a shame that Miss Bennet must have such relations.”

“I find it a miracle that her character is so pleasing with no company of note to speak of. Look at her sister!” I did as Miss Bingley instructed. “Scarcely any manners, such an arrogant and conceited air, she thinks incredibly highly of herself and has no deference to true people of importance, which is an unforgivable character flaw. To tolerate her for her fine eyes alone is a terrible chore.”

“Indeed,” I admitted. For the pleasure of her lips, on the other hand, I was tempted to hold half of Pemberley for ransom.

“Maybe if she had some elegance of dress,” said Mrs. Hurst, “she could hide her hideous flaws better. But look at that bonnet—I would hate her just for the ugliness of it.”

“Country fashions supposedly hold some charm for certain people, but I can profess no love for them. An arrangement of more ill-fitting clothes than those worn by Miss Elizabeth is hard to come by. Just to have to constantly observe them is annoying. Do not you agree, Mr. Darcy?”

“Certainly,” I said. All Miss Elizabeth’s clothes were a constant source of annoyance for me since I had not the pleasure of removing them.

“What could Charles be so happy to talk to her about!” cried Mrs. Hurst. Both were having a very pleasant conversation that I was eager to break up. She had no such unaffected smiles for me, and I loathed to see them bestowed upon my friend who could hardly deserve them. 

Jealousy, indeed, was a green-eyed monster.

“Her sister, no doubt,” I said. At least I hoped they could not strike up a friendship and affection from some other common source of interest. Miss Elizabeth was too smart, too quick for Bingley by half. A horrible vision of the future accosted me: Miss Bennet succumbing to her illness, Bingley finding a new love in Miss Elizabeth, and the new pair flaunting their happiness before my very green eyes for the rest of their days. I felt nauseated.

“I feel his affection for Miss Bennet has only grown. I cannot fathom how, for he has not even seen her since she has come here, and her beauty was what had recommended her so thoroughly to him,” said Mrs. Hurst.

“I am not worried,” said Miss Bingley.

“I am,” I asserted, and Miss Bingley quickly changed her stance to be worried as well.

“Who knows what things she is telling him!” she exclaimed. “Her tongue is more skilled than her mother’s, and she is sure to succeed when her mother has blundered. We must separate them immediately.”

Before I had gotten over insidious images of Miss Elizabeth’s skilled tongue and its possible application, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst had stirred us to intercept their brother.

“Charles, I have need of you,” Mrs. Hurst demanded. “Caroline is dreadfully tired and needs assistance getting back to the house.”

“You already have a gentleman on your arm, Louisa, and I am presently engaged.”

“Mr. Darcy has denied us, for he cannot conceive of going back to the house so soon. I am quite vexed with him,” she said. Miss Bingley fought to hide her surprise at her sister’s capacity to spread falsehoods about me with ease. “Come, Charles.”

Bingley obeyed, and I was left with Miss Elizabeth.

I was left with Miss Elizabeth!

“If you are not likewise fatigued, might I beg the pleasure of your hand along the gravel walk, Miss Elizabeth?”

If she would deny me, I might swing her over my shoulder and carry her off—so great was my eagerness to share a moment with her alone, safe from the stares and opinions of others. That Mrs. Hurst had afforded me this opportunity was extraordinary.

To my immense relief, Miss Elizabeth accepted my hand and allowed me to lead her on.

She was sunshine itself, gentle birdsong in the early hours of the morning, the essence of everything that was pleasing about life, of things that I wanted and was missing. Her effect on me was extraordinary to such a degree that I was tempted to ask Mr. Lamb to perform one of his tests to acknowledge the change with science. I would not, of course. The last few days I had plenty of practice to deny myself things I might be tempted to do, minor incidents observed by no one notwithstanding.

She was quiet. I could not think of anything to say. The thrill of being so close to her, to feeling her beside me, to having her all to myself filled me entirely the way blood never seemed to manage. A dangerous thought.

Any attempts for my mind to find a suitable topic to begin a conversation was an unwelcome struggle, though I wondered how she felt about it. Was she shy in my presence or merely thought the silence a preference of mine and aimed to humor me? If I did not speak, I would not find out.

I wished Bingley back in our presence with as much force as I had wished him away.

“The garden here is very beautiful,” she observed, and I agreed.

Silence reigned once more.

