Posted on 2016-10-19
Sir William, as he gazed around at the scene before him, realized that he was well beyond anything he had ever previously encountered. He had, about ten minutes before, made a purposeful escape onto the terrace behind Netherfield Manor, regretting the too many glasses of punch consumed during the evening. Supper was nearly over and a few of the younger and more active participants were already moving about. He watched in faint disapproval as Lydia Bennet flirted and danced away from a young militia officer. He was pleased that his own Maria while as foolish as any other young girl her age, was more decorously behaved. Miss Lydia's behaviour was extremely poor. He had been relieved that the terrace was still unoccupied. He was aware he could have used one of the rooms set aside for the purpose but the terrace was closer, the need extremely urgent - d__n that last glass - and there was a shrubbery conveniently located and large enough to hide his activity. He had just been wiping the tears from his eyes - G_d, the relief - as he stepped through the terrace doors but his hand was stayed by horror.
"Sir William! Sir William!"
Mr. Goulding was hurrying towards him, others trailing in his wake. Sir William gaped at him wondering at his purpose.
"Yes! Yes! What do you want?"
Mr. Darcy, that tall, unpleasant man, had approached quickly behind Mr. Goulding and was now speaking."
"I believe you are the magistrate, Sir?"
Sir William looked at him in confusion. What had that to do with anything? Long habits of civility required him to answer.
"Yes, yes, of course."
"You must take charge here, Sir."
"But what has happened? I cannot credit what I see."
By this time he had been surrounded by a dozen or more gentlemen, all exclaiming at once and none of them individually or singly, making any sense at all. Sir William's mind swirled with confusion. What did these people expect him to do? It seemed a hopeless case to him.
Mr. Darcy took charge which both relieved Sir William and caused no small amount of resentment. Apparently he was to be responsible for sorting the whole thing out and Sir William wished the task to be settled on someone else. Mr. Darcy, however, would not allow it to be so.
"I have spoken to Mr. Bingley and he has given us a small parlour for you to speak with people. I shall act as your secretary, if it so pleases you, for we shall require a record of what has happened."
Sir William nodded. Events were moving more quickly that his befuddled brain could follow. He was supposed to interview people? Of course! How stupid of him. How else was he to learn what had happened" But could not Mr. Darcy reveal all? He asked that very question and was dismayed at the answer.
I wish I could oblige you, Sir, but the case is that I had risen from the table and saw no more of what happened than yourself."
Sir William groaned. "Very well. Who shall I speak with first?"
Thus a few minutes later, Sir William found himself addressing Mr. Bingley.
"I understand" said Sir William, "that you were present during all of the proceedings."
Mr. Bingley nodded in his usual agreeable manner although his countenance displayed both confusion and sorrow.
"Well, speak, man! I saw nothing and can only wonder at such a sight."
It was quickly apparent that Mr. Bingley had been brought to him primarily because he was the host for the event. Of the particulars, he was as uninformed as Sir William himself.
"I confess, Sir William, that I was so much engaged in speaking with Miss Bennet that I saw nothing of what happened. She is such an angel, how could I be concerned with anything else? She. . ."
"Excuse me, Bingley, but perhaps we might leave your enthusiasm for Miss Bennet for another occasion." Mr. Darcy spoke in such a peremptory fashion that Sir William was taken aback. He would have been quite content to allow Mr. Bingley to continue on such a pleasant topic for some time. Bingley, however, must have been of a mind with his friend.
"To be sure!" He replied, "To be sure!"
He quickly rose and departed the room with some haste. Darcy had no doubt of his intention to seek out Miss Bennet. Bingley's departure was followed almost immediately by the appearance of Colonel Forster. Sir William greeted him with satisfaction. Now he might obtain some answers.
"Colonel Forster, what can you tell me of what occurred?"
Forster, to Darcy's discerning eye, appeared extremely uncomfortable as he walked into the room. His eyes flickered towards the settee aligned along a wall and a marked flush overlaid his countenance. Forster answered with some composure nonetheless.
"I fear I can assist you but little, Sir William."
Sir William sighed, "You saw nothing?"
"Well, as it happens, you see. I was. . .my wife suffered a slight disarrangement in her gown and required my assistance. We. . .Uhmm. . .removed - to this room to be exact - it required some time to correct." Forster's eyes drifted to the settee once more and an involuntary smile flitted across his lips. "As a consequence, we did not return in time to observe what happened."
Darcy could see that Sir William took the colonel's words at face value. He, on the other hand, was quite aware that the colonel was married to a young, silly but very attractive young lady and wondered if the disarrangement of Mrs. Forster's gown occurred after they entered the room. He could not ponder on the matter - even had he wished to do so - for the colonel had resumed speaking.
