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Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 3-4

November 06, 2016 04:41PM
Chapter 3

Driving rain greeted Elizabeth as she stepped outside. Turning up her coat's collar, she glanced at the tumultuous sky. It was five miles to Lambton.

With one arm around her carpetbag and the other over her hat, she dashed to the shelter of a wooded copse bordering the drive. She would follow the road to Lambton, yet stay out of sight should anyone come looking for her. But with Pemberley's expansive interior, surely it would be hours before Mrs. Reynolds discovered her absence.

Climbing the hill on the far side of the lake, she turned over her shoulder for a last look at her beloved's home. It had been a wonderful dream, but she was not Cinderella, and there was no fairy godmother with a magic wand.

She pressed on, and the rain drove harder, bending the branches of the evergreens. Elizabeth hugged the carpetbag closer. At this rate she would be soaked by the time she reached town. Spotting a gazebo in the distance, she ducked her head and quickened her steps. Although she was no more than a half mile from Pemberley, perhaps she could take refuge until the storm abated. Arriving like a bedraggled dog would surely draw unwanted attention.

“Miss Bennet?”

She jerked her head up. “Sapper! What on earth are you doing here?” She stepped under the protection of the gazebo and smiled at The Ritz's faithful postman whom she'd come to know so well during her time there.

“I've come for a wee visit.” His heavy Scotch accent held none of his usual good humour.

“A visit?” She placed her bag on a bench and brushed the rain from her coat. “Here?”

His countenance turned stone cold. “Just give me the medal, and there'll be no trouble.”

“The medal? Y-you know I lost it. At The Ritz.” Elizabeth took two steps backwards as a frisson of fear snaked down her spine.

“Are ya' sure?” He drew a revolver and cocked it with a click.

“Sapper! What are you doing?” Reality struck. He's going to shoot me! She ducked behind a stone pillar just as a bullet pinged off the column.

Elizabeth darted for the woods when, Boom! The gun discharged again. Running as fast as she could, she expected searing pain at any second.

“Put it down, lad!” came a feeble voice in the distance, and then the crack of rifle fire.

Elizabeth kept running.

“Miss Bennet!” came the unfamiliar voice.

She glanced over her shoulder. An elderly man dressed in a tweed jacket and breeches was lumbering towards her. Sapper lay crumpled on the ground. Out of breath, she slowed. Suddenly her knees buckled and she sank to the wet ground, gulping for air in the showering rain. What had just happened? Sapper! One of her dearest friends at The Ritz. He was going to kill her!

“Miss Bennet?”

The man who appeared to be a gamekeeper was approaching. How did he know her name? She pressed a hand to her head. If she couldn't trust Sapper, who could she trust? She scrambled to her feet on the slippery ground. “I—.” Without a second thought, she bolted back to the gazebo, grabbed her bag, and ran as fast as her wobbly legs would allow her.

“Miss Bennet!” His voice trailed in the distance.

Whoever he was, she couldn't afford to reveal any more than she already had. If he was one of Fitzwilliam's caretakers, he was sure to inform Mrs. Reynolds straightaway. If he had ill motive....

Clutching the bag while pumping her other arm in the driving rain, she crested the hill and spotted the village in the far distance. She could no longer risk keeping close to the road. Was Sapper alone? What of the other man? She'd have to take her chances going overland.

Late in the afternoon Elizabeth emerged from the edge of the woods, the rain at last abated. Breathing hard, her eyes trailed the gravel road before her, relieved to see it led to Lambton. She wasn't far now.

She dropped her carpetbag and sucked in the damp air, desperate to rest her exhausted, aching limbs and fill her burning lungs.

A car rumbled around the corner, and she stumbled behind a tree, pressing her head against the rough bark. She closed her eyes. She mustn't be seen until she looked presentable and could blend in.

She glanced down at her blue coat. It wasn't completely soaked, but tiny remnants of nature had lodged in the fibres, and a smudge of mud traversed the velvet cuff. She brushed it off, then reached for her hat and grunted. It must have fallen off somewhere along the way. The chignon still held but must look a fright. Smoothing her wet, frizzy mass, she reset several hairpins. Appearing in public without a hat would be awkward, but she had no other choice.