“I dare say it is more pleasing in the spring and summer,” she tried again. “But then again, gardens usually are.”

I agreed again and failed miserably in continuing the thread she was giving me—too nervous, I realized. I should have prepared better for our tête-à-tête in lieu of just daydreaming about it.

“Mr. Darcy, I insist we have some conversation.”

Was she peeved or just teasing me? I could not quite discern the tone, but I need not be concerned about her being shy or accommodating towards me—she was neither. Strangely, this only pleased me and I smiled to myself.

“I thought energetic walking left ladies too out of breath to wish for prolonged conversation—it might leave them winded and I confess myself very ill at ease with the possibility of carrying them back to the house.” There, I said words. I teased her back. I think I teased her. Did I do it correctly? If she was angry at me, I guessed I would find out soon enough.

“You spend too much time in London,” Miss Elizabeth observed.

“I do not, but continue.”

“A walk and a conversation might make a London lady winded and in need of assistance, but you will find no such feebleness here.”

“I think it might be a great insult to London ladies to have them called feeble.”

“It might be, but you must defer defending their honor to some other time and at present stir the topic to more civil waters.”

“I am a poor sailor, Miss Elizabeth. Explain, if you please, why I must strain myself thus.”

“Miss Bingley no doubt will ask me what we talked about during our walk and I can hardly report on our present conversation.”

Apparently, I had to pander to Miss Bingley even when she was not present.

“Very well, Miss Elizabeth,” I said, perhaps more coldly than I intended. “Shall we talk about books so that Miss Bingley can have nothing to object to?”

“I think not. Miss Bingley has no interest in books.”

“Even more reason to discuss them.” Let Miss Bingley think we are incredibly boring in our conversation and care nothing about our future ones.

“You are severe on your friends,” she observed.

“I am.”

“And do they bear such treatment well?”

“They are more patient with me than I deserve,” I said. Miss Elizabeth gave me a curious look. What she might be contemplating, she did not divulge. “But you wished to speak on books. Please, begin where you like.”

“You are mistaken. I did not wish that at all. I do not believe we have read the same things and therefore have nothing to compare.”

I wondered if she thought me a fastidious reader or downplayed her own achievements.

“But you cannot be proven correct if you do not attempt it.”

“I am quite at ease to live on faith alone. To prove myself right is not my objective.”

I was beginning to think that she did not trust me enough to reveal her interests. A pity. How much effort on my part would it take for her to confide in me, even with such inconsequential details of her life? I was eager to find out.

Miss Elizabeth allowed silence after that. I was not sure if Miss Bingley asked her about our conversation, but she certainly asked me and I felt myself uncommonly prepared.

“We had several false starts, but could not agree on the topic,” I informed her.

“How conceited and artful she is! She had no trouble laughing with my brother about little nothings. We must be careful of her—very careful.”

I feared Miss Bingley’s advice came too late. I was almost sure there was not much that could have the power to save me from Miss Elizabeth.

 

Chapter Text

I found Jane in her room with no fever and no complaints. She was cheerful and even Mr. Lamb allowed her some exercise and company, therefore a decision was made to let her come down to the drawing room after dinner. It was a joyous occasion and I could not keep a smile off my face. Neither could Bingley throughout the dinner, ripe with anticipation.

“Are you sure you are warm enough?” I asked. “Mr. Lamb was very insistent that you stay warm.”

“I am very comfortable, Lizzy, you mustn’t fuss so.”

“Who else will if not me?”

Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst supplied the answer, fawning over my sister before the gentleman arrived. That concern evaporated when they did.

“Mr. Darcy, I must know.” Miss Bingley sprang on her intended object of affection before he was a few steps into the room. “Are you in the mood for Italian music this evening, for I have been practicing it enough to satisfy even your discerning ear and can hardly be easy before I can hear your assessment of it.”

Mr. Darcy waved her away with an imperious air and instead walked over to my sister, considering her more deserving of his attention.

“Miss Bennet, allow me to congratulate you on your recovery,” he said with unwavering politeness.

“You look, indeed, very well,” added Mr. Hurst.

“It is an occasion of great happiness to see you, Miss Bennet.” Mr. Bingley looked close to bursting from happiness. “Allow me to make a correction in your seating. I do believe you will be much more comfortable over here where there is no draught. And when we shall pile up the fire, it will be warmer than any other spot in the room.”

