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The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (2nd Installment)

February 10, 2018 03:42AM
PART THREE


“So you’ll be looking for a new abigail?” said Lizzy.

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” said Jane. “Mr. O’Brian, seeing how distressed poor Sophie was, asked about her family. When I said she had none living, but that her betrothed was a Royal Navy officer, he took it upon himself to contact Captain Mowatt at Portsmouth, informing him of what had happened to him. Like Mr. O’Brian, the captain is a man of action.”

“I should say so,” replied Lizzy. “Appearing here with a special license not two days after your arrival.”

“After what had happened, he wanted the woman he loved under his protection. I find his devotion to dear Sophie quite wonderful. He’s now a decorated officer. If he keeps his commission, and continues to find employment, he’ll undoubtedly be made post, which means flag rank is inevitable as long as he’s patient. He could court great ladies of the ton, his origins in the servant class notwithstanding. Yet he remained faithful to the childhood sweetheart he met when she was just a scullery maid and he a garden boy. Neither one even 10 years old, but they stayed true to each other all that time.”

Jane had stood up with Sophia at the wedding held at the church in Lambton days earlier. Captain Mowatt had been attended by an officer who had served as his first lieutenant on the sloop he commanded. The bride, still shaken by her ordeal, had been more than happy to be placed under the protection of the man she had loved since she was eight and he was ten, and he, for his part, while he would have spared her that terrible ordeal, was glad that an excuse had come along to move things forward. Sophie, devoted as she was to Jane, might have dithered and delayed, and Jane, sweet-natured as she was, would never have forced her to choose.

“Tell me more of your Mr. O’Brian,” said Lizzy.

She and Jane were a study in contrasts. Both lovely, Lizzy was vibrant where Jane was gentle, dark where Jane was fair, somewhat buxom where Jane was somewhat slender, passionate where Jane was serene. Yet it was clear they were sisters. Both had the “fine eyes” of their mother, the eyes that had captivated their father, Thomas Bennet, all those years ago, resulting in a tempestuous, yet oddly happy marriage, and five beautiful daughters. They were sitting with the second youngest Bennet daughter, Catherine, called Kitty, who had, since the marriages of her two oldest sisters, divided her time between Jane and Lizzy.

“Yes, do tell us about the rescue, again,” said Kitty. “It sounds so romantic.”

“He is not my Mr. O’Brian, Lizzy. And, Kitty, it was not romantic at all. It was frightening and awful.”

“Any man who looks at you is yours, my dear sister,” said Lizzy. “But let that bide. I don’t need to hear about your ordeal again. But do tell me about this remarkable American. What sort of man is he?”

“Surprisingly tender,” answered Jane. “As fiercely he fought all those bandits, he was just as considerate when the fighting was finished. He even tended to the wounds of one of the highwaymen, praying with him as he lay dying. He has kind, gentle eyes. Sad eyes, as though he’d suffered some sorrow of his own. They were fierce in battle, but surprisingly sad in repose.”

“And you said he was handsome,” said Kitty.

“Quite handsome, in a roughhewn way. He is by far the tallest man I’ve ever seen. Even taller than my brother Darcy. And he has the broadest shoulders. I felt quite dwarfed by him. Yet he moved gracefully for such a big man. In his manner, he rather reminded me of you, Lizzy.”

“Of me?”

“Quick and decisive. Assessing situations rapidly, and wading into them boldly. Yet, for all his fierceness, as I said, gentle and kind. He had an ease with people that also reminded me of you. He took command of situations, but did so in a way that did not offend, and made all others comfortable with his being in charge. Yes, in many ways, he was a lot like you.”

“And will you be seeing him again?” asked Kitty.

“In an official capacity, of course,” added Lizzy.

“It does not seem likely,” said Jane. “There is no one left to bring to trial. The inquest has already settled the question of how all those deaths came about. And he will undoubtedly be on the trail of another American fugitive, by now.”

*


But Jane was wrong. Less than a week after returning to Kimberton with her two children, she was surprised to have a Mr. O’Brian announced. She instructed the footman to show him to the sitting room, and after taking a few moments to compose herself, went there to greet her visitor.

“What a pleasure to see you again, Mr. O’Brian.”

“‘Mike,’” he corrected. “Formality makes me uncomfortable, Mrs. Bingley. I really would prefer you just address me as ‘Mike.’ I won’t force this issue, of course. I know things are done differently over here, and if you’re more comfortable addressing me as ‘Mr. O’Brian,’ I won’t object. But I do want my preferences on the record.”

“Duly noted, sir,” Jane smiled. “I can’t quite make myself easy calling you ‘Michael,’ let alone ‘Mike.’ Here it’s not uncommon even for wives and husbands to address each other as ‘Mister’ and ‘Mrs.’ My own parents do so.”