Elizabeth kept to the shadows as she stole down Lambton's main street lined with shops. At last she spied the train station and sighed with relief. The activity there confirmed a train's imminent arrival. Four VADs bustled about the covered platform, setting platters of sandwiches and urns of cocoa on a makeshift table for the soldiers en route north. A dozen fathers and mothers and wives with children milled about, eager to greet their Tommies arriving home for a ten-day leave. Elizabeth shifted her focus to a huddle of Red Cross drivers congregated at the end of the platform. Good. It would take them several minutes to unload the stretcher cases destined for the local auxiliary hospital, so she could delay her arrival until the train pulled into the station.

Glancing down the narrow street for a place to conceal herself, she spotted a letterbox. Her heart cinched. She needed to mail the letter to Jane.

She hurried to the receptacle and drew the letter from her carpetbag. Clutching it to her chest, she whispered a prayer, then released it into the slot.

Moments later, she darted into an alley. With an anxious eye on the road to Pemberley and the other on the station, she waited. When the train's whistle announced its arrival, Elizabeth scurried across the muddied street and stepped onto the platform just as the locomotive screeched into the station. The cheering families funnelled to the railcar whose windows framed waving Tommies. No one took notice of her slipping behind the crowd to buy a ticket. She didn't care where the train was going, she just needed to be on it.

With ticket in hand, Elizabeth turned around just as the compartment doors swung open and the local boys clambered out in a wave of glee. Children ran to fathers, wives kissed husbands, and mothers hugged sons. Tears misted in her eyes at the moving scene.

Elizabeth imagined Fitzwilliam stepping off a moment after the others. Standing tall in his reserved manner, he would pause on the platform, silently scanning the crowd for her. And when their eyes locked, that beautiful smile would spread across his face. With her eyes never leaving his, she would go to him, demurely, as was fitting a woman worthy of Pemberley's master. And then she would be in his arms. Elizabeth closed her eyes, imagining the warmth of his embrace and the sweetness of his lips on hers. A lump rose in her throat. That would never be, for she would not be there to greet him.

Her eyes flew open as two chuckling privates passed by heading for the table of sandwiches already surrounded by their comrades.

She ducked into the shadows to remain unseen and shifted her gaze to the last two railcars where four middle-aged men in their VAD uniforms unloaded the wounded from two khaki-coloured cars painted with a red cross. These were local boys being transferred to the small hospital here. As tragic as their wounds were, at least they were guaranteed a few more months of life before being sent back to the killing fields.

She turned towards a clattering sound coming from a compartment door at the end of the train. A moment later the rubber tips of two crutches tentatively pointed to the platform and a soldier swung down with a grunt. Alarm rose in Elizabeth as the man wobbled precariously, balancing on his one remaining leg. The left leg of his hospital blues was pinned up at the knee.

Elizabeth took two steps towards him, then paused as a passing orderly called out, “This isn't your stop, Sergeant. Wait there and I'll help you back to the train.”

“Well, my home is here, and I haven't seen my wife in nine months.” The unsteady man hobbled on.

“She can see you tomorrow at the hospital in Manchester.” Annoyance laced the orderly's voice as he and his partner slid a stretcher into a Red Cross conveyance.

“I'll see her today,” the soldier muttered, continuing in his thump and shuffle gait.

Bright red seeped across the upturned trouser leg. Elizabeth's heart quickened. With all the blood pressure pounding down on that stump, his stitches had likely split open. If the man didn't quickly elevate that leg, he could bleed to death right here.

Without a second thought, Elizabeth rushed over. “Sir, your leg is bleeding. Please, sit down. Let me help you.” He merely quickened his pace.

“Sir—”

Planting his crutches on the wet platform, one tip slipped and sent him crashing to the decking. An agonising scream filled the air as he writhed in pain.

Elizabeth dropped beside him and cupped his cheek in her hand, forcing his focus on her. “You'll be all right, Sergeant. If you'll be still, I'll stop the bleeding.” With a grimacing nod, he calmed.