His intended furniture curiously admitted very little seating, only enough for two people, and I gave him leave to arrange everything to his liking, after which he engaged in conversation with my sister, clearly parched for her company, and spoke to hardly anyone else.

I could not refrain from smiling, but nobody minded me. I did spy Mr. Darcy looking at me more than I felt comfortable with, but I kept my eyes on a book and ignored him completely. Just like he ignored Miss Bingley by being likewise occupied with a book. She tried and failed to engage him in conversation, she also had no success with her brother, and as her sister abandoned her for the pleasure of music, Miss Bingley admitted defeat and picked up a book herself, though whether she was successful in reading it, was a different question.

"Miss Eliza, is it not a great pleasure to spend the evening reading in this manner?" she asked me after another failed attempt at engaging Mr. Darcy.

"It is," I gave a curt answer, not wishing to be rude, and continued to read.

"So pleasant to be among a company that values books so much. And this is a very peaceful and genteel sort of activity," she continued, and I had nothing to say. A suspicion crept along my senses that she had picked me to be a much more susceptible victim than Mr. Darcy because I could not afford to dismiss her in the same way that he would.

"But it is important, I think, to exercise a little to stay invigorated throughout the evening. There is nothing so disagreeable as seeing the attention waver—when the mind might be overstimulated, it requires pause."

Miss Bingley rose and came next to me. "Come, Miss Eliza, you must take a turn about the room with me."

I rose, though I much rather would have remained seated, and took her hand to circle the room slowly with a careless attempt to admire a picture or a vase in our leisurely stroll. 

Where her attempts at gaining attention from Mr. Darcy through conversation failed, her new tactic proved fruitful, for his eyes found us repeatedly and lingered.

What did he see, I wondered. We were a curious pair: a harpy and a reluctantly willing victim, but how such a scene could interest him, I could not say with any certainty. Perhaps he delighted in her small acts of cruelty. Perhaps he delighted in her particular cruelty towards me, though what kind of joke she was playing at the moment, I could not entirely comprehend. Her satisfaction, however, was unmistakable.

"Mr. Darcy is giving you such a curious look. What could he possibly mean by it?" said Mrs. Hurst, pausing her playing.

"I am sure he means to be severe on us. His eyes are giving us the harshest critique. The cut of the dress, the fall of the fabric, the posture must be all perfection to please his sensibilities." Miss Bingley seemed sure of his esteem regarding her, and his distaste in me. That must have been her scheme—to accentuate herself by comparison.

Mr. Darcy made no answer to her speech, his gaze lingering on us, the book forgotten. He was not pleased, so much as I could gather, but Miss Bingley felt nothing of the danger. Did she think herself entirely safe in her machination or did she simply not observe the sliver of ice in his expression, all gathered toward us? At least I hoped it was not me alone he disapproved of so greatly, not when he had such singularly resentful eyes.

"Be assured he can find nothing at fault with you in that respect," Mrs. Hurst said. I had the distinct feeling that she addressed solely her sister. I would not let my chin drop, refusing to show that their cruel little games had any effect on me. At least Jane had not noticed. I would hate to interrupt her quiet happiness with Mr. Bingley.

"Well, Mr. Darcy, shall we not hear your assessment?" asked Miss Bingley.

"I do not care to give it presently," he answered.

“You see, Caroline, you are perfection itself,” said Mrs. Hurst. “A creature of wonderful manners, taste, and accomplishments.”

“If only you would devote yourself to more reading, your character would be complete,” remarked Mr. Darcy, and I started at words. Miss Bingley did as well and shyly returned to her book, uninspired to do much else for the rest of the evening. I almost felt bad for her. She was a petty villainess, true, but it was Mr. Darcy who was the true monster of this tale, delighting in the pain he inflicted both on friends and enemies.

Immortality was wasted on him. Were there not good and honorable men in England to serve their country with perversely prolonged lives? My book on vampirism stressed the importance of the moral character of a person. If that was true, how such a pitiful excuse for a man as Mr. Darcy was chosen to become a vampire, to drain the life-force of dutiful people every day?

Left free to do as I will, I lost interest in my book, finding that hushed rage again which Mr. Darcy do often inspired. I all but swore off reading for the rest of my life just to not have anything mar my character with what was pleasing to Mr. Darcy. Despicable fiend! The privilege and arrogance which he no doubt had inherited with his estate and pedigree made it easy for him to treat others with disdain and no consideration for their feelings. He made me sick. That everyone around him, including me, facilitated his actions, made me sicker.