O’Brian shook his head, and said, “Wonder why you British even bother giving each other Christian names. No one seems to use ‘em over here.”

He paused for a moment, then went on, “I’m continuing to investigate your abduction, Mrs. Bingley. Now that you’ve had some time to settle down and get over the trauma of the event, I have some questions to ask you.”

“What is there to investigate, sir? All the perpetrators were killed in the act, arms in hand.”

“But Parisi’s remarks make it very clear that this wasn’t a random highway robbery. Your carriage was specifically targeted. And both he and Shand made comments about ‘the guv.’ They were working at the direction of someone else, and that someone else specifically wanted to make you his prisoner. That means he knows you, or at least knows of you. So it follows that you probably know him, or at least of him. Can you think of anyone who fits this description? Anyone who’s shown an unhealthy or unwelcome attention to you?”

“My late husband’s fortune was made in trade, as you probably know. Although he was no longer active in his father’s business, it was the foundation of his income, and he still had many contacts among men of business. His father sent him to university, and hoped he would buy an estate, thus entering the ranks of the landed gentry. Kimberton was the fulfillment of his father’s dream. Through his friendship with my brother Darcy, he moved in circles higher than his origins would normally allow. My point is he knew many, many people, at several different levels of society. Most of those people I have met only in passing, or never met at all.”

“Did any of them seem particularly interested in you?”

“Not that I could see.”

“I know you’re not being falsely modest, Mrs. Bingley, but let me be blunt. You are an uncommonly beautiful woman. And those highwaymen weren’t interested in you for your husband’s fortune. Neither, I imagine, was the grey eminence behind them. Did anyone ever make indecent suggestions to you?”

“No,” she said, looking away, clearly uneasy at the line O’Brian’s questioning was taking.

“Did any of them give you the notion that they wanted to? Did any of them make you feel uncomfortable?”

“Not deliberately, I’m sure,” said Jane, looking down.

“I can see that I’ve made you uncomfortable,” said O’Brian. “I apologize. But I’ve got a criminal to catch, and, until he's in custody, I believe he’s still a threat to you. So I’m liable, without meaning to offend, to brush aside the niceties. And over here, you’ve got so . . . blessed many niceties,” Jane smiled at the minced swearing, rather certain that, left to his own devices, O’Brian would have used a stronger word, “that I tend to brush by a lot of them without even knowing about ‘em.”

“No apology is necessary, sir. I know you act and speak from genuine concern. Do you really apprehend a continued danger?”

“I do. And, as you’re a woman alone, I recommend you take steps. Hire a few more footmen. Maybe have your brother-in-law help pick ‘em out. I’d recommend ex-soldiers who have a familiarity with weapons. Keep ‘em armed at all times. Make sure there are watches standing guard overnight. Make sure you are accompanied by armed footmen whenever you travel from home, even to the local village or to go to church.”

Suddenly the door burst open, and a fireball rushed in. At least it seemed like a fireball. In fact it was a little boy with a thatch of reddish-blonde hair.

“Mama! Mama! A big horth outside!”

A woman holding a baby between one and two, entered right behind the boy, and was apologetic.

“I’m sorry, madam” she said. “He saw the horse and became so excited he had to tell you. I had Miss Beth in my arms and couldn’t stop him.”

“It’s quite all right, Jenny,” replied Jane. She then turned to her son and said, “What have you been told about opening doors, Thomas?”

Little Thomas looked down at the floor shamefaced. “I am thuppothed to knock firtht.”

“That’s right. Still such a big horse is quite an event. And I know how much horses excite you. That one, I believe, must belong to this gentleman, Mr. O’Brian, the one I told you who helped me when I was on my way to Pemberley to see you and Beth.”

O’Brian stepped forward. Thomas looked up, awed at the size of the man, who suddenly bowed very properly, and, in a low, and soothing voice, said, “Most honored to meet you, Master Bingley. I am Mike O’Brian. If your mother allows it, please call me ‘Mike.’”

With that, he straightened up, knelt down next to Thomas to reduce the effect of his imposing size, and held out his hand for Thomas to shake.

Thomas made a surprisingly decent bow, considering that he was not yet four years old, then took hold of O’Brian’s hand and gave it a hearty shake.

“You helped Mama, Mithter Mike?”

O’Brian looked up at Jane and said, “Is ‘Mr. Mike’ a reasonable compromise, Mrs. Bingley? ‘O’Brien’ might be a little much to wrap his mouth around at his age.”

Jane smiled and nodded.

O’Brian turned back to the little boy, and, in the same soft, soothing tone, said, “Yes, Master Bingley, I did help your mother. Now she’s helping me try to find a bad man.”

“Bow Thtweet Wunnerth catch bad men. Are you a Bow Thtweet Wunner?”

“I am. I’m also a Deputy United States Marshal.”

“What i' that?” asked Thomas, enunciating the “t” in “what” and “that” as if it was a recently mastered sound.

