Chapter 10 - A Most Unusual Letter
Posted on 2008-09-06
The Bennets had not yet completed breaking their fast when Mr Bennet was summoned by the arrival of a post express. When he returned bearing an opened letter and an expression of mingled bemusement and amusement, Lizzy wondered what could possibly have caused her normally imperturbable parent to be so astonished.
"My dears, it would seem we are to have a visitor this eve." Papa even sounded stunned. "For reasons best left unknown, our cousin Mr Collins has decided to mend the breach between our families."
Before Lizzy could begin to respond to such extraordinary news - for she knew well that Papa's cousin had stated many times he would cheerfully turn them all out of Longbourn - her father added, "It would seem that my dear cousin's son has a more interesting view of the entail than his father."
Mr Bennet seated himself, and looked over the letter once more, leaving Lizzy to wonder just what absurdity this unknown cousin had produced.
"Perhaps I should simply read the letter and allow you to make your own judgments, my dears?"
Lizzy said nothing. She could tell from Papa's mood that he would read the letter. Kitty and Lydia's entreaties might drown Jane's soft, "Please do, Papa," and Mary's prim, "Of course such a letter is of interest," but they would do nothing more than to furnish their quixotic father with amusement. Much as Lizzy wished that her father would not play the emotions of others, she knew better than to expect him to cease one of his chief amusements.
"What, nothing from my Lizzy?" Papa asked when the tumult had faded.
She smiled at her father. If he would tease his family, then she would tease in turn. "When you have clearly decided already, Papa? Why should I waste my voice on that which is pointless?"
Her father laughed. "Observant as ever, my dear, and as unwilling to pander to an old man's fancies."
All the Bennet girls knew better than to respond to that observation.
"Very well, I shall read."
Their cousin Collins had, it seemed, recently been installed in the living at Hunsford with the support of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a lady the gentleman regarded with obsequious awe, being flattered by what sounded to Lizzy like domineering selfishness rather than generous patronage.
She wondered if Lady Catherine was the mother of Mr Darcy's cousin Anne, whose resemblance to Mary had startled that gentleman into such incivility. There could surely not be two de Bourgh families with daughters named Anne. It was coincidence enough that her cousin Collins should be associated with one.
That Anne de Bourgh was of frail health was perhaps less surprising - Mr Darcy's response had been that of a man concerned for one close to him. It was only inappropriate addressed to a young lady he had never before met. Why Mr Collins should choose to mention such details in a letter to cousins he had never seen was a different question altogether, and one for which Lizzy could find no satisfactory answer. The best notion she could devise was that he was so awed by his noble patroness that he regarded them with near-blasphemous idolatry. That he might be at best a weak-minded man and at worst a pandering one did not speak well for his professed reason for acquainting himself with his cousins.
Mr Collins sought a wife, and viewed Longbourn's bounty of daughters as both a good marriage prospect, and a means to reunite the two branches of the family. Lizzy could not think badly of his intent, for if he should capture the heart of one of her sisters he would spare them all the fear of being turned from their home if their father should die before they were safely married.
Lizzy hoped that despite the ridiculous nature of his letter Mr Collins would prove to be agreeable in person. Perhaps he was simply one of those men who had difficulty expressing himself with the written word - and surely a letter requesting that he be permitted to mend the breach between the two branches of the family could not be easy to write. She must not allow her first impression to color her view of the man: better to withhold judgment until she knew more.
"Well, my dears?" Mr Bennet asked when he had finished reading.
"While I am sure it would disappoint you, Papa, I hope Mr Collins is more sensible than his letter suggests," Lizzy said. "Much as his desire to reunite our family is to be applauded, a truly ridiculous man would find it hard to win any of us to his cause."
Mary nodded solemnly. "Surely a man of the cloth will be a worthy man." A little amusement leaked into her voice and eyes. "Despite his unfortunate letter writing."
Lydia laughed. "Then you are welcome to him, for I am heartily grateful I am not eligible!"
Mrs Carlisle frowned. "To take a noted dislike on the grounds of a single letter is unwise, Miss Lydia. The gentleman may merely be a woeful correspondent."
Lizzy had never heard stronger condemnation from Mrs Carlisle. Clearly the ridiculous letter had disturbed her as well. "I wonder if his patron's family is the same De Bourgh as Mr Darcy's cousin," she mused. "It is such an unusual name: surely there could not be more than one family bearing it."
"Perhaps you would like to investigate Burke's Peerage, Lizzy?" Mr Bennet asked. "Lady Catherine de Bourgh must surely be noted."
Rather than respond to the mischief in her father's tone, Lizzy only said demurely, "That would be wise, Papa. We would not want any unpleasant surprises, after all."
Mr Collins lived down to his extraordinary missive, being at once servile and puffed up with his own importance, filled with insincere praise for all things while comparing all to his noble patroness's manner in a way that eliminated any flattery he might attempt.
If that were not enough, the gentleman took so little care with his appearance that his skin was marred by blemishes, his hair lank and greasy, and his clothing askew. When Lizzy caught herself thinking he looked like a black stork caught in a storm, she had to disguise her laughter as coughing, then try to deflect Mr Collins's entirely unwelcome eulogy on the fragile health of ladies.
Mary diverted the man before Lizzy could distract him. "You read Fordyce, Mr Collins?"
Mr Collins leaned towards Mary, and smiled. "Indeed I do, Miss Mary - may I say, Cousin Mary? I find Fordyce an invaluable reference on the state of mankind and the lamentable ease with which one might fall from grace." He puffed himself up - exactly like the stork, Lizzy thought - "Indeed, I have referred to Fordyce's works often in my own sermons, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh finds such references exceedingly pleasing."
Lizzy had to wonder how Mary could listen to such a statement with a perfectly straight face. All of her sisters were fighting the desire to laugh.
Mary's eyes sparkled with amusement, although her face and voice were perfectly grave when she said, "Do you not think, sir, that Fordyce places over-much emphasis on the strictures society has raised rather than upon scripture? You have studied at seminary - your knowledge of such things must perforce be greater than any I can claim, yet it would seem to me that if one is to speak of morality one's first reference ought to be the Bible."
Perhaps not a stork, Lizzy thought, but some sadly bedraggled black fish with its mouth open as it struggled for air.
"You astound me, Cousin Mary!" Mr Collins did indeed sound astounded. "I had not expected to find scholarly discussion in such amiable company."
Without the wheedling servility, he sounded much more amiable himself.
"Oh, Papa is quite the scholar," Mary said with a smile. "We have all spent much time in his library. Perhaps you would like to see what books Papa has that might suit you?"
Oh, clever Mary! To seize so quickly on what appeared to be a genuine interest could not help but keep Mr Collins occupied in ways that did not include exaggerated praise of his patroness.
The gentleman gazed around the parlor. "If my fair cousins have no objection to me departing for the library, I should be honored, Cousin Mary, although -" He paused, perhaps caught by hitherto concealed sensitivity.
Mary laughed, a soft, gentle laugh. "Oh, Longbourn's library could not match that of Rosings, Mr Collins. It is, however, far more accessible to you now, and with Papa being a scholar himself, may hold more that is suited to your tastes. The de Bourghs have surely filled their library according to their tastes, after all."
Lizzy managed to control herself until the parlor door closed. After that, she could only try to laugh as softly as she might.
When at last she regained control of herself and raised her eyes to apologize to her sisters, she found that all of them, even Jane, had tears of mirth streaming from their eyes.
She shook her head. "I know I should not laugh so, for he has clearly been terribly disappointed in his life, but oh! Such a man!"
Kitty glanced about before launching into a fair imitation of their cousin's manner. "Why Cousin Elizabeth, surely Lady Catherine de Bourgh allows no-one in her care to be disappointed."
"Kitty, please don't!" Jane sounded as though she was likely to choke.
Mary returned shortly thereafter, red-faced and wiping tears from her eyes. "Ah, this I must never do again. It is too cruel of me." She shook her head and dropped gracelessly onto the settee. "Life truly has been hard on our cousin. He was so grateful for the freedom of Papa's library he forgot to mention Rosings Park."
Lizzy took a slow, unsteady breath. "Then he has been ill-used, Mary? The wretched creature with nothing but praise seems... well..."
Mary nodded, sobering. "Papa's cousin Collins could neither read nor write. I gather he was not a kind man. Mr Collins learned first from Mrs Collins in lessons she concealed from her husband, then at the village school. He entered the seminary on scholarship."
That bare description was enough for Lizzy to imagine the details. Small wonder Mr Collins was such an odd mix of pride and cringing flattery. The poor man must have lived much of his life in terror - she ought not to make mirth at his expense.
"We must try to be kind." Jane's voice was not quite steady. "Perhaps his manners will... improve as he grows more confident."
Lizzy nodded, but she could not help thinking that poor Mr Collins was unlikely to become easier to bear.
Posted on 2008-09-21
The day following Mr Collins' arrival, the Bennet girls walked into Meryton with their cousin. Lizzy desired to see if the books she and Mr Bennet had ordered had arrived, and Jane had need of new ribbons for her best bonnet. Mary hoped to find new sheet music available at Meryton's book store, and neither Kitty nor Lydia wished to miss an opportunity to investigate any new fabrics or bonnets that might be available.
Since Mr Collins had expressed an interest in the walk and the book store, he naturally joined them. Despite his clear lack of familiarity with exercise, he made no complaints, and seemed to Lizzy to be thoughtful. Often his gaze strayed to Mary, and a frown touched his face, quickly pushed away.
Meryton buzzed with excitement, for the Guard regiment had arrived to encamp not two miles from town, and young officers had already made conquests amongst Meryton's mamas. A wealthy gentleman might be a good match, but a handsome officer with a bright future before him could not but be a more exciting prospect for their daughters.
"Why look!" Kitty gestured towards a cluster of red-coated officers. "Is that not Frank Denny? How he has grown!"
Young Denny did indeed look far more impressive than Lizzy remembered. The uniform suited him, and his moustache had grown from the fair fuzz of the boy to a fine gentlemanly specimen. He had filled out and grown taller, too.
Lydia sighed. "He looks so handsome," she murmured. "Not at all like the boy who pulled my braids in church."
Mary, Jane and Mr Collins took themselves into the book store, as none had the least interest in officers in general or Denny in particular. Lizzy stayed to ensure that Mrs Carlisle was not left with both Kitty and Lydia's exuberance. She could make her purchases after the excitement had passed.
Denny must have noticed them, for he excused himself from the cluster of officers and approached, bowing when he was close enough for speech. "Miss Elizabeth, Miss Kitty, Miss Lydia. What a pleasure to see old friends from home looking so well."
Lizzy and her sisters curtseyed.
"You are looking well yourself, Mr Denny." Kitty smiled. "Army life agrees with you."
Lydia retreated to Mrs Carlisle, as was proper, but Lizzy could see how much her sister longed to be able to participate in the conversation.
"Captain Denny," he said with an answering smile and clear pride. "The orders with my promotion came through two days past."
"Congratulations, Captain." Lizzy took care to sound merely courteous. "It is a pleasure to see one of Meryton's sons advancing himself."
Denny's grin was, as always, open and infectious. "There are plenty of opportunities for an eager young man, Miss Lizzy."
"Are you keeping all the pretty young ladies to yourself, Denny?" The voice, a smooth tenor, came from behind them. A moment later, its owner, a handsome young gentleman who did not wear regimentals walked around and offered an engaging smile.
Denny shook his head. "Excuse my friend Wickham. He has just recently purchased his commission and has yet to receive his uniform. Wickham, three of the Miss Bennets, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Lydia."
Lizzy raised one eyebrow. "I was not aware that the possession of a uniform granted a man immediate propriety." She kept her tone light, playful. It was possible Wickham had a reason for his disrespectful manner.
"Indeed, it does not." Wickham bowed. "But a man may be forgiven being struck dumb by such visions of beauty, may he not?"
Lizzy curtseyed. "When he apologizes, forgiveness may be granted," she conceded. She was sure she heard Lydia stifle a giggle.
Wickham smiled again. "Then I must apologize abjectly for my sins, for to be forgiven by a lovely lady such as thee must be almost as ardently desired as pleasing her at all times would be."
A charming rogue, Lizzy decided. "You are forgiven, sir." She allowed no hint of her feelings to escape to her voice. Wickham did not seem altogether trustworthy, though she could not say why.