"However, I have spoken to Lieutenant Chamberlain and he has confessed that it was his weapon that was employed which surprises me not at all as the lad hasn't the wits to even wear a sword let alone use it. I swear I do not know how I shall shape these men into soldiers. What I have to accept as officers these days. . ."
"Yes! Yes! I am sure you have cause for complaint, Sir." Sir William had, countless times, heard Colonel Forster's diatribe about the poor quality of officers he was required to accept. If it were as interesting as his own exposure to the court at St. James, he might indulge the man but under the present circumstances, it would not do.
"I thank you, Colonel, for your information. Did the lieutenant explain how it came to be in Miss Lydia Bennet's hands?"
Darcy perked up. He wished to know this as well.
Colonel Forster only shook his head in disapproval, "He said he drew it to show her and she wished to see how heavy it was. It seems that as soon as it was in her hands, she dashed away from him, holding the sword over her head. He gave chase but was impeded by the crowd and lost sight of her."
Sir William grunted. Two foolish children and a weapon!
The Colonel was shortly replaced by Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Darcy sat up straight. As she had been sitting near her mother, surely she would have seen all that happened. Her face was pale and her composure fragile. He looked more closely and thought he saw a spattering of red across the bodice of her gown.
"Miss Elizabeth!" Exclaimed Sir William, "I. . .uh. . .surely you cannot speak on this matter?"
She was clearly forcing herself to be composed. Her mouth opened and closed several times before words could be forced out.
"I cannot. . .I must speak." She replied.
Darcy looked at her and forced his own voice to be gentle.
"We understand that your sister was. . .moving quickly through the crowd with a sword over her head."
Elizabeth nodded weakly, "You are too generous, Mr. Darcy. She was prancing. . .twirling. . ." The shock of what she had seen seemed to loosen Elizabeth's restraint. "She was in every way behaving most improperly. I was about to speak with her when it happened."
Silence descended once again and Darcy and Sir William exchanged a worried glance. Darcy handed her his handkerchief and attempted to prompt her.
"And?" he said.
It was several moments before she responded.
"She tripped. Or rather she was tripped. Accidentally, of course, Mr. Robinson was simply trying to avoid her but Lydia had been sampling the punch too often and she tripped, lost her balance, flung her arms out for balance - the sword swung. . ."
"Mama was sitting and had turned to look at Lydia. She was laughing! Laughing! And then she was not. The sword. . ."
"Yes, I saw." Replied Darcy quickly. Lydia was a tall, stout young woman and clearly possessed of some strength. Mrs. Bennet's head had been almost severed from her body. Elizabeth did not reply immediately. Darcy prompted again.
"Lydia was so horrified at what she had done that she threw the sword away."
"Ah!" Said Darcy, "And Mr. Collins was in its path."
Sir William gasped and Elizabeth nodded. She felt little sorrow at her cousins' death although she would hardly have wished for it to happen. As it happened he had been paying her one of his endless little compliments when distracted by Lydia's antics and had turned to reprove her. If there was any solace to be found in the matter it was that she no longer had to worry about him making her an offer. A foot of steel piercing his heart had removed that unpleasantness. The affronted look on his countenance before he collapsed was not something she ever expected to forget. She could almost hear him thinking that his patroness would be most seriously displeased by it all.
Sir William cleared his throat. "I think, Miss Eliza, that we need not trouble you further. Perhaps you might ask your father to speak with us."
She nodded and rose from her chair. Darcy rose with her and assisted her to the door.
"May I call on you tomorrow, Miss Elizabeth? There is a small matter I wish to speak with you on."
He was not sure that she understood his request but she did assent and passed through the door. Mr. Bennet apparently was as eager to speak with Sir William as the latter was with him.
Mr. Bennet burst into the room.
"What" he asked, "is to be done. I hope you do not expect to press charges against my daughter. Her actions are most. . .i cannot think of a word to describe them! Egregious? Reprehensible? Neither seems severe enough! But there was no intent in her actions. I can assure you that she might wish any number of people dead but her mother was not one of them."
Darcy considered Mr. Bennet's demeanour. Concern for his daughter was evident. Some distress at his wife's passing was also there although Darcy wondered if it were not more at the manner of her passing than otherwise. Of grief there was no sign.
Sir William was not prone to such perception and uttered the usual platitudes. Mr. Bennet listened to him in silence for several minutes with, Darcy thought, barely concealed impatience before responding.