“Would someone please get a Sister—or a doctor?” Elizabeth called in a controlled voice as she raised the stump and rolled back the empty trouser leg of her moaning patient. The white bandages covering the wound were soaked with blood. Holding up the shortened leg with one hand, she quickly unwrapped it with the other. Indeed the stitches had split open. Blood pulsed out. She pinched the wound together, then pressed the wadded bandages over the gash.

“Stella! Stella! I just want to see my Stella,” the sergeant blubbered, pulling at his hair.

“You'll see your Stella.” Elizabeth looked up and found a crowd hovering over them. “Please, is there a—”

“What's this man doing off the train?” A khaki uniform with a Red Cross armband knelt across from her and took over the bandage wad.

“I just wanted to see my wife, sir. I just want to see my wife.”

“If you want to be alive when you see her, you'll get back on that train to Manchester. Stretcher bearers!” the doctor shouted over his shoulder. “And bring some morphine!”

The doctor turned to Elizabeth. “That was a handy piece of work Miss—?”

“Thomas,” she provided over the wailing, restless patient.

Two aproned men appeared, and Elizabeth stood, then backed away into the shadows as the bearers slid the moaning man onto the stretcher.

A minute later, the train whistle pierced the air, signalling its departure. Elizabeth kept out of sight as the Tommies drained their cups and snuffed their Woodbines, then tramped back to their compartments. Just as the doors began closing, she hopped onto a car.

Clutching her bag, she made her way down the narrow aisle. Several seats were occupied by dozing men in khaki, and two women chatted with animated expressions. She removed her soggy coat and slid into a seat near the back where she hoped she'd be the least conspicuous.

As the locomotive chugged out of the station, she sighed and settled into the seat. At least she'd successfully escaped—although she'd certainly made herself visible.... But she didn't regret helping the poor sergeant. As soon as she got to Manchester, she'd take another train and go somewhere else.

“...you think they're spies?”

Elizabeth's ears riveted to the two animated women conversing several seats in front of her.

“Yes!” replied the other. “I've always had a suspicion about them. And with a name like Krause you know they must be sympathetic to the German cause.”

“A German name doesn't make them German sympathisers any more than an English name guarantees loyalty to the Crown.”

“Well, I'm not the only one with suspicions of their allegiance. They've opened their London town home to families visiting loved ones in the hospital, but the gesture doesn't fool me. I assure you they won't be seen in my home....”

Elizabeth winced and shrank into her seat. It was a sobering reminder that the slightest suspicion of collusion with the enemy was like a guillotine to reputation. And the allegations against her were based on far more evidence than a German surname! She'd been accused of aiding in prisoner escapes, and her every behaviour suggested her guilt. Even Dr. Cowart apparently had evidence against her. If caught, it would set into motion a succession of events like the tipping of a row of dominoes that didn't stop until scores of people had been toppled.

After being arrested, a thorough investigation would be launched against her and her every association—including Fitzwilliam. And an investigation of someone as important as Fitzwilliam would be news. Big news. If convicted, she could be shot. He could be shot. But even if declared innocent, public opinion against them would be ruinous. Fitzwilliam would never be welcome in social circles, merchants might refuse to sell to him, and others might refuse to buy from the produce cultivated on his land. His tenants would be shamed, and Georgiana's prospects for a good marriage would be destroyed. Her mind continued to churn with the ramifications as the train chugged onward.

The train stopped at each village, and passengers disembarked while others climbed aboard. But it was the same scene every time, families greeting loved ones. And each time her heart knotted a little tighter at the reminder that when her beloved arrived home in two months, she would not be there to greet him.

Nearing Stockport, she felt the eyes of a lieutenant across the aisle studying her. She shifted on the plush red seat and turned her gaze out the window. A few moments later she stole a glance in his direction. He was still staring! Panic swept across her. Did he recognise her?

“Excuse me, miss. Don't I know you from somewhere? You look so familiar.”

“Ah, I don't believe so.” She smiled and turned back to the window.