She heard horses approaching, but before she could turn to the sound, Denny said, "I believe the Colonel's promised assistance is here." The young man smiled. "Colonel Forster has but recently been promoted himself, and this is his first assignment. Colonel Fitzwilliam from the regulars is his advisor for the next few months."
Wickham blinked, and paled a little. He glanced towards the approaching riders, and swallowed. "I must take my leave," he said. "It was a pleasure meeting you, ladies."
Lizzy's lips pursed as she watched Wickham walk away. He seemed to be moving at a leisurely pace, but there was unwonted stealth in the way he kept to the shadows cast by taller buildings, or attached himself to groups of people until he had passed beyond her sight. How very odd.
Denny spread his hands. "I fear I must depart, too." He bowed again. "Colonel Forster will likely have need of his officers."
They made their farewells, then Mrs Carlisle repaired to the haberdashery with Kitty and Lydia, leaving Lizzy to seek the sanctuary of the book store. She longed to discuss the brief meeting with Jane, for something about it disturbed her. Something about Mr Wickham...
Lizzy turned to Mr Darcy's voice, and curtseyed. "Good day, Mr Darcy."
A hint of a smile touched the gentleman's severe countenance. "I wished to thank you and your sisters for the trouble you took to ensure I had a pleasant evening at the Assembly." He removed his hat. "Since we seem to have the same goal, I thought this an opportune time."
"Thank you, sir." Lizzy smiled. "I can not say that Meryton will provide all you could desire, but Mr Brooks does keep a good establishment, and if you are planning an extended stay he will order any item you may desire."
Again, Darcy's lips twitched as though he wished to smile but fought the urge. "This is useful information indeed, for I fear Netherfield's library is a trifle lacking." He opened the door.
Lizzy nodded acceptance of the courtesy, and entered the store. "I am sure that Papa would be willing to allow you freedom of his library, if you were inclined to ask. He has already granted a similar favor to our cousin Mr Collins, who visits from Hunsford."
In the dimmer light of the store, Darcy's face seemed to harden. "Hunsford? Is that not the Rosings Park living?"
"It is," Lizzy agreed. "Mr Collins is greatly impressed by Rosings - and his patroness there."
There could be no doubting her observation: Mr Darcy was not pleased.
Darcy watched Miss Elizabeth Bennet walk gracefully to the counter, listened to her inquire of the clerk about her father's order. His stomach remained tight and he had to fight the urge to clench his fists.
Bad enough to see that scoundrel Wickham in conversation with her - though he was reassured in some measure by Miss Elizabeth's frown when the wretch departed: she seemed not at all impressed by Wickham's easy manners and handsome faηade. But to learn that his aunt's rector visited, and worse, was cousin to the Bennets, was too much. Lady Catherine had gone too far in her desire to see him married to his cousin Anne.
Much as Darcy liked his cousin, he felt nothing more for her than he felt for his sister. Anne de Bourgh was as much a sister to him as Georgiana, and one in need of more care for her frail health and mother's intemperance left her incapable of fending for herself. Georgiana at least had the Darcy strength of will as well as better health than many of her peers.
That last, Darcy attributed to Georgiana's love of riding and other outdoor pursuits, and her dislike of London.
He sighed under his breath. It seemed the whole world conspired to anger or frustrate him.
Fitzwilliam had also seen Wickham, Darcy reminded himself. His cousin would be more temperate than he. Fitzwilliam was easier in society than Darcy: he would be able to quietly ensure that the people of Meryton were not deceived by the likes of that... Darcy could think of no word vile enough to describe the man.
Miss Elizabeth's voice distracted him from his musings.
"He seemed amiable enough on the surface, Mary, but there is something about him I mistrust. Something... false."
Mary Bennet's response was thoughtful. "And he hastened away in a stealthful manner when Mr - Captain - Denny mentioned Colonel Fitzwilliam? That seems odd for a man who has just purchased his commission. Surely he would wish the chance to shine before a superior officer?"
So Wickham had joined the milita? That explained his presence here: it was merely an evil chance. Fitzwilliam would see that Forster knew to watch him.
Many men purchased commissions in order to erase some stain upon their honor or their family. If Wickham intended reform, this might be the path he had chosen.
Darcy could not believe anything so benign. The militia typically maintained a posting for no more than three months - time enough for a man to leave a string of unpaid debt and worse and depart with little or no trace.
He would need to speak with Mr Bennet, and warn him about his daughters. While Bennet had no fortune to speak of, others in the district might, and Bennet undoubtedly knew to whom Darcy's warning should be imparted.
That left only - only the need to control his temper. Darcy wondered if the fabled labors of Heracles might not be less difficult.
Chapter 12 - Distress at Longbourn
Posted on 2008-10-05
Lizzy breathed in deeply as she rode, enjoying the clean smell of the air after rain. After two days trapped inside by spring rainfall, it was a pleasure to make her rounds of Longbourn. Jane should return from her visit to Netherfield in the afternoon, the storm having begun after Martin Hill had seen her safely to her destination and come close to halfway home.
Lizzy hoped her sister had enjoyed her visit. She suspected that in Jane's place she would have found the company of Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley tiresome at best. It was as well she had not been included in the invitation.
Something moved on the road ahead, and Lizzy reined Demeter in although she rode slowly enough to avoid most surprises. Many of the tenants had young children, and those children could be unpredictable.
The shape emerged from the distance as a boy of ten or so, running as fast as his legs could carry him. He did not appear to be running from anything, though as he drew closer Lizzy could see his panicked expression.
"Miss Lizzy!" The boy skidded to a stop near Demeter. "Miss, c'n ye come to Ma's straight off? There's a terrible thing happened to our Maggie."
Maggie Waters, the oldest girl in a large and thriving family, was thirteen and already showing signs of growing into an attractive woman. Rather than waste time wondering what could have happened to the girl, Lizzy nodded and urged Demeter into a gallop. Young Jimmie Waters would not be so panicked if it the need was not truly urgent.
Mrs Waters' eleven year old daughter Lily stood at the door of their modest cottage with her hands clenched in her apron. "Ma's in back wit' Maggie, Miss Lizzy," the girl said while Lizzy dismounted and collected her basket of remedies.
She nodded, and hastened through the carefully tended cottage to the bedroom, where Mrs Waters knelt by the bed, her head bowed and her shoulders shaking. "Mrs Waters?"
The woman scrambled to her feet. "Miss Lizzy! Is there... is there anything you can do?" She gestured to the bed, then scrubbed her eyes with her apron. "My John found her this morning, over by the Millbridge road. She's..." She dropped her head into the apron, shuddering. "My Maggie's a good girl, Miss Lizzy. She'd never do nothing like..."
Lizzy drew closer. Her breath caught when she saw the girl. Maggie Waters might have been pretty once - if she survived she would never be pretty again. Not only was her face bruised and swollen beyond recognition, bandages marked worse damage. Lizzy had to swallow against nausea before she could ask in a trembling voice, "You say she was... violated?"
Mrs Waters nodded, still shuddering. "She's a good girl."
"No fault attaches to her." Lizzy steeled herself, reached into her basket. "I do not know what we can do for Maggie, Mrs Waters, but you have my word that there will be neither shame nor penalty for your family. You have enough to bear."
Lizzy leaned against the wall outside her father's study. She wanted nothing more than to retreat to her bed and cry herself to sleep, but she must complete one last task before she could in conscience take that retreat.
After helping Mrs Waters to clean and bathe her daughter's wounds - the woman's distress rendered her incapable of thought - Lizzy had left the younger children with instructions to send to "the big house" if there was any need. She had instructed the women who had heard of Maggie Waters' plight that no-one was to go anywhere alone and sent them to spread word to the rest of the tenants, then returned to Longbourn to send for the doctor to see to Maggie's injuries and have Mrs Hill send food to the Waters family for as long as there was need.
Cold anger at the perpetrator carried her through those tasks, but now, before she could tell her father what had occurred anger failed her and left only weariness of the soul.
She shuddered, took a deep breath, and entered her father's sanctuary.
Mr Bennet sat in his favorite chair, a battered old thing with faded upholstery he had refused to have re-covered. "Lizzy?" He looked up, and rose, alarmed. "Lizzy, my dear. What has happened?"
She stumbled towards him. "Oh, Papa. It is horrible beyond words." Lizzy gulped back a sob. "The Waters... their girl Maggie..." The whole story tumbled from her lips in a tangle of barely controlled words.
Her father's arms wrapped around her, and he rocked her gently as he had done when she was very small. When she had calmed a little, he guided her to his chair and helped her to sit. A small glass pressed into her hand. "Drink up, Lizzy. It will make you feel better."
She smelled her father's brandy, but drank anyway, coughing a little when the strong liquor burned all the way down to her stomach. It did indeed steady her nerves, making the whole business seem more distant, though no less terrible. "Thank you, Papa."
Her father settled in the guest chair. For once his usual air of benign absentmindedness was replaced by grim anger. "I must speak to the magistrate, the Lucases, the Gouldings, and Mr Bingley and his guests. You are correct that none should go about alone - including you, my dear." He sighed. "I will speak to Hill about having a few of the bigger lads guard the Waters family. As word spreads, the wretch may decide he ought to ensure his victim can tell no-one anything about him.
Lizzy's breath caught. She had not considered anything so vile.
Mr Bennet patted her hand. "I wish this had not happened and exposed you to the very worst of men, dearest Lizzy." He shook his head. "I shall tell your sisters. You need to rest."
At any other time, Lizzy would have objected, but she could find no strength to disagree with father.
Lizzy awakened with her head aching and a bitter taste in her mouth from sleeping during the day. Dreams of being attacked by a faceless man left a cold horror about her, and she shuddered.
There was one remedy, no matter how unladylike, that would protect her from the worst of men. If - heaven forbid it - the need should arise, she would deal with the consequences when they came. Better to live in disgrace for killing a would-be attacker than to be violated because she could not defend herself.
With that thought uppermost in her mind, Lizzy donned her oldest day dress and took herself to the stables, where she removed her flintlock pistol from her saddlebags. The solid weight of the weapon in her hand reassured her.
She knew the pistol as well as any man, from the priming to the firing. Necessity had proved that she could shoot accurately, for more than once she had found need to rescue an inexperienced cowherd from a bullock with ideas above his station. If she could down a charging bullock while mounted and at full gallop, she could shoot a monster in a man's skin.
The only difference, she told herself, was that the cowherd's family would not receive a gift of twenty pounds of prime beef afterwards.
Her stomach refused to accept that reasoning, but Lizzy still felt safer with the flintlock at hand. Cleaning, arming and priming it daily rather than weekly would be tiresome, but well worth the price.
Now she need only devise some means of keeping it with her at all times.
That thought occupied her as she returned to the bedroom she shared with Jane. The flintlock was too heavy for a reticule, and too bulky to be concealed by the folds of a dress.
Lizzy searched her room, a grim smile catching her lips when she found the old basket she had once used to collect polished stones from the stream near the hunting fields. It was still sturdy, and with a little muslin, the basket would look like a slightly countrified reticule. Perfect.
She laid the flintlock in the basket, and took it downstairs with her when she went to join her sisters.
After a startled glance her way, none of Lizzy's sisters said anything about either the basket or its contents. Conversation faltered and stuttered while she worked to disguise the purpose of the basket, all of the Bennet girls seeking to divert their thoughts from the unfortunate victim.
Even Mr Collins was blessedly silenced by the tragedy. If he realized what Lizzy was doing, he chose not to mention it.
Instead, after a long, awkward silence, he asked, "May I ask what will seem a terribly impertinent question, Cousin Mary?"
Mary smiled. "You may ask, Mr Collins. If your question is so very improper, you will receive a response that tells you so." She sounded gently amused, almost as though she teased a younger brother.
Collins swallowed. "It is just... I could not fail to notice, Cousin that you bear a marked resemblance to Miss de Bourgh, and I wondered..." His voice trailed off, and he twisted his handkerchief between his hands.
To her credit, Mary showed no sign of discomfort. "I have heard the resemblance is striking," she agreed serenely. "You may set your mind at rest, Cousin, for to our knowledge it is mere coincidence." A little mischief entered her expression. "Surely if we were connected to a family as notable as the de Bourghs we would know it."
Lady Catherine must be truly a harridan, Lizzy mused. Her rector remained awed and terrified by her even when vacationing in a remote part of Hertfordshire. She watched her cousin's hands twist his handkerchief tighter, then returned her attention to the basket.