"Yes! Yes! However, we can do nothing for Mrs. Bennet or Mr. Collins. My concern is for Lydia. What shall be done to her?'
Sir William was obviously unprepared to have his expressions of condolence interrupted and the future of Lydia Bennet was not foremost in his thoughts. Darcy cleared his throat and both men turned in his direction.
"Perhaps" he said, "Sir William and I might discuss the matter tomorrow morning when we are more rested and better able to consider the matter." Sir William agreed fulsomely, pleased not to have to deal with anything more this evening and hoping that Mr. Darcy, who seemed no longer to be quite so disagreeable, would present a decision that he could adopt as his own.
Thus it was that, the next day, after Mr. Bennet had finished a late breakfast, he welcomed Sir William Lucas and Mr. Darcy into his bookroom. The house bore all the usual signs of mourning and was, for Longbourn, exceptionally calm and quiet. While his daughters gave every sign of grieving their mother's passing, no one regretted the absence of Mr. Collins, and Mr. Bennet found himself incapable of grieving the loss of his wife. Any affection between them had died within a few years of their marriage as their incompatibility had become obvious to him. He could not, would not, pretend a grief he did not feel; however, the semblance of mourning would not be denied her. For Mr. Collins, his feelings were remarkably different. The entail was ruptured and the insecurity faced by his daughters removed. It was with what he knew was an inappropriately light heart that he greeted his visitors.
"You are welcome, sirs. I shall not plague you with meaningless pleasantries. What is to be the fate of my daughter?"
It had been agreed between them that Sir William would inform Mr. Bennet of his decision.
"It is not within my jurisdiction to make a final decision, Bennet; but I have written the home office and recommended that no charges be laid against Lydia. I have also written Colonel Forster and recommended that Lieutenant Chamberlain be removed from his position. To allow a child to gain possession of his weapon certainly speaks poorly of his abilities."
Mr. Bennet nodded slowly. He was relieved. Lydia was distraught at her actions and the consequences of them and he entertained hopes that she would take some instruction from the event and moderate her future behaviour. Certainly it could hardly grow worse without locking her up for the rest of her life. The three gentlemen conversed for a few more minutes before Sir William rose to take his leave. Mr. Darcy, however, remained seated and when looked at curiously by Mr. Bennet, informed him he wished to speak with him on another matter of some importance.
Thus, after seeing Sir William out of the house, Mr. Bennet returned to his bookroom. His surprise at Darcy's request for a private conference was compounded when the gentleman requested that his daughter, Elizabeth, join them. The request was readily granted and a maid sent to bring her to the room. The two men sat in silence. The one contemplating the best means of imparting private information and the other, the purpose of the meeting and why it should involve his second oldest daughter. He could hardly suppose that it involved the usual reason a gentleman asked to speak in private with a young lady. He had noticed no particular regard for Elizabeth from Darcy and he was well aware that she disliked the man quite strongly.
Elizabeth could not hide her astonishment at Darcy's presence. The events surrounding her mother's death had quite obliterated any thoughts of Mr. Darcy and the disagreements that had marred their dance the previous evening.
"Mr. Darcy!" She exclaimed.
He nodded in acknowledgement but said nothing. Mr. Bennet took control of the conversation.
"Mr. Darcy has requested to speak to us both on a matter of some urgency."
Elizabeth looked at him in amazement.
"Mr. Wickham." He replied, not bothering to hide the disease for the very name.
Elizabeth's eyebrows arched in amazement. "What can you have to say about Mr. Wickham, sir?"
"The truth, madam. Simply the truth."
Elizabeth did not try to hide her disbelief. Mr. Bennet, on the other hand, could not understand how such a topic could have arisen in the first place.
"I am sure that I do not have the pleasure of understanding what Mr. Wickham has to do with us, not why you should feel it necessary to discuss the subject."
Elizabeth was about to respond when Darcy held up his hand to stop her.
"May I be allowed to speak to the matter, Miss Elizabeth?"
She reluctantly gave her assent and he began after a brief pause to marshal his words.
"My family's connection to Mr. Wickham arises from the service his father provided as steward to the Darcy estate. Old Mr. Wickham was a fine, honourable and much esteem by my father. His son was equally esteemed but had none of the character of his father. My father, however, was blind to his faults, and I, who knew him very well indeed, to my regret, did not seek to disabuse my father who was ill. The thought of removing one of his few pleasures was more than I could undertake.