I moved to retrieve some needlework, not having the mental capacity to entertain a book in my hands, but this again was thwarted by the perpetrator of the previous villainy.

“Miss Elizabeth, if you wish to do needlework, I must beg you to reconsider,” Mr. Darcy said in barely a whisper, close and intimate. I had not heard him move, and I should have been more startled by his nearness, but I was filled with such hatred, which allowed no room for fear.

“If you care for an occupation, might I suggest you sit at the instrument and delight us for a while with your performance,” he said a little louder.

I turned my face to him, staring daggers into his eyes and stifling all the words I would say to him, the scolding he would get, the lesson he would not soon forget. I said nothing, and he decided it was a ready acceptance for his offer, noting nothing of my mood in his self-absorbed selfishness.

“Mrs. Hurst, may I beg you to cede the instrument to Miss Elizabeth?”

She obeyed as everybody was wont to do. I forced myself to move, urged on by the genuine smiles of Mr. Bingley and my sister, still in a private conference. I could not act out. To devastate Jane’s chances of a happy future was an unthinkable crime not even the cruelest of souls could contemplate. I knew what was at stake and sat down to play my meager repertoire, imagining being among friends and neighbors, imagining Mr. Darcy, his disgusting gaze that seemed to follow wherever I went and his rotten influence purged from my life forever.

I kept an eye on Jane and knew exactly the moment to make my escape. She had been up for long enough, and though not too ill at present, she was weak and required a lot of rest. I took her upstairs, leaving the drawing room for the rest of the evening.

“Did you enjoy yourself?” I asked, helping Jane get ready for bed.

“Mr. Bingley is a very attentive host,” she said. I suspected her feelings to encompass more than the evaluation of Mr. Bingley’s hospitality, but I kept silent. She could confess all she wished to me, but if she did not wish it—did not wish to do so here—I well understood her. It was an excellent house with carpeted hallways to muffle any sounds of steps, of servants that moved as quietly as ghosts, and a vampire whose possible secret skills were too unnerving to consider even in the privacy of one’s own thoughts. In short, it was not a safe space to share secrets lest we be overheard.

“He is indeed, but I was thinking—perhaps we could relieve him of his duties and return home if you feel yourself able.” Truthfully, I was tired of this house, of the company, and the restraints it put on me.

“I think it would be best. I feel much better and there is no reason to burden Mr. Bingley with our presence.”

“Did Mr. Bingley seem burdened this evening?” I stifled a merry smile. Not that Jane had much to compare it with, but I could see how he shone with delight of having my sister there—well and cared for, the fruitful bounty of all that his dwelling offered.

“Of course not, he is a perfect gentleman, he would never let such a thing slip, even if he wished us gone.”

Jane had not marked a note of my teasing, too overwhelmed or too tired by the experience. I was happy that she had someone to fall in love with and so grateful that the man was worthy of her love, even if I had reservations about the company he kept. I had never been in love or even infatuated with anyone to know the depth, the range of the feeling, but it looked perfectly nice when under observation.

I did not particularly think I would experience it for myself, but I did not feel sorry for it. You needed to have a certain disposition to fall in love, which Jane had, while I did not. I could no more wish for Jane’s color of hair or eyes than to wish to have her character, susceptible to feelings entirely foreign to me.

“And how many times will he beg us to say, do you think?”

Jane could not formulate an answer to this, but I was not naïve enough to think that Mr. Bingley would relinquish us without a fight. Knowing Jane, she would not dare move without his approval; knowing me, I would rather make a miserable walk back home to stay a single day longer than necessary. Unfortunately, Jane could not walk that far in her present state, and I would not leave her all alone here for the life of me.

“I believe that Mr. Bingley will try to dissuade us from going. Who can blame him—we are exquisite company indeed. But if we ask Miss Bingley to help us, she should be more understanding.”

We resolved to try our luck the next day, applying to Miss Bingley for help on the matter after breakfast.

“But are you sure Miss Bennet is well enough?”

“Mr. Lamb gave us his full permission,” I assured her.

“That is excellent news. We were all very anxious about her recovery.”