“Are you sure?” As the train's whistle announced the next stop, he snapped his fingers and slid into the seat in front of her. “I've got it! You were my nurse in Boulogne—Lieutenant Wickham's friend. Don't you remember me? I'm Lieutenant Albert Lindberg from Manchester. I gave you a stuffed poodle on your last morning there.”

Her pulse pounded. She'd been the VAD nurse in his orthopaedic ward every night for a month. She forced a neutral expression. “Sorry. You must have me confused with someone else. I've never been to France.”

“You look just like her. What was her name?” His pinched his lips and squinted towards the ceiling.

Elizabeth squirmed, but whispered a prayer of thanks when the train screeched into the Stockport station. “If you'll excuse me, this is my stop.”

She grabbed her coat and carpetbag then hurried up the aisle while the train was still moving. Once on the station's platform, she darted through the crowd. She glanced over her shoulder just in time to see the lieutenant surveying the small crowd from the compartment doorway. Fear shot through her, and she ducked behind the depot.

How was she going to get back on the train? She couldn't risk being seen crossing the platform. She needed to reach Manchester. It was a large city and would have trains departing for numerous cities, offering her plenty of options. She closed her eyes and drew even breaths to calm herself. Perhaps it didn't matter. She could just keep riding until she landed someplace she could disappear.

Landed.... That was it! Why hadn't she thought of it before? Liverpool wasn't far, and boats departed for America nearly every day. She wouldn't be able to join her sisters there, but she could certainly disappear in a place as large as America! Her mind whirred with plans. She dug in her carpetbag, then drew out her reticule and counted out four pounds, three shillings, and a sixpence. Would that be enough to secure her passage?

The whistle finally sounded, and the train steamed out of the station. Elizabeth crossed the empty platform to the ticket window. “Hello.” She peered in at the balding agent. “When is the next train to Liverpool?”

“You just missed it, miss. Next train is tomorrow at eleven o'clock. The only other train tonight is the express to London.”

Tomorrow? Elizabeth stumbled away in a daze. If she lodged overnight, she might not have sufficient funds for passage to America. What was she to do now?

Chapter 4

The next morning—A Belgian convent

The water in Darcy's glass shimmered as the reverberations of an exploding shell in the distance faded away. He laid his pen on his desk and sighed. Between the incessant rain and the artillery fire, the convent would be fortunate if the signallers had the communications lines repaired before nightfall.

The door creaked open and his assistant appeared.

“Telegram from Colonel Fitzwilliam, sir. It says he'll be here within the hour if the roads don't wash out.”

“So the lines are back up?”

“Yes, sir. But with them being down since yesterday afternoon, outgoing messages are backed up. Do you have anything urgent?”

“Not at present. But if I do, I'll key it myself if I have to.”

“You know telegraphy, sir?”

“I'd better. Last year I was stationed at a signalling headquarters three miles from the Front.”

“Well I'll be damned, a gentleman who—.” The young man's face froze. “Pardon me, sir.”

Darcy smiled. “Just alert Dr. Knightley to expect the colonel.”

“Yes sir.”

A gentleman. Darcy huffed. This was hardly the gentleman's life his father had envisioned for him.

Darcy crossed the stone floor to the window and stared out. A gusting wind drove sheets of rain diagonally across the convent's courtyard. The rain had begun falling on his motorcycle ride back from Boulogne four days ago and hadn't stopped since. But prior to that.... He smiled at his few days with Elizabeth. One shared with her picnicking in a peach orchard, lazing away the afternoon reading poetry and sipping wine, and the other two spent strolling the seaside streets of Boulogne.

Two taps on the door brought him back to the present.

“Excuse me, sir. Dr. Knightley just went into surgery. He'll report here as soon as he's finished.”

“Thank you, Edwards.” Darcy returned his gaze out the window as the door clicked shut.

Dr. Robert Knightley, a distant cousin on his mother's side, had accompanied him to The Ritz as part of the undercover operation. Darcy chuckled at Richard's reason for choosing his relatives for the intelligence assignment: “Because I trust you.” Richard was a good judge of character. And Knightley was a fine man and an excellent leader. He would make a good master of Donwell Abbey one day, in spite of the fact that his Uncle George resented his being the heir apparent.