"I... forgive me, Cousin, for this is dreadfully presumptuous of me, but..." He swallowed. "It seems to my humble gaze that where poor Miss de Bourgh is blighted by ill health, you are the flower of all that she could be, and much as I admire, nay, more than mere admiration! I am forced to admit that if you were to be so very gracious as to welcome any overtures I might make, Lady Catherine would be terribly offended if I were to return with a wife who is so like her daughter might be were she in the bloom of health."
Lizzy realized her mouth had fallen open, and closed it. Surely her cousin realized that he was in company!
Mary certainly did: she blushed scarlet and dropped her gaze to the plain sewing in her lap. "Sir, you do me too much credit. I am greatly flattered by your regard, but it is too soon for such a decided step."
Mary's influence had already worked wonders on Mr Collins, for he bowed acquiescence. "As you choose, fair Cousin," and said nothing further on the matter. With his skin clearing and his hair clean, he was not so unprepossessing as he had seemed upon his arrival at Longbourn, Lizzy realized, and without the tedious speeches comparing all things to Lady Catherine he was far more likeable than he had initially seemed.
"You were not here when Charlotte came by, Lizzy," Kitty said. "The Lucases are to hold a ball. They are inviting the officers as well as our neighbors." She smiled. "The rest of us are well set for it, but you have not had a new gown since Mary's first Season."
The thought of dancing and festivities only made Lizzy feel ill. "Oh, no. Please Kitty... not now." She shuddered. "I... will need a little time before I can think of such things without discomfort."
Chapter 13 - Investigations
Posted on 2009-11-05
"Good Lord!" Bingley laid the note down, then lifted it again, re-reading as though he could not believe what lay within.
Darcy raised an eyebrow. "Might one ask what is so disturbing?"
Bingley handed him the note with a shaking hand. Before Darcy had read more than half the message, he understood his friend's shock. "You will, of course, inform your servants and tenants?"
"Of course." Bingley's voice was less than steady. "What an appalling thing to happen."
Darcy could not argue. Such an attack could only be committed by the most craven, most perverse of men. Rumors that such things occurred and were condoned by certain parties for reasons of honor did nothing to make them more palatable. Bennet's action was correct: whoever was responsible should be brought to justice and as quickly as may be. Had one of his tenants suffered a similar attack, he would have done the same thing.
"If you have no objections, I will take this to my cousin. Unfortunately, due to their recent arrival the men in the militia will be suspected - it is best if investigation there begins as soon as possible."
Bingley nodded. "I suggest you take a weapon in case you are delayed. If anyone were to happen on this creature while he went about his foul business..."
That consideration was not one Darcy had expected from his usually good-natured friend. "I intend to," he assured Bingley. The sad truth was that men of perverse tastes came from all classes, though in town those "gentlemen" could sponsor "orphanages". Much as he might wish to eliminate such perversity, he could not. He could only protect those within his influence to the best of his ability.
He strode through the front door only to see Fitzwilliam dismounting. The Colonel's grim face said clearly that he, too, had heard. "Good day, cousin. What urgent business sends you out alone?"
"I suspect the same business that brings you here." Darcy handed Fitzwilliam the note.
His cousin nodded. "Meryton is buzzing. The good townsfolk are convinced that the officers are not keeping the men sufficiently controlled."
"I feared as much." Darcy sighed. "I assume investigations have started?"
"Forster has begun inquiries." Fitzwilliam grimaced. "I fear they will be of little use. The man has clearly been advanced too early at the behest of his uncle General Williams. Oh, and I received this." He pulled a letter from his saddlebag and extended it to Darcy.
Darcy's brows rose as he scanned the letter. A moment later, he stepped back, alarmed. "They told Aunt Cat?"
"You need not fear." Fitzwilliam shook his head. "I am the one to drag her here on this 'arrant nonsense'." He imitated their aunt's sour manner so well Darcy found himself fighting a smile.
"She will bring Anne," Darcy pointed out. "Then she will tell anyone who will listen that we are engaged and press me to marry my 'intended'."
Fitzwilliam grinned. "Come, now Darce, there are compensations. Think how quickly Miss Bingley will leave off her attentions to you in favor of my brother."
An ungentlemanly snort escaped Darcy's control. "Randall would likely find her delightful." He shook his head. "But... did they say nothing of the reason they are all coming here?"
"Not a word." The Colonel shrugged. "No doubt we shall find out soon enough." He eyed Netherfield speculatively. "It may be just adequate for Aunt Cat, but I imagine the rest of the family will find this a congenial place. You had best warn Bingley of his guests, for there is no other place they can stay."
"And you?" The thought of adding more bad - or at least, awkward - news to Bingley's day did not appeal.
Fitzwilliam lost all his good humor. "I am going to have a little discussion with our old friend Wickham."
Wickham had changed little over the years, Fitzwilliam thought with distaste. Cheerful and amiable, easy in company, able to inspire trust in others and betray it without a second thought. In fewer than seven days he had accumulated significant gaming debts against Meryton's finest. Fitzwilliam had found him in the worst tavern in Meryton along with several other young officers. Forster was not going to enjoy his interview.
The Colonel nodded to Wickham. "Take a seat." When he had moved from Netherfield to Meryton, the landlord of Meryton's best inn had been kind enough to provide him with a small private parlor for interviews. Fitzwilliam had already found it invaluable.
Wickham seated himself with a cheerful - and insolent - smile. "Thank you, sir. What can I do for you?"
Fitzwilliam would have cheerfully broken a few teeth for that. To face him so calmly when he had very nearly ruined Darcy's sister! Georgiana had believed herself in love with the callous rogue, and had almost eloped. That Wickham showed not a hint of remorse only emphasized the man's lack of decency.
Rather than allow his anger to overrule him, Fitzwilliam said, "Considering your associates, I find it quite possible that you have heard more than the regular gossip about the child found this morning."
Wickham appeared unconcerned. "Some farmer's brat getting herself in trouble, as I heard it," he said in a casual voice. "Hardly anything for someone of your rank to concern yourself with, I would have thought, sir."
Fitzwilliam allowed none of his anger to show. "I imagine whoever was responsible would like people to think of it that way," he said coolly. "The townsfolk think differently, and blame the militia. I want this settled."
A slow blink was Wickham's only change of expression. "And here I thought you had come to accuse me of the deed."
"I recommend you reconsider that comment." The colonel would have liked nothing better than to do precisely as Wickham suggested. There were many young women who would find it a fitting punishment for his misdeeds. "Your offer is entirely too tempting."
He grinned. "Ah, but you are a man of honor, Colonel."
"And you are a man in debt to some characters who would happily break every bone in your body should you fail to pay them." Fitzwilliam knew the type. Like his cousin, he had dealt with Wickham's leavings in the past. "If you choose to be difficult, I may just leave you to your fate."
Wickham only smiled. "Poor Georgie. It would be so unfortunate if the letters we shared were to become known."
Fitzwilliam favored the man with his coldest stare. "Yes, it would. A certain young man by the name of Wickham might find himself demoted and assigned to the Peninsula front lines." That penetrated the man's smug superiority. "War orders have not been rescinded, so any man in the militia may be transferred to the regulars."
Wickham swallowed. That possibility had evidently not occurred to him when he had purchased his commission.
Chapter 14 - The Ball Before the Storm
Posted on 2009-11-14
For the first time in his life, Darcy found himself looking forward to a ball. That he did had little to do with the charms of the Lucas family, who he found sadly provincial, much less the congeniality of Lucas Lodge - it was inferior to Longbourn, and that estate was modest enough. Darcy's eagerness lay in the release from tension the ball would provide, and the last freedom it represented. The following day, the Fitzwilliam family would descend upon Netherfield en masse, bringing Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her daughter Anne with them.
That Lady Catherine would have it that she was the one descending and her brother's family trailing in her wake did nothing to cheer him. The prospect of her arrival held the same qualities for Darcy as a man facing his own execution.
Worse, another girl, the ten year old daughter of a Meryton laborer, had been attacked in the same way as the tenant farmer's child. Colonel Fitzwilliam had been forced to overrule Colonel Forster and confine all the militia to camp until each man's whereabouts on the nights of the attacks had been attested to. The death of the first victim would likely have been followed by the deaths of one or more soldiers at the hands of the townsfolk without that measure.
Darcy privately suspected that Fitzwilliam longed for the release from tedious sorting through records and statements that the ball would give him. He had paroled close to half the officers by virtue of a card party held the night the second girl was attacked, and many of the enlisted men had been in camp with their movements fully accounted for. Of the remainder... Darcy was unsurprised that one Lieutenant Wickham was among those whose time could not be fully accounted for. Though he had attended the card party, three of the Miss Bennets had noticed that he was absent for a time between his arrival and his eventual departure, an observation corroborated by several other observers including more than one of Wickham's fellow officers.
Darcy sighed. He could not suppress a wish that Fitzwilliam was here to relieve him of Miss Bingley's attentions. It was unconscionably selfish of him to think so, and unfair as well. Caroline Bingley was merely a typical example of Society, and as such, she was hardly to blame for behaving according to expectations. Women as cheerfully unconventional as Miss Elizabeth Bennet were rare creatures. He had never met any who were also as accomplished as she.
The combination intrigued him. He had yet to defeat her in a game of chess - Mr Bennet was perhaps the best player Darcy had ever met, and had taught his daughter the game he could discuss military strategy with her with the same ease as music or literature, but never once did she make any attempt to claim superiority over any other woman.
It was... intoxicating. In Miss Elizabeth's company, Darcy found himself stretching, like an old stallion exercising long unused muscles to outrun a new rival. It made him wonder just how much he had set aside when he had returned to Pemberley after his father's death. Immured in estate management and disliking society, he had done himself a disservice by failing to seek out like-minded friends.
If Bingley had not been so cheerfully insistent, Darcy might never have become the younger man's friend, never have journeyed with him to Hertfordshire. The thought that his own increasing solitude might have denied him his friendship with Miss Elizabeth was a goad to spur him into more openness than he had ever offered.
Lucas Lodge was a rambling old estate, the oldest portions dating back to Elizabethan times, with new sections added seemingly at whim. For all its age and erratic improvements, it was a comfortable home and had the advantage of an ancient great hall with high ceilings supported by great beams of oak.
At any other time, Lizzy would have enjoyed a ball at Lucas Lodge, but with the horrible attacks on young girls, she was in no mood to parry Sir William's effusive goodwill.
She knew Sir William cared about the victims of the attacks, for he had been among the first to offer assistance to both families. It was simply that, having rendered appropriate assistance and arranged for his tenants and servants to take precautions, Sir William put the matter from his mind and went on with the serious business of being affable and cheerful to everyone from the highest to the lowest.
Lizzy envied her father, who had retreated to Sir William's library, where he would likely remain until the ball was over. She had no such retreat.
"Miss Elizabeth? May I have the pleasure of the next dance?"
Lizzy smiled up at Mr Darcy, though her smile seemed forced to her. "I would be honored, sir, although I fear I cannot promise not to discuss unsuitable topics."
He returned her smile, though his eyes were tight with worry. "A lady such as yourself must render all topics suitable. Even --" His smile widened, and his eyes sparked a little. "-- animal husbandry." He extended his hand.
Lizzy accepted the gesture, and walked with Darcy to take a place in the sets forming. "Or Sappho?"
"Even so." More tension faded from Darcy's eyes. "A true lady can bring respectability to the most disreputable of Greeks."
The music began, and he bowed to her curtsey. Lizzy found herself warming to the verbal duel. "How truly remarkable, sir. I was under the impression the ancient Greeks maintained habits beyond respectability."
"They were somewhat indiscriminate," Darcy conceded.
The movement of the dance separated them briefly, after which Lizzy said archly, "You are too generous, Mr Darcy."
He regarded her soberly. "With an inspiration such as yourself, how could I not?"
Lizzy's face heated. She was neither generous nor inspiring. "Ah. You seek to unsettle me with lavish praise."
"I assure you, I give praise only where it is due."
Surely she was bright red by now. "Are you certain your bill has been correctly tallied, sir? The amount due seems excessive."
"I believe it has been calculated with impunity," Darcy said with a perfectly straight face.
Lizzy feigned shock. "Alas, my honor is thus impunned."
Fitzwilliam had begun to relax when he realized that several officers who had not been cleared were at the ball. It was only with the greatest of difficulty that he finished the dance without offending his partner.
Forster's explanation for their presence did nothing for the Colonel's state of mind. It was not acceptable to permit men under investigation to attend a ball because their more fortunate companion officers were attending.