In a surprising turn of events, Miss Bingley became very civil after that, ceasing all attempts at little jabs in my direction. She was unmistakably happy for me to leave, and could not reward me in a better way.

*

“Leave?” Mr. Bingley was all incredulity.

“Yes, I must admit that is something guests must eventually do,” I said.

“I will not hear of it,” he answered, and I was glad of my foresight to ask for Miss Bingley’s help in advance.

“But you have heard it, Mr. Bingley, and I must beg you to consider a more civil answer.” My tone was teasing, even if my words were stern. I had some talent wrangling unruly children and always thought I would be an excellent governess, though right now those same skills applied to dealing with a pouting gentleman.

Having found no assistance from anyone in the room, he had to make up the answer himself. “Cannot you defer your leaving? Just for a couple of days?”

“Charles, you must not be selfish in detaining Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth,” Miss Bingley said.

“For a day. I beg you—for a day.”

“Charles,” Miss Bingley began anew.

“Just for a day. I am selfless enough to let go of the couple of days, and beg just for a single day.”

And though Miss Bingley would have been more pleased for us to leave immediately, both she and I agreed to a delay of one day.

I almost laughed at the relief on Mr. Bingley’s face, which was replaced by his grief during the proceedings of tomorrow. He handed us into his carriage personally, ensuring that Jane was as comfortable as could be, wished us well and hoped to see us soon. His sisters echoed the sentiment.

As the carriage drew away from the house, an enormous weight lifted from me and I finally felt that I could breathe easily. My sister has regained her health and was admired by a gentleman so in love with her—affection that she shared. And I was finally going home, free from Mr. Bingley’s sisters. Free from an unpleasant vampire who haunted that otherwise comfortable house.

*

The homecoming was less joyous than expected. Our father seemed the only one relieved to see us back, while our mother was positively furious at our not delaying quitting Netherfield as long as possible. Our sisters were occupied with their own business, not too bothered by our presence or absence. Home was as it had always been.

There was, however, a single bit of news that might set the alarm bells ringing in our sleepy part of Hertfordshire—Mr. Collins, a single gentleman with sizable prospects in the not too distant future, was coming to visit.

Chapter Text

The departure of Miss Elizabeth—and her sister—would finally give me peace, or so I believed.

True, I had never been so transfixed by a woman. I had never been so completely and unhealthily wrapped in that witchy thrall, which the fair sex has wielded since the time began, but surely it was nothing a distance of a few miles could not cure. 

Even if I wished for her to stay with me, I could not recommend her staying in this particular house and company. We could not be alone, that much I had accepted, but the environment did nothing to stimulate her mind and talents. It certainly did nothing for her happiness. I could not suppose she missed her family and acquaintances—they could be nothing to her—but this house likewise gave her no suitable conversation partners other than myself. And to think that her smiles—the few she gave out of politeness and then those borne out of genuine cheer when her sister’s health had improved—were all meant for Bingley! 

Bingley was my friend and for Bingley I would do much, but watching them spend time together was a slow torture. I could see she enjoyed his company, but jealousy boiled in my veins at the sight, though simultaneously I could not bring myself to deny her or prevent her from having anything that would please her.

Now, finally, I would have peace from all those feelings, and peace was what I sorely required. But first, I had to deal with Miss Bingley, who had injured me grievously.

“How happy you must be to see our guests leaving,” she said, still waving her goodbyes to her beloved friend.

“You certainly are,” I observed.

“I confess the company of country ladies much inferior to my usual preferences, no matter how sweet they are.”

“I thought your reasons to be entirely different.”

“Oh?” She looked at me then, confident in her happiness. I would destroy it—gladly.

“I thought you were pleased to see the Bennet sisters go, considering your complete and utter failure of your purpose: to ensure the separation of Miss Bennet and your brother. In direct insubordination of the course we had agreed upon, you devoted all your time to pester one sister, when you had the clear task of dissuading the other to harbor any designs on your brother, and your brother to stop making any designs on Miss Bennet. And to think that I donated my time in engaging that one obstacle in your way, only for you to squander every opportunity to act. I have no words but these for you, Miss Bingley: I am disappointed—completely and utterly disappointed—in you.”

With every word, Miss Bingley’s face fell and the conclusion of my speech brought her close to tears. I was cruel, and I was unjust, but my revenge was complete.