Darcy braced a hand on the window frame and shifted. Funny how things don't turn out the way we expect. His father would never have envisioned his son as Captain Darcy mucking about on a battlefront—or courting a country girl from Hertfordshire.

Come home to me, Fitzwilliam, I love you. He closed his eyes as Elizabeth's parting words flowed over him. As long as he lived, he would never forget those words or their first kiss.... He slid her picture from his breast pocket, jostling the tiny music box beside it. The tinkling melody Let me call you sweetheart flowed from the miniature mechanism. With his thumb and forefinger, he drew it out and cupped it in his palm, listening as he stared at her image. Two months, just two months and then he could hold her again.

He sighed and snapped the lid shut, drowning the melody. Yes, two months...and a conspiracy plot to unravel between now and then.

Returning the objects to his pocket, he turned around just as Richard's hitching gait crescendoed outside his office and the door swung open.

“Darcy, there's trouble.” Richard strode in, slamming the door behind him.

“What is it?”

“Why didn't you tell me some upstart Canadian reporter has been poking about?” He threw his hat on the altar table desk.

“Probably because it seemed an irrelevant detail.”

“An irrelevant detail?”

“Colonel Weekes mentioned that a young reporter came while I was gone, but as you know, they were inundated with wounded. And the staff knows better than to oblige the press.”

“Well, it's hardly irrelevant now.” His cousin dropped into a chair. “Word has it the whippersnapper is at The Ritz. I suspect he arrived on the heels of your departure. Apparently caught wind of the air raid and escaped prisoners. Thought he would do a little detective work of his own before his countrymen's medical team took up residence there.”

“So what did he find?” Darcy crossed to the desk.

“I was hoping you'd know. But I aim to find out—immediately. The last thing we need is some bloody newspaper headline undermining our investigation.”

“So...we'll pay a visit to The Ritz and ask him.”

Richard shook his head. “Main road is flooded.”

“We'll go on horseback then.”

“Where's Robert? Does he know anything about this chap?” Richard scanned the room.

“He's in surgery.”

Richard grunted.

“Excuse me, Colonel,” Edwards interrupted, “General Pommier on the phone for you, sir.”

“Ah. This should only take a moment.” Richard pulled himself from the chair and headed out the door.

The hammering rain drew Darcy back to the window. He thrust his hand into his pocket and fingered the ribbed texture of the medal's ribbon. A long ride on horseback in a downpour wasn't what he had in mind for today.

Darcy's eyes tracked an ambulance as it pulled to a stop at the edge of the cloister. What misfortune had befallen this load of Tommies? ...I'm so sorry to hear of her misfortune... Darcy released a lungful of air. What misfortune? What did Wickham's words mean?

The ambulance driver stepped from the cab, shielding himself from the torrent, then splashed to the rear doors and leaned in. Darcy craned his neck. How was the chap going to unload a stretcher by himself?

A long sausage-shaped duffle bag slid from the back and landed under the cloister's protection. Another followed. Darcy chuckled under his breath. No stretchers, just laundry. Not exactly what he was expecting, but at least they weren't bodies wrapped in burial blankets. Never know what can happen at the Front. Blast, Wickham! Darcy grunted in frustration, chafing the ribbon between his fingers, then jerked his hand from his pocket when the pin pricked his thumb.

A pin! He whipped out the medal and examined it. Belgian officers had questioned Elizabeth about some kind of pin given to her by Wickham that they suspected was an intelligence threat. Was this the missing piece of the puzzle?

He held the Croix de Guerre up to the window and turned it over in his hand. Faint etchings on the back reflected in the dim light. He squinted closer at the tiny inscription. E4T E5T. The combination of letters and numbers registered as vaguely familiar. His brain searched the files of his mind: postcodes, order numbers, map coordinates. Coordinates. What kind of coordinates? He raised his gaze out the window. The ambulance driver hurried down the cloister with the duffle bag hoisted over his shoulder.