Darcy joined him in the quiet corner of Lucas Lodge's great room. "What is that scoundrel doing here?"
Fitzwilliam sighed. "Forster believes it unjust to require the officers who have not been cleared to remain in camp."
The Colonel met his cousin's glare calmly. "Indeed. At this point our best effort is to watch the men in question and hope there are no more incidents." He shook his head when Darcy made a half-gesture towards a sword or pistol he did not wear. "No duels, cousin. They will serve nothing."
"So we simply watch?"
"Really, Darce. You will give yourself a horrible headache." Fitzwilliam made a shushing motion. "Several of the cleared men are no friends of certain of those in doubt. I will speak with them during the evening." Such measures were inadequate, as Fitzwilliam well knew, but they were all that was available to him at present. "Go and dance with your Miss Elizabeth."
"She is not 'my' Miss Elizabeth," Darcy said through clenched teeth.
Army life had taught Fitzwilliam to take every opportunity for enjoyment available to him. He chuckled at his cousin's discomfort. "The way she smiles when you speak? Oh, I think she is very much yours, cousin."
Darcy's blush was truly entertaining.
"Go on, Darce. You must not let that scoundrel destroy your pleasure." Fitzwilliam half-pushed his cousin towards the Miss Bennets. If any man deserved happiness, it was Darcy.
Fitzwilliam was far more thankful than he ought to be that his military duties would prevent him from attending his family's invasion of Hertfordshire. Darcy had no such excuse to protect him from their aunt's excesses.
Chapter 15 - Invasion at Longbourn
Posted on 2009-11-30
The chaos that attended Longbourn was the inevitable result of five lively young women living in the same home. Though all ran smoothly, Mr Bennet was frequently obliged to retreat to his library simply to escape the overwhelming femininity. The animated discussions following the Lucas's ball and their focus on the joys attendant on a surplus of young gentlemen ensuring that no young lady was obliged to sit out a set were quite enough to drive him to his favored retreat, where the topics of young gentlemen and dancing were quite forbidden.
Thus, it fell to Lizzy as the first Miss Bennet the flustered servant could locate, to discover that Longbourn was invaded by fine carriages and noble gentlemen come with Mr Darcy.
A peek through the curtains of the front parlor confirmed the servant's panicked estimation. No fewer than three carriages stood outside the estate, with gentlemen assisting ladies Lizzy had never seen.
Though she wondered what had possessed Mr Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam to inflict such an extraordinary gathering upon their small estate, Lizzy was quick to discard such speculation in favor of ordering a light tea for the unexpected guests, to be served with the best china, and to show their guests into the front parlor the only room Longbourn possessed capable of accommodating so many.
There was no time to change from day dresses to something more suitable for receiving visitors: there was barely time for her sisters to move from the south parlor to the darker and colder front parlor. Extracting her father from the library proved as difficult as she feared. Though Lizzy was quite capable of receiving guests, she saw no reason to impress upon them how very unusual the Bennet household could be.
The introductions were no less startling. Lizzy found herself murmuring polite greetings to what seemed like Mr Darcy's entire extended family. Only his sister was absent from the extraordinary collection.
Longbourn had been invaded by Lord James Fitzwilliam, the Earl of Ashton, his wife Lady Eleanor, their older son Lord Randall Fitzwilliam, the Viscount of Lizzy did not hear the full title in the buzz of discussion Colonel Fitzwilliam, Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her daughter Anne who did indeed bear a most startling resemblance to Mary and Mr Darcy, who seemed the least notable of the guests.
Even Lydia's usual liveliness was overwhelmed and she retreated behind Mrs Carlisle's black skirts. Lizzy had to admit she longed to do the same.
Once their guests were seated in the front parlor, Mr Bennet said, "I must say, while I am honored by such an illustrious gathering, I am equally bemused as to its reason."
The Earl looked from Mr Bennet to Mary, then Anne. "Can you not guess, sir?"
Had she been alone, Lizzy would have winced when her father replied, "The resemblance is remarkable, yes, but surely that is mere coincidence."
"That, sir, is what we are here to determine." Though the Earl appeared to be a friendly gentleman of her father's age or thereabouts, Lizzy could hear the steel in his voice. On this matter, he would not be deterred.
Lady Catherine's eyes narrowed. "There can be no connection," she declared. "That chit," She indicated Mary with her chin, "is nothing like Anne."
Miss de Bourgh did not wince: she seemed to shrink into her chair. She seemed so pale Lizzy feared she would swoon.
Mary flushed with anger, but she said only, "We would not think to demean someone of your standing by claiming a connection, Lady Catherine."
All the gentlemen coughed, and amusement lit Mr Bennet's eyes.
The Earl cleared his throat. "The late Mrs Bennet was a Miss Gardiner, I understand?"
Lady Catherine drew in a hissing breath.
"That is correct." Lizzy's father seemed more than a little bewildered by the question. "Miss Fanny Gardiner."
"The sister of Miss Julia Gardiner and Mr Edward Gardiner?"
Her father nodded. Lizzy could not help wondering how the Earl should know so much about her mother's family.
"Then, sir, we have a problem." The Earl spread his hands in a gesture of apparent helplessness. "You see, twenty five years ago, my sister Catherine's daughter Frances vanished, along with her governess Mrs Gardiner. That Mrs Gardiner had two children, a daughter Julia who was fourteen at the time, and a son Edward, who was not yet five years of age."
It was clear to Lizzy that Miss de Bourgh had never known of her lost sister: she swayed in her chair. Mary hastened to the young lady's side, and helped her to rise. The two slipped from the room with no others noticing all were focused on the Earl and on Lady Catherine.
"Impossible!" that worthy insisted. "My Frances died. She did not disappear." The lady continued on that vein at length, repeating many times the obvious inferiority of the Bennets, and the impossibility of any connection.
It was not often that Lizzy saw her father shocked into silence. She suspected the Earl's astonishing revelation was the cause, for Lady Catherine's tirade, while insulting, would more normally inspire only amusement and quixotic mockery.
When Lady Catherine finally finished with, "I will not have it!" the Earl shook his head.
"The decision, sister dearest, is not yours to make," he said in a dry voice. "Sir Lewis's will is quite clear on the matter. Rosings Park is left to his daughter Frances if she lived still, her heirs if she left any, and only then to Anne."
Lady Catherine paled. "You will not steal Anne's inheritance!"
Lizzy could not help but wonder whether the lady realized how very obvious it was that she did not so much as look to where her daughter had been seated. Poor Anne must lead a miserable life with such a mother.
"Speaking of which, where is Anne?" the Viscount asked.
Lady Catherine clutched her chest.
Lizzy intervened before another tirade could erupt. "Miss de Bourgh was looking unwell, so my sister Mary helped her from the room. Shall I see where they are?"
Lady Catherine's expression was one of pure venom, but the other members of Mr Darcy's extended family appeared relieved and grateful.
Lizzy curtseyed, and hastened from the room. No wonder poor Mr Collins was so overwhelmed by his patroness. Lady Catherine was the kind of harridan who would terrorize anyone, even the Prince Regent.
As Lizzy expected, Mary had taken Miss de Bourgh to the south parlor. The two young women were talking cheerfully, and Miss de Bourgh seemed much improved by the warmer, quieter environment.
"Miss de Bourgh?"
The young lady shrank into herself.
Lizzy tried to smile reassuringly. "May I inform your family that you are well and comfortable here, and need not be disturbed?"
She winced at the sound of raised voices from the front parlor, then offered a wry twist of a smile. "That would be wonderful. Mama can be... overwhelming."
"Evidently," Lizzy said in a dry voice. "On one thing you need not fear, Miss de Bourgh. I can safely say that neither I nor my sisters have any desire to deprive you of your inheritance even if there is a connection such as your uncle believes may be possible."
Miss de Bourgh shook her head. "Please, call me Anne. If there is a connection, then we are closely related."
"Then you must call me Lizzy." With a smile, Lizzy added, "Though I fear I could not possibly call you Aunt, though if there is a connection you would indeed by my aunt."
Anne who appeared to Lizzy to be of an age with Jane smiled, color returning to her face. "Oh, that would be so very silly. I could not possibly be an Aunt to five young ladies: it is positively spinsterish."
Mary laughed softly. "Oh, yes. We young ladies must avoid spinsterish appearances at all costs for fear they become the reality."
All of Longbourn's illustrious guests with the exception of Lady Catherine responded to Lizzy's report that Miss Anne de Bourgh was resting comfortably in the south parlor with relief. Lady Catherine was somewhat displeased.
"Is my daughter to be subjected to such inferior conditions?" She glowered at the earl. "I fail to see why it was necessary for poor Anne to be subjected to this."
The earl sighed. "No, Catherine. You simply do not wish to acknowledge that Anne, not you, is mistress of Rosings Park, much less that Miss Bennet may be the rightful owner."
Jane flushed and looked down. "I have no wish to deprive anyone of their home."
Lizzy was not certain whether to bless or condemn the servant another of Mrs Hill's many daughters who opened the door quietly and whispered to her, "Pardon, Miss Lizzy, but Mrs Phillips is here."
Her Aunt Phillips was certainly a distraction, and might well have some light to shed on what seemed to Lizzy to be a pointless argument, but why had she come, and why now?
A partial answer to that question could be seen in the looks exchanged by the colonel and Mr Darcy, both of whom appeared to find Lady Catherine's vehement denial that there could be any connection between the Bennets and herself highly amusing.
They were not the subject of the vicious tirades.
"Show Aunt Phillips here." Lizzy murmured. She did not add that one more overwrought person could hardly make things worse. She half expected Mrs Carlisle to apply her most effective cure for hysterics: a sharp slap to the face of the hysterical party. If that failed, a glass of cold water in the face generally succeeded.
The viscount's whispered conference with his brother and Mr Darcy did nothing for Lizzy's composure. This whole situation was simply ridiculous. If Mama had been anyone other than the daughter of a moderately well-off widow, she would surely have told Papa so.
The parlor door opened once more, admitting Mrs Phillips. That worthy froze in place and stared around the parlor as though she faced her worst fears. All color drained from her face.
She tried several times to speak, but it seemed to Lizzy that her aunt could not force sound from her mouth.
Lady Catherine drew in a hissing breath. "You! Ungrateful chit! You and your thieving mother should have been transported."
Mrs Phillips flushed and straightened. "Mama took nothing: it was all Fanny's mad notions."
While Lizzy tried to collect her thoughts and Lady Catherine remained open-mouthed with the shock of being contradicted, the Earl asked, "It is true then? Fanny Gardiner was in truth Frances de Bourgh?"
Mrs Phillips nodded. "Fanny planned it all," she said in an oddly tight voice. "She hated Rosings and her mother." Following that remarkable statement, Mrs Phillips swayed on her feet, and fainted dead away.
Chapter 16 - Past Secrets
Posted on 2009-12-29
Though Darcy had begun to expect some connection between the Bennets and the de Bourghs, if only by virtue of his aunt's vehement denial that any such thing could be possible, he did not expect so dramatic a confirmation.
He half-rose, intending to offer assistance to Mrs Phillips, then sank back when that worthy was surrounded by the Miss Bennets. Aunt Cat's loud protestations merely made his head ache.
Fitzwilliam caught his gaze and made a wry face.
Darcy shook his head at his cousin. At least Anne was away from this insanity. It would do her no good to see her mother shrieking like a harpy that Mrs Phillips must be a liar of the most degraded sort to claim that her Frances would ever do anything so disrespectful.
He blinked when the governess Mrs Carlisle, if he remembered correctly rose and stalked across to Aunt Catherine, slapped her twice, once on each cheek.
For a long blessedly quiet moment, Lady Catherine de Bourgh was rendered silent by the assault.
Mrs Carlisle nodded to the startled Earl. "Sir. I find a sharp shock is usually sufficient to quiet a bout of hysterics. The lady should take a little brandy to calm her nerves."
Darcy bit his lips. It would not do to smile, especially as his uncle was having difficulty keeping a straight face.
"Thank you, madam." The Earl's voice was not quite steady. "Would you be so kind as to arrange it? I bow to your good sense in this matter."
Mrs Carlisle curtseyed and took herself to the door, where Darcy did not doubt as many servants as could gather about it waited and listened. If he were to be honest with himself, he would have preferred to listen at the door himself: he would not be targeted by Aunt Cat.
Lady Catherine finally found her voice. "How... how can..."
To Darcy's surprise, his Aunt Eleanor replied, calmly, but with an edge of steel to her voice. "My dear sister, you were overwrought. Do try to remain calm until brandy is brought for you."