“I suppose when your brother makes that ill-conceived match a reality, bringing you down in the world, you will have nobody but yourself to blame.” With that final nail in the coffin, I left Miss Bingley to her distress, promising to sooth her wounded pride with little kindnesses in some not very distant future when she will have learned her lesson. I had every faith in her as a quick study.

In my despicably satisfied mood, I aimed to tend to all my duties, which I had shrunk with my—let’s call it what it is—obsession with Miss Elizabeth. For whomever I might give this advice, hear me when I say, it is best to not share a roof with the object of one’s obsession, for any aims and goals of real value will suffer greatly under such a calamity.

*

My sister’s caretakers all reported her to be as well as could be expected. Georgiana herself had also sent me a letter, but that I was saving for later as a reward. I had several invitations from friends and family—I declined them all, citing being engaged elsewhere. The most pressing letters were from my steward, whom I had neglected. I ought to have replied as soon as I received them, but I had been delayed because of some unforeseen bouts of insanity. I worked on them for a time until I was satisfied, and gladly opened my sister’s letter, hoping for an outpouring of love and gratitude from a generous source.

She expressed it dutifully, informing me about her daily accomplishments and assuring me in every possible way that she was well. She inquired about our mutual friends and news concerning them, in turn providing some small insight into her daily life. She then proceeded to inquire about a person—I was not entirely sure I had named the person—whom I apparently had put above all others in my estimation. I had no doubt who was this person, but it gave me pause that I had written so fondly of her.

I simply did not remember it. I was sure I had mentioned her in a line or two, perhaps praising her wit and skills. But could I truly have raved so much that my sister felt compelled to comment on it and assure me she would not at all be frightened to meet her despite Georgiana’s general reservations about meeting new people?

I sat back in my chair, stricken, trying to recall the words I had used, and came up with nothing. Or rather an excess of everything, having trouble distinguishing between what I had written and what I only thought in my frenzied brain and would not dream to put on paper. Unfortunately, I did not have a copy of my sent letters in my possession. I usually kept a copy for personal reference, but it was too cumbersome to arrange them when I traveled, so I opted for making a few notes, in case of pressing business matters. Georgiana now held the only evidence of my passion, probably—hopefully—not realizing what she had in her possession. I wanted to get the letters back immediately, but it would not do to order her to send them to me, drawing her attention to the precious content.

I reread the concerning passages again and again, trying to make sense of the mess I had created. Miss Elizabeth was a woman like no other, and she had gripped me with a sort of wicked witchcraft, but she had gone back to her home, leaving me in peace. I would be afforded further peace in quitting Hertfordshire entirely, leaving her behind like some fevered daydream. I had been certain that upon my departure, I would never have to hear the name Bennet again or contemplate the peculiar bearers of them.

Yet here was a letter that negated all these beliefs. Georgiana wrote she was delighted that I had met such a charming new acquaintance, that she already had a high opinion of her because of my recommendation. When I returned to Pemberley, surely she would enquire about the said creature. What would I say then? What could I say then? To lie and say that she was not worth to be thought of would surely put me in a poor light since—apparently—I had previously stated the opposite. To say that she was too charming to think of and therefore best left to the past would be circumspect at best. I had dug myself a grave and now would have to lie in it.

Georgiana expressed fear that I might think Miss Elizabeth too good for her company. I could almost hear Miss Bingely’s shrill laughter at that idea, should she ever come to hear of it. And Georgiana and Miss Bingely had a friendly relationship, so the possibility was of some concern. Georgiana must never ask about my charming new acquaintance in that company, or I must be revealed as the biggest of fools. Or worse—Miss Bingely might take it upon herself to correct my folly and describe Miss Elizabeth with a sharper pen.

In the letter, Georgiana promised to be her sweetest self and not put me to shame when she would meet my new friend. My heart literally ached at the words because my sister had such a low opinion of herself. And because she wanted to meet someone like Miss Elizabeth, and I would have to deny her with all my might, not being able to bring myself to explain the necessity of it. Georgiana wanted to have Miss Elizabeth as an example to better herself, probably in my eyes alone, and rereading that sentence made me crumple the frustrating piece of paper.

It was fine. Everything was fine. If I told Georgiana not to speak of my assessments to anyone, she would not. If I told Georgiana to forget the matter entirely, she would. Without complaint, without hesitation, she would submit to my will and accept my judgment as final. I uncrumpled the letter and smoothed it on the table, dipped my pen in ink and began to write my answer, though I could not get past the greeting. 