Darcy's blood ran cold.

He strode across the room and swung the door open. “Where's Colonel—?”

“Right here.” His cousin rounded the corner.

Darcy hastened Richard into the office then swung the door shut. “Arrest Wickham. I think I figured it out.” His breath came hard with the rush of adrenaline. “Look at this.” Darcy pointed to the tiny etchings on the back of the medal. “E4T E5T. Do you know what that is?”

Richard's brow remained tense.

“Grave markers. Those are grave numbers. If I'm right, the cemetery at The Ritz has two graves with those numbers. We unearth those graves, we solve the mystery.”

“Why would they be on the back of a medal?”

“Insurance.”

“Insurance?”

“Yes. Insurance should the agent who sent it ever need to share the information with someone else. Intended to dangle proudly from Miss Bennet, marking her as the person holding the secret.”

Richard raised his brows. “Maybe you were right about Cowart being a double agent. Wasn't he the one who sent it in the first place?”

Darcy shook his head. “I don't think so. It's a pin, Richard. The medal is a pin. The Belgian officials came to Elizabeth looking for a pin—a gift from Wickham. It wasn't hairpins, it was this bloody medal! The medal arrived just after Cowart's death. Wickham used Elizabeth's rescue of Cowart as the excuse to award her. Since Cowart was dead, no one could refute that he sent it.”

“Well....”

“That's not all. Elizabeth's tent—I told you I thought it was demolished from the inside, not from the bombing. That night her tent mate, the other Elizabeth Bennett spelled with two t's who went missing along with Sapper after the air raid, was conveniently working the night shift and escaped the blast. Elizabeth mentioned leaving a duffle bag of laundry on her cot. A duffle bag would look a lot like a body in the dark. With the agents clearing out, they no longer needed her. Thinking she was asleep on her cot, they blasted the tent to eliminate her just like they did the washerwoman. It would be the easiest way to cover their tracks. But I'll bet they are keen to know where this medal is—assuming it holds the clues I think it does. Elizabeth even mentioned that it was Sapper who first noticed she wasn't wearing it. And we know he's one of the traitors.”

A knock at the door preceded the entrance of Darcy's aide extending a slip of paper. “Excuse me, sir—”

“Not now, Edwards!” Richard shooed him away.

“Sir, with all due respect. A telegram for the captain. From Lambton.” The young man shifted sombre eyes to Darcy. “It was backlogged from yesterday.”

A chill ran down Darcy spine as he took two steps and plucked the paper from the young man's hand.

Stranger shot accosting Miss Bennet.
She's missing.
Suspect Monday's Daily Express or a letter.
Please advise.
Mrs. R


“Edwards!” Darcy barked.

The corporal turned back through the partially closed door.

“Find me a copy of Monday's Daily Express. Now!”

“What the bloody hell is it?” Richard snatched the telegram.

Darcy massaged his brow, his mind whirring. Was he too late? Had the operatives already—? His gut rolled. If only he could have protected Elizabeth a few more days!

Richard strode to the door, cracked it, and called to the other corporal seated outside the office, “Get Military Intelligence in London on the line.” Richard turned back to him. “Steady on, Darcy. We'll find her.”

Darcy whirled around. “But what if some other bastard has abducted her or—. I don't even want to think what else could have happened.” Darcy turned to the office door. “Where's that—?”

“Right here, sir.” Edwards extended the newspaper.

Darcy snatched the paper and spread it on the desk, scanning the headlines before the newsprint settled. Richard joined him as he flipped over a large page. His heart plummeted at the headline glaring in bold letters: “Clearing Station Nurse Suspected of Espionage.” He squinted closer, his eyes darting across the lines of text.

...field hospital air raid... eight German prisoners disappeared.... .... British nurse also disappeared...suspected of aiding the escape along with known German sympathiser Meneer Piet Bongaerts. .... Young woman fitting the description was often seen outside the CCS...may have gone by the names Florence or Chérie. The suspect was spotted in the company of an unidentified officer the day after the evacuation....Commander of the British CCS was unavailable for comment.