Perhaps it was the shock of gentle, quiet Lady Eleanor approving of the treatment that caused Aunt Cat to subside. At any rate, she had not found her voice until the redoubtable Mrs Carlisle returned with brandy.
"Sip slowly, madam. It will settle your nerves." Though the governess's tone was properly respectful, Darcy had the disconcerting impression she was taking a quite improper amount of amusement from the matter.
Certainly, her presence was sufficient to keep Aunt Cat quiet and astonishingly obedient.
Darcy doubted Mrs Phillips was any happier: waking to a flock of Bennet girls and their genuine solicitation must have been in stark contrast to the curious and not entirely friendly gazes of Darcy's family.
The Earl bowed slightly. "I do apologize, madam. I had not intended to cause such a shock."
Mrs Phillips, once helped to a chair, could only blink.
He continued as though he was unaware of her reaction. "Please, do not fear that you will suffer for the actions of others. You were not old enough to fully appreciate what was happening, and if Frances prevailed upon your mother, then no blame attaches to her either. We seek only the truth."
Brandy was supplied to Mrs Phillips to settle her nerves a remedy Darcy found more to his taste than smelling salts and the Earl waited until her breathing had settled a little before he asked, "Would you be so kind as to relate what you know of Frances's departure from Rosings and her life after that?"
Mrs Phillips blinked, then swallowed. Darcy doubted she found Miss Kitty Bennet's solicitous presence at all comforting.
"She... insisted we call her Fanny, when her mother was not present," Mrs Phillips said at last. "Frances was too formal, she said." Another swallow. "Fanny loved company. She was never happier than when there were people around her. Mama indulged her as much as she could sometimes I think Mama cared more for her than she did for us."
If that were true, it would explain the sourness of Mrs Phillips tone. "When she was sixteen, there was a regiment stationed in the village. Mama thought an officer would be a good catch for me, so she often allowed me to walk there. Fanny would come too she would flirt and chatter and pretend to be my sister so they did not suspect her to be the heir of Rosings. She wanted to marry for love, she said, not some fortune chasing lord or anyone her parents deemed suitable."
By now, Mrs Phillips had consumed enough brandy to be quite relaxed indeed. She leaned back with her eyes half-closed. "She adored her father, but Sir Lewis was often away on business, and she claimed her mother was far too strict and had forgotten what it was to be sixteen and long for freedom."
Lady Catherine opened her mouth to object, and took another sip of brandy instead when Mrs Carlisle raised one hand.
"That was when Mama's brother in Meryton died, and left everything to her. It was no great fortune, but there was a town house, and enough for Mama to live comfortably and to give me a good dowry without harming Edward's chances." Mrs Phillips closed her eyes. "Only Fanny insisted on coming with us. The regiment had left, and she wanted... I truly do not know what she wanted. She said it would be a great lark, to be Miss Fanny Gardiner instead of the untouchable Miss de Bourgh, and she brought some of her jewelry enough to sell so that she would have a dowry matching mine so no-one would suspect anything."
No wonder the Miss Bennets were such resourceful young ladies, Darcy thought bemusedly. With a mother like that, they could hardly be anything else.
Mr Bennet looked as though he had swallowed a live frog. "Why did she never tell me?" he asked softly, presumably not expecting an answer.
He received one anyway. "Fanny was afraid you would insist on contacting the de Bourghs if you knew, brother," Mrs Phillips said. "Her only regret was that she never did provide you with a son."
Mr Bennet turned his head and dabbed at his eyes. He looked much older, haunted by grief. "My poor Fanny." That, too, was clearly not intended to be heard.
Mrs Phillips fortunately had the sense to ignore the comment. "Mama tried to refuse her, but Fanny disguised herself as one of the carriage drivers, and by the time we knew, it was too late. She could not return alone, and she claimed her mother had disowned her. Mama was too soft-hearted to send her back, so when we reached Meryton, Fanny was part of Mama's family as she had intended."
Mrs Phillips sighed. "There is little to tell after that. Fanny married Mr Bennet, and I married Mr Phillips. She told no-one, not even Edward, that she had adopted Mama and me. He was too little to remember any of it. When she died, she was buried as Fanny Bennet nee Gardiner. I still miss her." With that, Mrs Phillips's eyes closed, and she sighed again.
After such an extraordinary confession, it was a long time before anyone spoke. Finally, Fitzwilliam broke the silence. "Well, Darce. You were clearly not mistaken about the family resemblance."
Darcy cleared his throat and reminded himself that dueling his cousin would gain him nothing, and lose him his closest friend. "So it would seem." He shook his head. "I expected to hear of some distant connection, not this." He had not doubted that Fanny Gardiner was in some way connected to the de Bourgh family, but that she was Frances de Bourgh, the long-lost heir of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, strained credibility.
Lady Catherine opened her mouth, glanced at the grimly determined Mrs Carlisle, and possibly the only time Darcy could remember her ever doing so decided discretion was the better part of valor.
The Miss Bennets drew close together, their whispered conversation quite animated if their expressions and gestures were any guide. Not that there was any disagreement they appeared to be emphatically in agreement.
"Sadly, I feared something like this," the Earl said in a tired voice. "Frances was always... impetuous."
Mrs Phillips nodded, but she did not speak.
Miss Jane Bennet's normally tranquil expression held the kind of determination Darcy had become accustomed to seeing from Miss Elizabeth. "With all due respect, sir, we do not see that this changes anything. Aunt Phillips surely speaks truth, but her word is not evidence enough to deprive Miss de Bourgh of her inheritance and we do not desire any involvement in any such attempt."
Her sisters nodded.
The Earl blinked. "Young lady, you must realize your determination is impossible."
"Not so, sir." Miss Elizabeth leaned forward, as though entering combat. "The general knowledge is that Miss Frances de Bourgh died young. To resurrect her and claim Mrs Bennet, nee Gardiner, was once Miss de Bourgh, would require an extraordinary degree of evidence. Further, it would forever brand us as fortune chasing harridans who had deprived an innocent young lady of her inheritance."
Darcy had to turn a bark of laughter to a cough. "Sadly, Uncle, Miss Elizabeth is correct on that account. However much evidence was offered, society would regard the Miss Bennets as fortune hunters."
The Viscount muttered something that sounded remarkably like, "Damn society, anyway."
Darcy chose not to hear him.
His uncle was not deterred. "Young lady, your grandfather's will explicitly stipulates that your sister Miss Bennet is the rightful heir of Rosings Park and the de Bourgh fortune."
Miss Jane's expression hardened. "Mama left everything she possessed equally between the five of us. As I understand it, that would require Rosings Park to be sold."
Lady Catherine drew in a hissing breath.
Miss Jane continued, "None of us would wish to deprive anyone of her home."
Darcy could not help thinking that it was fortunate Bingley was not privy to this gathering, or he would beg Miss Jane Bennet for her hand on the spot. Darcy would never have suspected such strength from such a serene, gentle woman.
Miss Catherine added, "We are content to be acknowledged as cousins, if need be. That will satisfy those who wonder at the resemblance between Mary and Miss de Bourgh, without requiring anyone's expectations to be destroyed."
The Colonel chuckled. "If I were a gambling man, I would back the Miss Bennets, father. They would give old Boney pause."
The Earl folded his arms. "All the more reason to restore what is rightfully theirs." His frown dared anyone to disagree.
"Must this be decided now?" Miss Elizabeth asked. "This news has been a terrible shock to many of us here. It might be wiser to take time to consider the situation." She nodded in Lady Catherine's direction. "I cannot imagine any of us truly expected news such as this."
Mrs Phillips appeared to have taken too much brandy to sensibly respond or to respond at all. Somewhat to Darcy's relief, Lady Catherine seemed to be suffering the same affliction, complete with a dazed, somewhat foxed expression.
Though he knew it was wrong of him, Darcy could not help but wonder if it was possible to ply his aunt with brandy every time he was in her company. She appeared almost amiable.
Chapter 17 - Research and Recovery
Posted on 2010-01-22
While the good people of Meryton puzzled at the arrival of a host of eminent personages at Netherfield and worried over the discovery of another attack this time the sixteen year old daughter of one of Sir William Lucas's tenants, who had been missing for some days before her body was found those residing at Netherfield dealt with Lady Catherine's steadfast refusal to accept any part of the extraordinary confession of Mrs Phillips, a refusal as loud as it was unmoving, and the Miss Bennets searched Longbourn for evidence of their mother's past. Mr Bennet retreated to his library and his port, though none could have said which held the greater attraction.
Had she been asked, Lizzy would have replied that her father was taking consolation from his library, though she privately considered his port was his principal comfort. Rumor from Meryton that Colonel Fitzwilliam was inspecting every man's clothing and had applied to the Home Office to replace Colonel Forster did little to calm her nerves.
She had retreated to Longbourn's attic on the second day of steady rain for fear her already fragile temper would snap, and now sat amidst the dust, sorting through the trunks which held her mother's belongings. There were a few gowns, those she supposed had held some special sentimental value to her father, a number of embroidered handkerchiefs, bonnets of a style now sadly outdated, a few pieces of jewelry none of it of a style or quality that a daughter of Lady Catherine de Bourgh might expect and in the very bottom of the trunk, a leather bound book with a worn clasp.
Lizzy moved the lamp a little closer and opened the book.
On the flyleaf was written in a round, childish hand, 'The Diary of Frances de Bourgh'.
Lizzy's hands trembled. This was evidence that a court of law would consider inarguable. She swallowed and, despite the poor light, began to read.
"Lizzy?" Lydia's voice brought Lizzy back to the present. She rubbed her eyes and carefully closed the diary, fastened the clasp. It was all as Aunt Phillips had said, and yet she felt guilty for holding the confirmation in her hands. It would have been far better for the connection to be mere unproven anecdote, based on the word of one who was not yet fifteen at the time.
With both her mother and the elder Mrs Gardiner long dead, who would not accept the word of a Lady Catherine de Bourgh over that of a mere Miss Bennet or a Mrs Phillips?
"Lizzy?" Lydia sounded worried, even a little fearful. "Are you well?"
"I am quite well, Lydia." Lizzy swallowed. "I have been reading too long."
"Here?" Lydia's voice drew closer. "You will ruin your eyes reading in such dim light."
To hear one of Mrs Carlisle's favored complaints not that she had ever been short of complaint about Lizzy's reading in any location whatever the light from Lydia's lips brought a flicker of amusement. "I had not thought to read this long," she admitted. "I found Mama's diary."
Lydia stood immediately behind her, Lizzy guessed. "Oh." It was little more than a breath. "Is it very... romantic?"
"It is not like the novels where the heroine falls in love with the gentlemen who rescues her from terrible danger," Lizzy said instead of a simple answer. She suspected that what she regarded as headstrong folly her sister would see as romantic. Had she read this diary at Lydia's age, she would certainly have thought their mother's actions terribly romantic.
"Not that!" Lydia sounded as though she was fighting laughter. "Everyone knows those are all made up and quite ridiculous."
Lizzy stood, wincing. She had been sitting reading for far too long. She picked up the lamp. "Mama was only your age when she ran away from home, Lydia." She started to pick her way towards the stairs. "She was fortunate Grandmama Gardiner was willing to treat her as her daughter."
"It is all true then?" Lydia asked. "Lord, what a surprise that was!"
Lizzy chose to ignore her sister's choice of language. The attic stairs were steep, worn smooth by much use. It was best to watch one's footing when using them.
"I should much rather have Grandmama Gardiner than Lady Catherine for a grandmother." Lydia seemed oblivious to her sister's mood. "Grandmama Gardiner was nice."
"Lydia!" Lizzy's reprimand could hold little force: not when she agreed wholly with Lydia's opinion. "That is very impolite."
Lydia made a very unladylike sound of derision. "Poor Mr Collins, having to be nice to someone like that! You should have heard him when he learned she had been here. Poor Mary had to spend all afternoon calming him down."
Though it was hardly proper, Lizzy could not help but wince at the memory. She had fled to the herb garden rather than be trapped listening to the unfortunate clergyman. Alas, rain had closed in the following day, and penned her indoors.
Lizzy hesitated at the door to the room she shared with Jane. Part of her longed to hide the diary, to keep her mother's secret a little longer, though her conscience told her it must be shared with her sisters at least, and with Mr Darcy's relatives as well.