All the orders halted, unwilling to flow on paper. I did not wish to express them. I did not wish to tell Georgiana to part with her imaginings of a new friend, just as I did not want to part with those imaginings now that they were presented to me: Georgiana and Miss Elizabeth together, walking hand in hand; Miss Elizabeth teasing out a gentle smile from my sister; Miss Elizabeth and Georgiana at an instrument playing a duet.

The images filled my heart until it bubbled over and scalded my very soul, whatever I had left of it. It was painful and beautiful, and it could not be. If I could play at partiality, I could arrange a visit to Pemberley—I was sure I could—and enjoy all the positive effects Miss Elizabeth would have on my sister, her selflessness and caring one of the most delightful aspects of her character. But there was no question—I could not be partial. I already could scarcely be in a room with her and not try to possess her in any way that I could. Letting her into my home, entirely under my rule, would be a disaster in the making.

Georgiana and I would have to be left unsatisfied.

*

My pondering on the subject at hand would not cease. A walk would only cause me to think of Miss Elizabeth more, a book would not capture my attention, the company of others irritated me. I needed to give it a few days, I decided. Like any sickness, it would pass in time. Quicker, perhaps, if I made my excuses and left immediately.

There was, however, the matter of Bingley. I was in two minds about the situation—I had to admit I was selfish in both. Either I would fulfill my threats to Miss Bingley and see her cry as my friend wed that beautiful and sweet girl, ignoring the consequences and providing me with lifelong access to the sister of his beloved, making me succumb to her wiles sooner rather than later; or I would do everything in my power to sever the connection between Bingley and Miss Bennet, therefore setting myself free of Miss Elizabeth for the rest of time. I could pretend that I was working in the service of a friend. I believed it even. But my underlying motives still reared their ugly head. 

I could not but decide what I wished for more—to damn or save myself.

Damnation would be a wicked pleasure. To choose to follow my desires and make Miss Elizabeth mine, honorably and with all due propriety, but likewise to ignore her unsuitability for the role of a vampire—her family’s low standing, her upbringing that had not marred her character, but no doubt presented gaps in her understanding of the world that could not be salvaged now, her lack of fortune to help provide for the expensive lifestyle she would enter—would be a dreadful disservice to her and to myself. It would quench an ache, but would sow seeds of destruction in its wake. 

In saving myself from Miss Elizabeth, I would also save her. Just like Miss Bennet could not say no to Bingley, should he ask, so her sister could not deny me—I was too wealthy, too powerful, too desirable, while she and her family held no such assets. It did not much matter that I was almost twice her age, that I was a vampire with all the benefits and drawbacks that it presented. Miss Elizabeth had little choice in the matter: if I would bid her, she would love me. Maybe reluctantly at first, but in time—and time we would have aplenty—she would give me her heart for safekeeping.

A nice enough picture if one was colorblind and could not see the red bloodstains marking it. I had no such advantage. Vampirism was a chore that me and my sister were half-forced, half-convinced into. It came with unmistakably high connections and privileges, such as being impervious to age, to illness, to injury. It also came with drawbacks: blood was one of them, matching the vampire with the suppliers was its own special kind of hell; your body was suddenly this foreign entity that looked just like it had before, but acted against your usual habits—hunger, sleep, fatigue, physical strain did not manifest as they had in the past and it was easy to underestimate your limits; the social stigma, the rumors that surrounded our kind of people were a persistent irritation; there was also the danger of fanatics who had decided the rid the world of us, believing in the inherent evil of our existence.

A curious thing to agree to this out of one’s own free will. Originally, it was my father’s decision to enter into vampirism. He, along with 50 other notable families, declared to follow the King and the Prime Minister in becoming vampires. My father and my mother both would do it, but my mother died before it could happen, and my father soon followed. Instead of two Darcys the great vampirism scheme suddenly had none. That is where my sister and I came in. We were urged in the strongest terms possible to fill the void vacated by our parents, and, like two descendants of a proper English family, we bowed and agreed. 