Richard looked up. “Bongaerts, a known German sympathiser? Where the hell did he get this intelligence?”

Darcy traced his finger along a line of text and read. “'An unnamed source provided the commander of the clearing station, now flying the Canadian flag, a sketch of the woman.' I'd say the bloody unnamed source holds the answer.”

“What? That's rubbish. The Canadian commander hasn't even arrived yet!”

“Of course it's rubbish! The Miss Bennett spelled with two-t's is the suspect. She went missing after the air raid just like Sapper.” Darcy dismissed the paper with a flick of his fingers.

Richard placed a hand on his shoulder. “Granted, Miss two-t Bennett's appearance is uncannily similar to your Elizabeth's, so there could be confusion about whose image was on the sketch. But you can't deny your Miss Bennet conveniently stayed behind after the evacuation, and she's missing now. Perhaps I was right about her. ”

“No!” Darcy pulled away. “The telegram said Elizabeth was accosted. And she stayed behind at The Ritz with a good reason. She was waiting for the housekeeper to return and wanted to clean up the wards before the Canadian medical team arrived.”

Richard scratched his brow. “Not exactly a compelling reason for a vulnerable young woman to remain alone after an air raid.”

“Then consider this,” Darcy bellowed. “How do you think she could aid in prisoner escapes when I found her tangled in a shrub on the side of the bluff?”

“Perhaps she fell after she did the dastardly deed. How do you know she and Miss two-t “Tootie” weren't conspiring together? They shared a tent, didn't they? Darcy, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck.”

“Not this time. I've got to find her. Something's happened. She wouldn't run away like a coward.”

“Even a sly fox in the henhouse runs when the farmer appears.”

“She's not a fox, damn it! I've got to find her.”

“Be reasonable, Darcy. I can't have you gallivanting off to Derbyshire. You've got leave coming in a few months.”

“Months, Richard, months! If some blackguard like Wickham is after her, she may already be....” Darcy shook his head.

“I'll get London—”

“The reporter should have consulted British intelligence before spouting off.” Darcy paced. “Stories like this ruin innocent people.”

Richard laid a hand on his shoulder again. “Darcy—”

“No!” He jerked away. “You must let me prove she's innocent.”

“You're too close, Darcy. You can't be objective. I'll get London on it.”

Darcy opened his mouth to object, but Richard gripped his forearm.

“Let it go. I'll handle it.” His cousin leaned closer. “I promise to make you privy to the reports.”

Darcy released a pent up breath and relaxed his shoulders. Richard was right. He was too close, too personally invested. He loved the woman, for heaven's sake! He'd have to let it go.

“Come sit down. We'll sort out a plan and get Intelligence on it.” Richard gripped Darcy's arm tighter. “I promise, if she's innocent, I'll do all I can to help you prove it.”

“Then at least let me return to The Ritz to explore those graves and talk to that Canadian reporter. What does he think he's doing writing piffle with half-baked facts?” He batted at the newspaper. “This is the second time there's been a lack of communication among the Allies. The left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. If we're going to win this war, we've got to improve communication.”

“Darcy—”

The door creaked open. “Pardon me, Colonel. London Intelligence on the line.”

Richard strode out the door.

Darcy paced. If only he could return to England and search for Elizabeth now—himself! Did she run away, or disappear? Had she left a letter or any clues? Damn war! It prevented him from attending to the things he cared about the most. He shook his head. This was one instance where all the money in the world couldn't buy him what he needed.

Staring into the room, he massaged his brow. Had he missed anything? Lowering himself into the chair, he picked up Mrs. Reynolds' telegram and read it again.

Stranger shot accosting Miss Bennet.
She's missing.
Suspect Monday's Daily Express or a letter.
Please advise.
Mrs. R


Who had accosted her? And who shot the accoster? Was it someone on his staff? He had instructed his steward to alert the staff to Elizabeth's presence and keep a close watch for anything suspicious. He stared into the room. Was the assailant specifically targeting Elizabeth, or was he just an opportunist? If he was looking for her, how did he know she was there? Darcy had invited Elizabeth to Pemberley only a few days before—while they were alone at The Ritz. The day after, they had travelled to Boulogne.... Caroline Bingley! Darcy sat up. They'd encountered her on the street, and Elizabeth mentioned travelling to Pemberley. Darcy shook his head. It couldn't be Caroline. She might be a petty troublemaker, but she was no malefactor. Who else knew she'd gone to Pemberley?