"Oh, I almost forgot!" Lydia shook her head. "There is so much happening I have no memory. We have visitors. Mr Bingley is here, with Mr and Mrs Hurst, and Miss Bingley. Jane says will you please rescue her, for Mr Collins is having hysterics in the North Parlor and Mary and Kitty dare not leave him for fear he does something ridiculous, and she cannot entertain all those guests on her own."
Lizzy swallowed. She dared not try to speak, much less ask why Mr Collins would be hysterical an ailment more common to overly pampered ladies. Presumably he had learned the reason for Lady Catherine de Bourgh's presence in Hertfordshire.
She allowed Lydia to lead her to the South Parlor where Jane greeted her with a relieved smile. Lydia excused herself, for she had lessons to attend, leaving Lizzy to settle herself and try to act as though the old diary in her hand was nothing of any importance.
Mr Hurst appeared to be half asleep and not at all eager for the visit, while his wife perched upon a chair as though she feared it might somehow infect her with some terrible ailment.
Once Lizzy had made apologies for not being available when the unexpected visitors had arrived, Miss Bingley said, "Oh, that is of no consequence, Miss Eliza. Only fancy, you and dear Jane being related to Mr Darcy! It must have been such a surprise."
Mr Bingley appeared uncomfortable with his sister's effusions, though not willing to quiet them.
Lizzy risked a glance a Jane, and was unsurprised to see her sister's head bowed and a blush on her cheeks. It would be Lizzy's task to counter Miss Bingley's attempt to form an attachment no doubt another hurdle in the woman's quest to wed Mr Darcy. "Please, Miss Bingley, whatever you have heard can make little difference to my sisters and me. Relations of Mr Darcy we may be, but very poor and insignificant ones."
Darcy had begun to wonder how he might escape his relatives. The wisdom of asking about the Miss Bennets began to seem questionable the moment he learned Aunt Cat would be bestirring herself to pass judgment upon the young ladies in question. After several days trapped between his aunt and his uncle the Earl, Darcy regretted even wondering at the resemblance. Not even liberal application of brandy would blot out these headaches.
Even though Colonel Fitzwilliam had his own headaches with the militia and the discovery of another attack surely not even Wickham was that depraved, and Darcy knew, too well, that Wickham was quite capable of arranging ample feminine company whenever he chose Darcy could not help envying his cousin the absence of an overabundance of relatives.
Relatives who seemed determined to make Darcy's life a trial if not by design, then certainly by effect. Even Bingley and his sisters and Hurst had chanced the inclement weather to visit the Bennets. No doubt Longbourn was more peaceful than Netherfield.
If that were not enough, the Earl's lawyer would arrive within two days, to determine the precise legal standing of the Miss Bennets, no doubt occasioning even more arguing. At least the lawyer would not be swayed by Aunt Cat's arguments she was not among his clients, nor was she ever likely to be.
Mr Bennet could perhaps have been more surprised when Mr Darcy all but begged for the freedom of that gentleman's library, though it would have taken some truly remarkable event. To his credit, Bennet masked his astonishment, and granted the request without further comment.
Darcy thanked the older man, and sighed. "This must have been a terrible shock for you as well, sir."
Mr Bennet appeared older, more careworn than Darcy recalled. "It has been unsettling." A little amusement crept into his expression. "Though I imagine your fate has been a trifle more difficult than mine."
"One could say that." Darcy was a little surprised at his agreement not that Bennet was incorrect, but it was hardly something one acknowledged. "The discussions have been quite animated."
"Of that I have no doubt." Bennet poured brandy, handing Darcy the glass. "You are very welcome to take refuge here. This may not be a great library, but I know the state of Netherfield's library, so I dare say you might find a few items of interest."
"One hopes," Darcy observed in a dry voice. He could not help but feel relief that Bennet had not mentioned the other reason for visiting Longbourn and the estate's library: one did not admit one was hiding from one's relatives.
Fortunately, Mr Bennet did indeed keep a well-stocked library. Darcy could claim that he merely sought congenial reading material and speak perfect truth. Equally beneficial, if not precisely something Darcy had sought, the well-lined shelves were arranged so that they formed quiet and hidden corners furnished with old but comfortable seats where one might settle and read with little fear of interruption.
He claimed a recent edition of the scandalous Lord Byron's works, and settled in one such reading nook, noting as he did a faint hint of lavender with an undertone of a more familiar scent. Presumably at least some of the Miss Bennets used these reading corners as well.
That surmise was quickly proved accurate Miss Elizabeth entered, an old, dusty book in one hand.
Darcy tensed, unsure of that quick-witted young lady's opinion of him or his family.
Miss Elizabeth merely raised one eyebrow, then claimed the other chair in this corner, curling her legs into the oversized chair in a most unladylike and completely unselfconscious manner. She opened her book and began to read, frowning a little and biting her lip.
Darcy tried to focus upon his own book, and failed. Elizabeth seemed utterly unaware of the play of emotion across her face, and though he knew he ought not eavesdrop in such an intimate fashion, he could not bring himself to look away.
She should have been raised with the family, he found himself thinking. With connections and a London season, she would have been the toast of the Ton. Her figure might not be perfectly formed, but she moved with easy grace, and her liveliness and expressive eyes ensured that the overall impression was one of beauty though she did not possess the classical attributes of such.
This was a young woman who would not marry merely to form a connection: Darcy could not imagine her agreeing to the proposal of a man she did not at least respect. He sighed under his breath. If only Georgiana had the same strength of spirit. His sister had been so lost since the Ramsgate debacle, as though Wickham's callousness had crushed her.
At length Elizabeth looked up and regarded him with open curiosity. "Have I a bird's nest in my hair or some other deformity, Mr Darcy?" she asked in a soft voice. "I do not believe you have read a single page since my arrival."
His face heated: the truth of her assertion regarding his reading or lack thereof could not be denied. "I apologize, Miss Bennet. Your appearance is, as always, magnificent, and I found myself drawn by the expressiveness with which you read."
Her blush matched his. "Oh dear. Mrs Carlisle tells me I should not allow that, but I have never been able to prevent it."
Darcy's lips twitched. "Sadly, we are not all able to meet the standards of Mrs Carlisle."
Chapter 18 - A Most Propitious Ball
Posted on 2010-02-14
It was perhaps fortunate that the much-anticipated Netherfield ball should occur while that estate was occupied by its surfeit of notable guests: the presence of those guests ensured that the good people of Meryton were considerably more exercised in displaying their virtues both real and imagined to the visitors than in speculating about the purpose of such a gathering.
Lizzy certainly welcomed the distraction the ball provided. She had, in the end, given her mother's diary to Mr Darcy after one of his visits and after defeating him soundly in a game of chess, much to her father's amusement and wished to hear nothing more of the matter.
That Jane was bereft of good sense in Mr Bingley's presence helped not one whit in Lizzy's opinion, while Mary had quite lost her head to whatever charms the unfortunate Mr Collins presented. All of her sisters had nursed orphaned kittens and puppies to health, though none so fiercely as Mary. Lizzy could only think that Mary saw their cousin in the same light.
With Kitty and Lydia both besotted by the romance of their mother's life it seemed not at all romantic to Lizzy, to risk everything for an uncertain future without even the surety of a suitor to save her from her folly and her father hiding in his study, Longbourn seemed far more confining than usual.
If that were not problem enough, it seemed that Colonel Forster had ceased to care about keeping his men under guard until the perpetrator of the attacks was found, for Denny, Wickham, and two others whose names Lizzy could not recall, seemed always to be about in town whenever Lizzy was there. Worse, it seemed to Lizzy that whenever Mrs Carlisle was distracted Denny often seemed to provide one, having been stationed in Mrs Carlisle's home county of Cornwall for a time and always willing to speak of the places he had been Wickham would pay entirely too much attention to Lydia.
With both the other young officers vying for Kitty's attention, no others had noticed anything out of the ordinary, and Wickham was always properly deferential when any attention was turned his way so much so that Lizzy could not be certain she truly saw improper attentions. Perhaps she was being too quick to judge?
Still, she found herself seeking to assure herself Wickham was nowhere near Lydia as the night progressed.
Darcy, too, found the ball trying. His ears still rang from Aunt Catherine's accusation that he attended to spite his cousin Anne, who was of course too ill to attend.
Fitzwilliam had warned him that Forster had paroled all his officers, claiming it was entirely too problematic to keep them in the camp while no progress was made in the investigations. It was fortunate for Darcy's self-control that Wickham at least had the sense to stay well away from Darcy as much as the flow of the crowd permitted.
He had hoped to be treated to some of Miss Elizabeth Bennet's wit, but that was, alas, lacking. As the dance ended, she apologized for her distraction, and expressing the hope that she had not entirely spoiled the evening for him.
"Miss Elizabeth, you do not spoil evenings: rather you make them worthy." Though a little startled by such outright flattery from his own lips, Darcy could not regret the words, not when the young lady blushed and smiled so charmingly in response.
"Truly, sir, you have spent far too much time in your cousin the Colonel's company, for I would swear it was he who offered such outrageous compliments."
He smiled, unable to conceal his amusement. "There was a time, Miss Elizabeth, when the two of us were counted the greatest rogues in the country."
She raised an eyebrow. "Truly, Mr Darcy? It seems very unlike you. I am sure you were a serious, studious child who never gave your parents the least reason for concern."
Darcy chuckled. "If my parents were here to ask, they would tell you you were quite mistaken, madam. No doubt they would also find reason to regale you with tales of my childhood indiscretions merely to prove the point."
"Impossible!" she declared. "You can have no childhood indiscretions. Now I am a regular hoyden, and have been guilty of many things from climbing trees far too large for a small child to the mysterious appearance of frogs in Mama's bed."
Darcy found his lips twitching. "I recall a well-deserved thrashing for a similar offense." he admitted. "Father was quite determined that I remember that young gentlemen do not populate lady's beds with amphibious wildlife."
He was rewarded with one of Elizabeth's brilliant smiles. "If young gentlemen do not do such things, then clearly you did not."
The interlude was, alas, too short, for Elizabeth was claimed for a dance soon after, leaving Darcy to wonder at her determination to regard him so highly. Her animation did not last: that haunted, somewhat distant expression returned to her face soon after Bingley led her back to the dance floor.
He retreated to the shadows, chuckling to himself at the crowd surrounding his cousins. A Viscount and a Colonel must always outshine a mere Mr when it came to associations, something Darcy did not regret. He truly was not inclined to conviviality, and much preferred the quiet of his library or the peace of Pemberley's grounds.
His thoughts drifted to the old diary Elizabeth had given him. From the pages the late Mrs Bennet showed herself as a heedless, impulsive girl who had never truly matured but had nonetheless loved her husband dearly, and been slowly transformed by her failure to provide an heir. Darcy could understand why she had lost any desire to live following the birth of a boy at last, and the infant's death within a day.
There were shadows of Sir Lewis de Bourgh in Mrs Bennet's manners, and none who read the diary could doubt its accuracy. The lawyers would be drawing up a settlement within days, for Sir Lewis's will had explicitly prohibited any final settlement until the fate of his older daughter was known.
In truth, Darcy suspected the greatest battle would be the attempt to remove Aunt Cat to the London townhouse her husband had provided for her. There was no question of his aunt living within the income provided: she was far too accustomed to being the mistress of Rosings Park, with all that entailed.
Secrets could not be kept for any length of time, and one as momentous as the connection between the Bennets and the de Bourghs had begun to leak within hours of the first argument at Netherfield Park for while the servants at Longbourn liked and respected their employers too much to gossip, the same could not be said for those of Netherfield.
The Bennets being the leading family in the district, and well liked, many of those who had begun the spread of information were delighted that the Bennets should have such stellar connections, believing that the Miss Bennets would now be able to marry as they deserved instead of being confined to such a limited circle as Meryton's.
The man watching the ball found the information worthy of consideration. He would soon have to quit the area, for his necessary activities did not permit him to remain in one location any length of time. Even in the worst parts of London he could not be assured of satisfying the demonic urges for more than a few months without causing uproar.
He loathed that unclean need, but had never been able to suppress it. Any little thing might trigger it: anger, frustration... If he could find no better answer than seeking those least likely to be missed, the thing would drive him to the noose.
His gaze fixed briefly on the cause of it, the man who had frustrated his plans at every turn and was maddeningly unaware of what he had done. Without his presence as a goad and a foil, he might perhaps never have known to what depths he could sink.