Since none of us were married, they provided us with an additional dispensation, guaranteeing the turning of our respective spouses—should we acquire them—into vampires. At the time it seemed like a delightful idea, though truly that document more than anything was the cause of Georgiana’s current misery. Had we not been a special case with a special dispensation, our spouses would have to apply for the privilege of being turned into vampires and hope to be deemed worthy. But since we were a very special case indeed, Georgiana had become an uncommonly delicious sort of marriage prospect. I never thought to take measures against that—she had been only fifteen at the time. I also never thought to suspect the person who would eventually take advantage of her.

I did not dare think that name, to recall that face. The pain that he had brought upon us would last an eternity, even though his bones would become dust before we barely had a taste of our immortality.

*

In the morning, or as early as propriety would allow, I sent for Mr. Lamb. He was free of his beautiful charge, and with the removal of the Bennet sisters I could ask my question without shame or at least without casting a shameful shadow in their direction.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Darcy?” Mr. Lamb arrived without complaint of the hour, in all possession of his faculties. I would have thought his age might make him slower, but so far it had never come up. He assured me that there would pass another decade before I would have to seriously consider getting a replacement. I dreaded that moment, being averse to change. It was not like changing a cook—a headache in its own regard—where the consequences might be inconvenient, but not as life-threatening.

“I had a question about blood,” I said, betraying nothing of nervousness on my part. I had practiced my speech and was sure of the steadiness of my voice. “How much would I have to consume of the wrong blood to feel its effects?”

Mr. Lamb looked instantly concerned. “Have you consumed any recently?”

“Yes.” A small lie, recency being a relative matter. “By accident. Only a drop or two, I think.”

This did not lift the concern off his features. “It is not an exact science. The variables have rarely been tested, but from what I gather, it is better that you clear the following day or two to allow yourself to recuperate.”

“Only because of a drop or two?” My surprise was not feigned. I had initially been tested with a larger amount, a teaspoon, and though it had a severe effect then, I was sure I was a stronger individual now, fortified with a steady and fulfilling diet. That a drop could strike down Georgiana, I had no doubt, but that same math could not possibly apply to me.

“I don’t believe the discomfort will be too great, but it is always better to take precautions in these matters. There is also the question of the health of the accidental supplier, which can affect you further.”

“I am rather shocked to receive such a communication.”

“You should not be, since I have explained these issues at length before.”

“Then why let me swallow a spoonful, when testing blood—that is my issue here.”

“It was some time ago, Mr. Darcy. You have now been getting exclusively compatible and healthy blood for years. Your body’s aversion to even a small amount now would be more than natural.”

So that was the problem—I was too well fed, spoiled even, that a drop could render me sick. Not too sick, I corrected myself. I wondered how much would render me unconscious, before the realization hit me—I had a drop or two of untested blood and had emerged unscathed without even a trace of symptoms. The meaning of that fact should have made me speechless with rage at myself for trying something so idiotic. Instead, I was curiously delighted at the prospect of drinking from Miss Elizabeth again, properly this time. The images and the sensations came of their own accord, and my desire to see them fulfilled was unquenchable.

Miss Elizabeth was lucky indeed that she was no longer staying at Netherfield-House.

“I see,” was all I said, hoping my eyes did not shine too brightly with all the possibilities that now lay before me. The possibilities, I should add, that I must avoid at all costs.

Mr. Lamb sent me to bed, and I went not unwillingly. I relished some time on my own, in the quiet of my room, to ponder the paths before me. I doubted I could apply myself to anything else.

They sent me a double portion of blood to strengthen me in my hour of need. At least I felt guilty about that, if nothing else. I had no need for a double portion, but I drank it dutifully nonetheless, so it would not go to waste and I would not be suspected of my deceit. I lay in my bed full and dreamy when the notes started coming in, wishing me swift recovery. Mr. Lamb had probably informed the household that I was unwell and not to leave my room. Bingley must now be determined in thinking that the house was cursed and everyone who came to stay here must fall ill. Perhaps that was for the best. Bingley deciding to quit Hertfordshire abruptly would resolve a lot of the issues we were having with the Bennets. He could hardly hope to see Miss Bennet in London and there was not another place for rent or for sale in the near vicinity that would do for him.

If his feelings were anything close to mine, I doubted that aspect would deter him. He was likely to live in a hovel, if only it afforded him the possibility of seeing Miss Bennet. I would say the same of me, except that I had a greater sense of self-control, which was well enough, because as a vampire it would serve me well through my centuries of temptation.