Darcy retraced their steps in the quayside city and froze. The passport office. George Wickham worked there. Did passport applications require a destination? Who else could it be? A flush of fear swept over him. Wickham had motive and capability to send someone after her. Another thought struck. Darcy nearly choked for lack of air as Wickham's words whispered in his mind: I'm sorry to hear of her misfortune.... I couldn't have orchestrated your demise any better had I planned it myself. ...Never know what can happen at the Front. It all made sense. Darcy had been alone when he met Wickham in the pub. The rat probably assumed that Elizabeth had been killed in the tent sabotage—which would indeed be a destructive blow for Darcy. If the blackguard caught wind she'd survived and then travelled to Pemberley, he had the contacts and incentive to send a thug or two after her. Even if just to spite Darcy!

He smacked the desk and rose. If only he could have told Elizabeth about the conspiracy investigation and his fears for her, she could have been on guard. Damn that medal and Richard's orders! He raked a frustrated hand through his hair. She was now either running for her life, or another thug had—.

Richard strode in, shutting the door with a bang. “London Intelligence verified Miss Bennet's not with her sister in London. They've dispatched an agent to Bingley's townhouse to obtain a list of Elizabeth's relatives and friends. If Miss Bennet's on the run, she'll likely seek out someone she trusts.”

“What about Pemberley?”

“A Derbyshire agent is on his way there now. They want any clues you have as to her whereabouts and a detailed list of Miss Bennet's possessions—anything you know she had in her possession when she crossed the Channel.”

“I have a clue. I may have deciphered Wickham's words. I think when he met me in the pub, he assumed Elizabeth had been killed in her tent during the bombing raid and was gloating how he'd so cleverly managed my demise. When he realised she'd survived and gone to Pemberley, he sent one of his thugs to finish the job.”

“Richard raised his brows. I hope you're wrong. If Wickham's that close on her trail, it could get ugly.”

“It's already ugly! If I could have warned her—.” Darcy released a heavy breath. “It's too late now.”

Richard laid a hand on his shoulder. “We'll do all we can. I promise. You start on that list of her possessions. I'll find Knightley, then ring Canadian headquarters. Maybe they can tell us if that reporter is still at The Ritz before we go gallivanting off in the rain.”

Darcy nodded and pressed a thin smile.

His cousin clapped his shoulder then exited in silence.

Darcy sighed. First things first. Mrs. Reynolds would be beside herself with worry awaiting his reply. He sat down, pulled out a telegraph pad, then tapped his pen on the desk. A second later he touched the pen to the paper:

Leave everything as Miss Bennet left it.
Military Intelligence arriving this afternoon.
FD

##

Ok, Dwiggie readers, anything need clarification? Bring on the comments ; ) Thanks so much!
SubjectAuthorPosted

Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 3-4

GingerNovember 06, 2016 04:41PM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 3-4

EvelynJeanNovember 09, 2016 06:31AM

Thanks! (nfm)

GingerNovember 09, 2016 03:12PM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 3-4

Renee BNovember 08, 2016 01:44AM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 3-4

SabineC.November 08, 2016 08:34AM

Witch hunt

GingerNovember 08, 2016 12:37PM

Re: Witch hunt

SabineC.November 08, 2016 04:32PM

Re: Witch hunt

EvelynJeanNovember 09, 2016 06:30AM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 3-4

GretchenNovember 07, 2016 04:34PM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 3-4

GingerNovember 07, 2016 04:38PM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 3-4

GretchenNovember 08, 2016 04:32PM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 3-4

AriadneONovember 07, 2016 02:18PM

E's "sudden realisation of guilt."

GingerNovember 07, 2016 02:32PM



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