There was little point gnawing at what might have been. His adversary was well-established here, fortune once more serving the enemy well while slapping him in the face. He grew weary of it, for it seemed that everywhere he went, the enemy was there, driving him without realizing he did so.
His preparations for departure were made, the debts he had accumulated enough to occupy his adversary for some time. All he required was the agreement of the mark he had chosen to give his flight a reason wholly at odds with his true purpose. That she was attractive and innocent helped: she might perhaps be sufficiently charming to calm the inner demons.
If not... well, he would deal with that when the time came.
Chapter 19 - Family Matters
Posted on 2010-03-13
To say that the final settlement of Sir Lewis de Bourgh's will was not met with universal acclaim was akin to claiming that relations between England and France were a little awkward. Darcy wished he could have devised a means of plying Aunt Cat with sufficient brandy to quiet her.
When she attempted to beat the unfortunate lawyers with her cane an item she did not need to walk but which provided her with a formidable weapon should anyone provoke her ire Darcy responded without thought, moving quickly to remove the cane from his aunt's hands.
"Sit down, Aunt. You are making a fool of yourself." Darcy wondered when he had learned to speak so bluntly. He had neglected to fortify himself with brandy, so that could not be the cause.
"I will not stand for this... travesty!" Lady Catherine appeared beyond persuasion. "My late husband would never stand for this."
Darcy pushed her gently, though firmly back into her seat. "You can read, can you not, Aunt?"
The implied insult left Lady Catherine speechless, though alas, not for long. "You ungrateful..."
Darcy glared around the room. His uncle and cousins could be helping instead of trying not to laugh. "Randall, if you would hold the will? I will hold Aunt Catherine's hands." It would not do to have her shred the will in a fit of rage.
While his aunt sputtered in incoherent fury, Darcy moved to one side and caught her hands. "You are overwrought, Aunt. Now, if you would be kind enough to read the document Randall is holding, we can settle the question in your mind. That is Sir Lewis's handwriting, is it not?"
After another tirade, this time against the cruelty of her nephews and how none of them would be permitted to set foot in her home, Lady Catherine eventually conceded, that the writing was indeed Sir Lewis's hand.
Darcy said in a gentle tone, "Thank you, Aunt. Please read the document for us."
She tried to pull her hands free, but though Darcy was remaining gentle, he would not allow her to free herself. Eventually, after glaring around the room and insulting every person in it, she began to read.
Darcy was quite certain the will did not contain any statements decrying his father's or Lady Eleanor's lineage, nor did it include the many references to ungrateful relatives that seasoned Aunt Cat's reading. The gist of the will remained perfectly clear despite this: Sir Lewis had forbidden his executor to perform any duties not demanded by necessity until the fate of his missing daughter Frances was determined. If Frances de Bourgh did in fact survive her father, she was to inherit. If she died without issue, Anne was the heir.
Sir Lewis had even made provisions in the case of his daughters' presumptive offspring: Frances's son if she should have one, otherwise the oldest daughter, then her son, and so forth. With five Bennet daughters, the likelihood of Anne de Bourgh inheriting Rosings Park was minimal.
There was no question that the Miss Bennets were the daughters of Frances de Bourgh the diary Miss Elizabeth Bennet had located provided the final proof. That left Miss Bennet heir to Rosings Park, with the other Miss Bennets entitled to a substantial dowry. For Anne, there was one of the de Bourgh townhouses as well as fifty thousand pounds, though Sir Lewis had expressed the wish that his daughters be able to live together at Rosings, despite those daughters never having met.
Darcy doubted any of the Miss Bennets would appreciate their newly discovered fortunes, for the conditions Sir Lewis had placed in his will overrode the much simpler will left by Mrs Bennet.
That Aunt Cat would denounce the Miss Bennets as the worst kind of fortune hunters was inevitable. Without any check on her demands, Aunt Cat had come to believe that she had merely to state something and it would, of necessity, be so.
Darcy hoped that he need not be involved in moving his aunt from Rosings Park to the townhouse Sir Lewis had left her. That was a task that would strain the most benevolent of tempers: something not even his closest friends would claim he possessed.
When Darcy, the Viscount and the Earl arrived at Longbourn, Lizzy suspected she knew the purpose of their call. Jane being called in to Papa's study some time after the gentlemen ensconced themselves there merely confirmed her suspicions.
Lizzy's concern was not in any way decreased by Jane emerging from the study with an expression not unlike the time she had found a frog in her bed. Lizzy was not greatly comforted by the certain knowledge that the this time strictly metaphorical frog was no doing of hers.
Jane's goodness was not, as Lizzy had thought when she was a child, in any way false or intended to gain praise in a large, boisterous family. As Lizzy had come to realize, her sister truly was as gentle and forgiving as her demeanor suggested. The one thing Jane concealed was her strongest emotions: those Jane kept beneath the mask of her normal manner.
Lizzy caught her sister's hands. "Jane! Your hands are freezing. Come, sit down and have some tea." Though she itched to ask what Jane had been told, Lizzy knew better than to speak now. Jane would speak in her own time.
They were at least able to sit alone in the south parlor: the younger girls had gone to Meryton, taking Mr Collins with them. Mary planned to collect the music she had ordered from the bookstore, Kitty to purchase new ribbons for her best bonnet, and Lydia to look wistfully at the fabrics and dream of her coming out as well as hoping there might be officers about, no doubt.
Lizzy did not expect any of them to return until quite late.
Jane's hands shook, though she was able to avoid spilling any tea. After two cups both sweetened with far more honey than Jane normally took she set the cup down and sighed. "Oh, Lizzy, this is terrible!" She shook her head. "The earl says I am the heir of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, and there is nothing that can be done to change this."
Since Lizzy had expected as much, she said nothing.
"Poor Miss de Bourgh!" Jane twisted her hands together. "I would never want to take her home, but it seems I must."
"Surely Miss de Bourgh is not entirely overlooked?" Lizzy's view of Sir Lewis de Bourgh would be far from flattering if he had cut his younger daughter in favor of the elder.
"No... But she has believed all her life that she would inherit all, and now her portion is much reduced."
That would be a terrible shock, Lizzy supposed. She had yet to truly accept that Mama was the daughter of Lady Catherine de Bourgh someone Lizzy could not imagine being anyone's grandmother, much less her own. "What of Lady Catherine?" That lady could not have taken this well. "She must be dreadfully upset."
Jane flinched. "The earl says Lady Catherine claims she will never acknowledge us, but Mr Darcy said she is well provided for and " Jane winced. "--deserves to learn a little humility."
Lizzy raised an eyebrow. She could imagine Colonel Fitzwilliam saying something like that, but Mr Darcy, who was so very uncomfortable in company that he retreated to stiff formality? She would have said it was impossible, save that she would also have said it was impossible she and her sisters could be related to anyone so well-connected as the earl and his family.
The Bennet family was old and well-established, but had never been among the first circle of society, and the Gardiners were, by society's standards, far beneath even that. It was one reason Lizzy cared for society only as an arbitrary nuisance. She saw as much worth in Uncle Gardiner's business and growing fortunes as in the more genteel pursuits of gentlemen.
In truth, Uncle Gardiner was better situated than many a gentleman who sneered at his earned fortune: he would have no difficulty providing for his children.
Footsteps alerted Lizzy to the imminent presence of the visitors. Jane had more color in her face now, and her hands no longer trembled.
Papa entered the parlor with the three gentlemen. "My dears, where are your sisters?"
Lizzy and Jane rose to greet the guests, and as a maid one of Mrs Hill's daughters hastened to bring more tea and extra china, Lizzy told her father, "They are gone to Meryton, Papa. Mary wished to collect the music she had ordered, and Kitty's best bonnet is in need of new ribbons."
"And Lydia convinced Mrs Carlisle that such an outing would be beneficial, no doubt," Papa said with amusement. "Did our cousin join them?"
"Yes, Papa." Jane's usual serenity appeared unruffled.
Tea was served, then Papa said his usual humor clearly unaffected by the momentous information conveyed to him "Well, my dears, it seems I have the sad duty of informing you that our little corner of Hertfordshire is soon to be invaded by fortune-chasing young gentlemen, all of whom I shall fight off with what skills remain to me."
The earl's eyes showed his amusement, although he kept his expression unchanged. "Really, sir, you exaggerate. You will have my assistance in fending off the unworthy, and I suspect that of my sons and my nephew."
Lizzy supposed it was a good thing the earl had taken a liking to her father, although she was far from sanguine about the changes in her fortunes.
"That, sir, is a father's privilege," Papa said with a smile. He nodded to Lizzy. "Jane has already heard of her good fortune, Lizzy, but you should know that you and your sisters each have a dowry of twenty five thousand."
Lizzy swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. So much! "How... How can there be so much?" she asked finally. "What of Lady Catherine and Miss de Bourgh?"
The earl chuckled softly. "Sir Lewis was immensely wealthy, my dear niece. Much of his fortune has been held in trust since his death, and the investments he made have continued to bear fruit. My sister receives deBourgh House in London and ample income for her needs. Anne's portion is another of the townhouses Sir Lewis owned in addition to her fifty thousand." His expression softened. "You need not fear for Anne's welfare: she is well provided for."
"Thank you, sir," Jane said softly. "I... hope she wishes to stay: Rosings is her home."
"Just separate her from Aunt Cat and all will be well," the viscount murmured.
That the earl heard could not be doubted: he rolled his eyes and shook his head. "I have no fear for Anne's adjustment." He sighed. "I do ask that you give your grandmother more time: my sister is not taking this well."
The viscount leaned forward. "Father understates, as usual. Aunt Cat had one of her notorious tantrums, and claims she will never leave Rosings, and never acknowledge anyone except Anne as the rightful heir of Rosings." He paused and looked thoughtful. "Perhaps you could lend us your Mrs Carlisle for a time. I am sure Aunt Cat needs a companion."
Lizzy noted that Mr Darcy's lips twitched: evidently he too found amusement in the prospect of Mrs Carlisle's brusque common sense applied to his aunt. Not that Lizzy could entirely fault him.
"Sorry, father." There was no contrition in the viscount's words or manner.
"In any case, my dears," Papa said after a time, "You need no longer fear for your fate should I leave this world before you find husbands. I have no doubt that Rosings Park is quite large enough for all of you, and Jane will undoubtedly find it impossible to deny you." He shook his head. "I do hope the place has a good manager."
"He would be excellent if Aunt Cat did not constantly overrule him," Darcy said. "You may have noticed she is rather... set in her ways."
As polite understatements went, Darcy's comment was remarkable.
20 - Disaster at Longbourn
Posted on 2010-04-14
Given the esteem in which the Bennet family was held, it was not surprising that the whole of Meryton knew of their vastly improved fortunes and connections within the passing of a day. While there was a certain amount of bemusement that Fanny Gardiner had also been Frances de Bourgh and the granddaughter of an Earl, it was not unknown for such things to occur or so it was said and Mrs Phillips was congratulated on her kindness to her adoptive sister.
Since the removal of the Miss Bennets to a much higher social sphere left Mrs Phillips' daughters among the most eligible young ladies in the district, she could not harbor resentment that the deception of over twenty years was now past.
To the Miss Bennets, no real changes were noticeable in their reception from the people of Meryton, though the increase in the attention given by the officers was noticeable. That an attractive young lady with a substantial dowry should be more interesting to an officer on a limited salary than an attractive young lady of modest means was perhaps understandable, though far from admirable.
Jane's heart was engaged with Mr Bingley, so she noticed little of the increased deference, and Mary was gradually transforming Mr Collins into a likeable young man who clearly benefitted from the attentions of a young lady whose education and inclinations so matched his.
Kitty appeared to take the attentions of the officers as no more than her due, though she showed no partiality towards any specific man. Lizzy suspected her sister simply delighted in the novelty, as a young lady only recently out might well do.
Lydia, though... She seemed entirely delighted by the romance of it all, and chafed under Mrs Carlisle's chaperonage. Lizzy feared her too-impressionable sister would be overwhelmed by the entire experience, especially with the she was certain wholly improper attentions Wickham lavished upon her whenever Mrs Carlisle's attention was not on her young charge.
As Lizzy knew well, Mrs Carlisle was but one person: she could not be in all places at all times, nor could she see all things. Unfortunately, the improper attentions of a handsome young officer were a different order of mischief than frogs in Jane's bed. The latter might be startling, even distressing, but would not ruin any reputations.