George Wickham was my father's godson and received a gentleman's education from my father. He died four years ago believing to last in the goodness of Wickham. Shortly after my father's death, George's own father passed away. My father bequeathed George the sum of a thousand pounds and the right to a valuable living should he choose to take orders. He did not and wrote me requesting monies in compensation to pursue another career. We agreed on three thousand pounds and the matter was settled accordingly. Should there be any doubt on the matter - and after Miss Elizabeth's words to me while we danced last evening, I imagine there may be - I have retained the documents and back drafts as proof of my claim."
Elizabeth sat in silence. She was not at all inclined to believe Darcy for Mr. Wickham had such truth in his looks as to render impossible any version of the events other than that he related. Her father, not having met the gentleman, nor heard his story, could find no reason to doubt Darcy's word.
"Lizzy?" He inquired, puzzled at her silence and obvious discomfort. "The matter seems quite clear to me. If Mr. Darcy has documents to prove his words, what objections can there be?"
She shook her head and mumbled something which was unintelligible to both gentlemen.
"Lizzy?" Her father prompted again.
"I believe I owe Mr. Darcy an apology, Papa. Mr. Wickham told me much the same tale but forgot to include a small, rather important portion. He said naught about receiving compensation."
Mr. Bennet was surprised but for reasons that embarrassed his daughter. "Mr. Wickham related such a tale to you? You have known him but briefly, for I clearly recollect that he is newly come to the militia. How could this have come about?'
Mr. Darcy was interested in this question as well but realized that his presence was improper. He accepted Elizabeth's apology, made his excuses and shortly thereafter he made his departure.
Mr. Wickham passed from this story several months after joining the militia. Mr. Bennet had not been slow to inform Meryton's shopkeepers as to his proclivities to accumulating debts and not paying for them. As Darcy had also related some few particulars about Wickham's dalliances with local girls, this aspect of his character also came under such close scrutiny as to preclude his indulgence of it. He resigned his commission and was seen in Hertfordshire no more.
And, while the deaths of Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins were regretted by a few, it is difficult not to believe that the sad event had more fortuitous results. The first involved the entailment which overhung the Bennet family. The will of Mr. Bennet's grandfather who had instituted the entailment was quite specific. If Mr. Collins' father did not have a son living at the time of Mr. Bennet's passing, the estate would devolve unto the son of Mr. Bennet's eldest daughter, or the next in succession should a son not be born to her. Jane Bennet's dowry was now Longbourn and worthy of consideration. And her sisters no longer were in fear for their future as it would be within her power to provide them support.
A second, and less well-known, benefit occurred. Mr. Bingley, who had been required to travel to London for business after the ball, was slightly delayed in his departure, staying until after Mrs. Bennet's funeral. He not only offered his condolences to Miss Bennet but his assurances of returning for her, and her alone. If he had been in doubt of her feelings for him before then, he was no longer when he saw her response. All was settled between them without further words; the only matter left to be resolved was the timing. As it was, they married six months after Mrs. Bennet's funeral.
Mr. Bingley's sisters were far from happy with the circumstances but most of their objections had been overturned. Jane Bennet was not penniless - in truth her fortune was equal or superior to theirs, and would also endow their brother with an estate ensuring his entry into the gentry - the question of propriety - for which Mrs. Bennet claimed the largest share - had been addressed and, if not altogether alleviated, brought under stricter control. Lydia and Catherine, now subject to the discipline of their two eldest sisters and constrained by the mourning period, were not allowed the freedom to flirt shamelessly. Lydia was, taking into account her youth, held, if not blameless, at least not deliberately culpable for the deaths of her mother and Mr. Collins and a decision of accidental death was rendered in both instances.
Mr. Darcy attended his friend's wedding, re-acquainted himself with Miss Elizabeth Bennet and found himself as strongly attracted to her as before. Their courtship was long, fraught with some disagreements (for both had portions of their character requiring improvement), but eventually, a year after the Netherfield ball, they wed to the satisfaction of both.
It was some months after her marriage that Elizabeth made the acquaintance of Darcy's cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, who was in full regimentals and wearing his sword. Having come to terms with the events of the Netherfield ball, she could regard it with equanimity. Time had lent perspective to the events of that evening and endowed it with a tinge of humour.
"I believe" said she, "that my sister was unknowingly possessed of the philosophy of Alexander the Great."
Darcy and the colonel, who had been apprised of the Lydia's actions, looked at her quizzically.
"We faced a small Gordian Knot of our own - the entail and our mother's behaviour. Lydia certainly cut to the quick on the matter."
Darcy smiled slightly, "I would only add that Elizabeth's sister eschews any but the dullest knives. Even now."
The colonel laughed, "'Tis safe to be in her company at the table then."The End