Finding a time when Mrs Carlisle could be warned was a more difficult matter than it seemed. Lizzy's new or perhaps rediscovered family desired the company of the Miss Bennets daily, or nearly, though it was perhaps a blessing that Lady Catherine de Bourgh absented herself from these occasions. Certainly that worthy did not make the journey to Longbourn, and when the Bennets visited Netherfield could be relied upon to have some ailment too minor for concern but severe enough to prevent her from gracing her relatives with her company.
Mr Bingley was all that could be desired of a host on those visits, and Miss Bingley an attentive if less than sincere hostess. Of the Hursts Lizzy saw little, though when they were present both seemed to harbor a hidden amusement when they observed Miss Bingley.
Lizzy suspected that Mr and Mrs Hurst had effected a reconciliation of sorts, for they seemed easier in each other's company than they had been when she had first been introduced to them. At any other time she might have wondered at this: now her attentions were fully occupied by more unusual circumstances.
The Earl's contention that Bingley was beneath his niece his fortune having been made in trade engendered spirited debate, though both Jane and Mr Bingley himself seemed unaware of the dispute. Mary's response to the suggestion that a mere parson and one whose patron was her grandmother was far beneath her left Lizzy open-mouthed and unable to speak.
Mary had never been so fierce as she was in defense of Mr Collins.
Not that anything Mary said was improper: she did not even raise her voice. It was simply that Lizzy had not expected supporting quotations from sources as varied as Fordyce a use that gentleman had certainly not expected his sermons to see and Shakespeare.
The Viscount's delighted amusement at the whole thing did little for Lizzy's composure. It seemed he and Mr Darcy had engaged in a less-than-subtle competition for her regard, though the Viscount's attentions seemed more those of an older brother than Mr Darcy's.
It was small wonder, then, that Lydia's disappearance one night less than a week after the extent of the Miss Bennets' improved fortunes became known struck with the force of a thunderclap.
Lizzy was preparing to depart for her check of the estate and tenants when a white-faced Mrs Hill called her to the still-room the most private part of the house.
"Mrs Hill? Is anything--"
The folded paper in Mrs Hill's extended hand was enough to quiet Lizzy, particularly when she recognized Lydia's hand.
Her hands trembled as she unfolded the paper, and read the words within.
My dear sisters,
I beg you do not judge me too harshly, for I am truly in love. My dear Lieutenant Wickham and I are gone to Gretna Green to marry, where we shall be very happy indeed. I want none of the inheritance from the de Bourghs: you may share it between yourselves as you wish.
With love and regret,
Lydia Bennet (soon to be Wickham)
The paper fluttered to the floor, released by Lizzy's nerveless fingers.
Lizzy swallowed, and fought the urge to weep. Poor, foolish Lydia! To have been deceived by a man who had almost certainly designs on her portion of the de Bourgh fortune. "Please have Papa, my sisters, and Mrs Carlisle come to the north parlor," she said in a choked voice. "And ensure those who attend us know not to breathe a word of this."
Mrs Hill nodded and curtseyed. "I'll have my Annie bring tea."
They were a dismal gathering: Jane weeping quietly, Kitty white-faced and twisting her handkerchief between her hands, Mary sitting frozen. Mrs Carlisle was grim-faced, and had to be diverted from endless self-recrimination, and Papa...
Lizzy feared her father's heart might give out. He looked gray rather than pale, and his hands trembled so that he could not keep his tea in the cup.
Though Lizzy wanted nothing more than to flee the whole dreadful scene, she could not. She seemed the only one able to think past the horror of Lydia's elopement and Lydia not yet out.
"Lydia believed Wickham would take her to Gretna Green." Her voice sounded weak, trembling. "We do not know if this is the case." She swallowed, and blinked until her eyes cleared. "Papa, we should send people we trust to the roads: they surely cannot pass unnoticed."
"My dear, we have no notion how they are travelling." Papa sighed and closed his eyes. "They may be on horseback themselves."
The tightness in her chest did not leave when Lizzy took a deep breath. "Lydia took a valise and her lace basket. That could not be taken on horseback."
Mrs Carlisle nodded, but she did not speak, and her lips pressed tight together.
"Would you arrange it, dear Lizzy," Mr Bennet asked in a breathless voice. "I find I--"
Of all of them, it was Mrs Carlisle who reached Mr Bennet first, steadying him as he swayed in his seat and moving to loosen his coat.
To Lizzy it seemed that she watched from a distance as she rose and called for someone to bring help to carry her father to his bed, and someone else to send for the doctor. It was that other, calm Lizzy who sent Mary to the still room for the lavender-based tincture that eased tension and Kitty to make a fresh batch of herbal mix rub to ease strain on the heart and lungs.
She set Mrs Carlisle to watch over her father none could be a better guardian, and Lizzy had long suspected Mrs Carlisle would consent to a very different role within the household, should her father realize how very much he relied upon her and ask for her hand.
How many times Lizzy reminded the servants and her sisters that nothing should be said of Lydia's absence she could not say. The shameful knowledge could not be concealed for long, but it must be kept within the household for now. Let Meryton believe Longbourn shunned visitors because of Mr Bennet's illness. It would be true enough ere long.
No sooner had the doctor been directed upstairs than Mrs Hill was at Lizzy's side to tell her Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy waited in the hall.
The calm, controlled Lizzy asked Mrs Hill to have them shown to the parlor, and to bring tea. She would apologize for the state of the household, and request that they Lizzy was not entirely certain what she should ask of the gentlemen, only that she trusted both.
Oddly, Mr Darcy was the one who blurted, "Good Lord! What has happened?"
Lizzy would have expected Mr Bingley to react so impulsively, not his self-controlled friend. "Our father has been taken ill. The doctor is with him now: you must forgive our lack of courtesy."
"But of course!" Bingley hastened to Jane's side, where he took her hands in his. "What may we do to assist?"
Lizzy swallowed. The calm detachment was crumbling. "Sir, I do not know. I think it may be Papa's heart Too many shocks " She struggled to push words past the tightness of her throat, and her eyes blurred. She could not allow tears now, not yet. "Doctor Byers "
Control failed her altogether. She was aware of the quite improper closeness of Mr Darcy, the comfort of his warm hands closing about hers was she so cold that he should feel so very warm? but she could not pull away, could not cease her silly tears, and in front of her sisters, too.
When Annie Hill entered the parlor to say that Doctor Byers had requested that the vicar be fetched, the world grayed, and faded.
21 - Harsh Lessons
Posted on 2010-05-16
Lydia sat in the corner of the carriage and kept as still and quiet as she could. This was all so wrong!
She had been impressed that Mr Wickham would elope with her in such a fine carriage, and he had been all gentlemanly concern at first. But when the carriage had taken the London road instead of the north road, he snapped at her to hold her silly tongue.
She had not dared to speak when he began drinking directly from the jug something that smelled of the vile, cheap drink sold in Meryton's least salubrious taverns. Not that Lydia had ever tasted any such devil's brew: her awareness was entirely based on the smell of the patrons of the places and Mrs Carlisle's sharp comments on the kind of person who would present himself in public in such a state.
To Lydia's admittedly limited knowledge of such things, Mr Wickham appeared to be well on the way to a similar level of drunkenness.
The carriage swayed and jolted: it was being driven far too fast.
Lydia clutched her lace basket, and prayed silently that the poor horse would not stumble, for at this speed that would surely kill them all.
Wickham set the jug down. In the dim light with the carriage shades down very little moonlight penetrated Lydia could not tell if he smiled, sneered, or worse, leered.
"Well, my dear. This is not what you imagined, is it?"
Lydia gathered what courage she could to reply. "Why no, my dear Mr Wickham. In the novels exercises such as this involve ladders, not fine carriages."
He laughed. "Even such as I can find those willing to help me gain my heart's desire."
That meant the carriage had been lent to him: Lydia had to wonder by whom, and with what motive. Surely nobody with wealth enough for a carriage like this would lend it to an officer with few prospects so he could elope. She tried to sound impressed, even awed. "You are so resourceful, dear sir."
Another of those ugly laughs. "A man in my position has little choice, my dear."
Mrs Carlisle despised simpering, flirtatious behavior, but Lydia had seen enough in the assemblies she had attended to be able to summon a passable imitation. "Your cleverness will surely help you rise in society."
She could not guess the meaning of the sound he made, save that it did not compliment anyone, not even Wickham himself.
He leaned close, and Lydia had to force herself not to wrinkle her nose or show any sign of displeasure. Where had the charming young officer gone? More important, perhaps, what kind of man lay below that faηade?
"So, my dear, what shall we do until we reach our destination?" His breath reeked.
Lydia swallowed, and did her best to smile. "Perhaps sleep, sir? We have a long journey to Gretna Green."
Now she was truly afraid. "We are not yet married, dear sir. Surely more than that can wait a little longer."
Wickham's harsh bark of laughter gusted warm, alcohol-tainted air over Lydia's face. "So modest, my dear. Surely a day or two early will make no difference."
No honorable man would even consider such a thing. For a moment, Lydia sat frozen, unable to respond.
Wickham plucked her lace basket from her hands and set it with her valise. Before she could summon words, he stood over her, his legs on either side of hers as he bent to kiss her.
If it could be called a kiss. There was none of the tenderness Lydia had read of in the novels she slipped past Mrs Carlisle's gaze, just Wickham's hot breath and his lips pressed hard against hers. Then his tongue pushed between her lips and one of his hands moved roughly down, to her coat.
With strength born of terror, Lydia kicked both legs upwards. One knee caught softer flesh: that part of a man more sensitive than any other.
Wickham yelped and fell back, landing awkwardly in the facing seat.
She kicked again, this time making sure the pointed toe of her walking boot struck his shin, and again when he bent to the injury, catching his head this time.
He toppled onto the floor of the carriage.
Lydia swallowed a sob.
"You little harlot!" Had Wickham been less drunk, he might have been able to rise from the rocking carriage floor.
Lydia kicked again, and again, until Wickham finally slumped back to the floor of the carriage, breathing hard.
This time, she took no chances. Despite the unsteady footing and Wickham occupying most of the floor, she stood, and kicked his head as hard as she could, aiming for just behind his ear. According to Papa's anatomy books, that was a place where a sharp blow could render a man unconscious for a long time.
Wickham twitched, and his breathing grew very quiet.
Lydia hoped she had not killed him. She shuddered, thinking of those girls who had died. Had Wickham been responsible? There had been something wrong in the way he behaved. Not merely unprincipled, but deeply, horribly wrong.
She choked back a sob. She must not be in this carriage when it reached its destination, but she had nothing. Only her clothes and her lace basket.
Lydia's hands trembled as she searched Wickham, though feeling the strong beat of his heart reassured her that she had not killed him. She would not face execution as a murderess.
A heavy pouch filled with silver coins, a note she could not read in the dim light, and a flintlock pistol proved her decision was a good one. She could pay for lodging if need be, and possibly even defend herself. In any case, depriving Wickham of the weapon ensured that he would not use it against her.
The note might explain where he had obtained the carriage.
Lydia stowed them all in her lace basket, and pulled it and her valise over to the nearer carriage door. She braced herself with her feet against the seat walls, and opened the door.
Moonlight and sound flooded in. Lydia held the door frame tight. She could not jump out where there was nothing to cushion her fall.
The dark line of a wall or hedge drew close: Lydia prayed it was a hedge, and that the driver would not hear the door banging against the side of the carriage. Soon she could see the softened lines that indicated a hedge.
Before she could lose her nerve, Lydia grasped her valise with one hand, her lace basket with the other, and jumped.
The carriage raced on, leaving Lydia in the hedge, sore of heart and body. For a long time she did not move, and only her stifled sobs indicated that she still lived.
At length Lydia pulled herself upright and stumbled to the road, dragging her valise and lace basket with her. She turned away from the direction the carriage had taken, and began to walk, trudging back towards Meryton.
She would need to stay hidden: she looked a perfect fright, and any who recognized her would Lydia was unsure what would happen, only that she needed to return home and apologize to Papa and her sisters. What would happen after that She did not know.
She had disgraced herself and them with her foolish romantic notions.
Tears blurred her vision as she plodded on. How could she have been so silly? She should have known no decent man would pay court to a girl too young to be out, much less do so while her governess was distracted.
The very least she could do was stay hidden until she reached home, where she could apologize and then Lydia could not even think of it.
What was it Lizzy said when things were bad? One step at a time. You could only take one step at a time. Lydia had thought that was silly. Of course if you tried to take more than one step you would fall over.
Now she understood, and she wished with all her heart that she did not.Continued In Next Section