“Kind of an American Bow Street Runner. I’m actually from America, and the bad men I’m trying to catch are American bad men who are hiding here in England.”

Another interruption came at that moment. A footman entered the sitting room and said, “Madam, one of Mrs. Wilkins’s children is at the front door. It’s her time, and the midwife, Mrs. Holloway, isn’t at home. She’s apparently seeing to another birth. Dr. Wayne isn’t at his home, either. Mr. Wilkins is in the next county on business. They came here because they didn’t know where else to turn.”

“O, dear,” said Jane. “The Wilkinses are tenants of ours,” she said to O’Brian. “She thought she had another few weeks when I saw her the other day.”

“Apparently her baby had other notions. Anyone here ever delivered a baby? Your housekeeper, or one of the nurses or any of the maids?”

“No, I don’t believe so. I, at least, have borne two children. And I assisted my sister, Lizzy, when she had her son. I may be the most experienced one here.”

“But you’ve never actually delivered a baby?”

“No,” she said, and the trepidation she was trying to hide was, nevertheless, obvious.

“Well, I’ve delivered three. Doesn’t exactly make me an old hand, but it does put me three up on you.”

You have delivered babies, Mr. O’Brian?”

“Two Michaels and a Michelle. The moms insisted on naming the kids after me. Policemen do a lot of strange things, Mrs. Bingley. But I think it would help Mrs. Wilkins to have another woman there who’s been through what she has. Could you help me out?”

“Of course.”

“Fine. Have someone hitch up a carriage. I’ll need soap, bar soap if you have it, some kind of strong whiskey, not necessarily good whiskey, just as long as it’s strong, clean linens, and I mean clean. How many kids has she had before now?”

“This is her fourth.”

“Then we’ll have to hurry. It might come fast, now that her body knows what to do. Let’s get cracking!”

*


Within a short time the party arrived at a well-built farmhouse some miles from the estate residence. O’Brian and Jane followed the little Wilkins girl inside. Soon they were in the bedroom of Mrs. Wilkins, who apologized profusely, explaining that she gave the child no leave to be bothering Mrs. Bingley.

“The poor dear had no one else to turn to, Mrs. Wilkins. Neither Mrs. Holloway nor Dr. Wayne were on hand. She had to seek help where she could find it.”

O’Brian pulled up a chair, sat down next to Mrs. Wilkins, and spoke softly to her.

"Mrs. Wilkins, I’m no midwife, and still less a physician, but I've delivered three babies, and all three came through just fine, and so did their mothers. I’ll help you if you wish. But I’m a man, and I’ll be seeing things that generally no one but your husband’s entitled to see. I’ll need your permission. Mrs. Bingley will be here the whole time.”

Mrs. Wilkins turned to Mrs. Bingley for reassurance.

“He’s a good man, Mrs. Wilkins. And, as he says, I’ll be with you the whole time.”

“Just as you say, then, Mrs. Bingley.”

As discreetly and gently as he could, O’Brian checked Mrs. Wilkins’s cervix.

“About three inches. We still have time.”

With that he walked out of the room, asked for a pitcher of water, took the bar of soap they had brought with them, stripped off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and, for the next five minutes, proceeded to wash his hands thoroughly, all the way up to the elbows. The children were wondering about the two-gun shoulder rig that was suddenly revealed, to say nothing of the knife sheathed at the small of his back. When he was finally finished, he took the bottle of whiskey, and, without drying himself, poured it over both hands.

“Why are you doing that?” asked Jane.

“Clean hands seem to help prevent childbed fever. So I’ve been told by a doctor friend back home, anyway. Alcohol acts as a final cleanser. Fellow who told me that’s pretty smart. Next time you’re having a baby, I’d recommend you insist that whoever’s helping you wash their hands. Won’t do them any harm, and might do you a lot of good.”

His hands still wet, he reentered the bedroom and checked the cervix again,

“About four inches,” he said. “Mrs. Bingley, I need you to help Mrs. Wilkins sit up, then kneel behind her like a back rest.”

After Jane had done as he instructed, O’Brian said, “All right, Mrs. Wilkins, do you feel like pushing?”

Yes!”

“Then take three quick breaths, hold the last one, and push.”

Twenty minutes later, it was all over and Mrs. Wilkins was holding a beautiful baby boy. Overcome by gratitude, she asked O’Brian to be the child’s godfather, and offered to name the boy for him.

“Can’t be the godfather, ma’am, though I’m more flattered than I can say that you offered. I’m Catholic, y’see, so it wouldn’t be allowed by either of our faiths. But, if I possibly can, I promise to be at your church for the little fella’s christening. And if you still want to name him ‘Michael,’ I’d be honored. You might want to give him a middle name of ‘John,” in honor of Mrs. Bingley, since ‘Jane’ is a feminine form of ‘John.’”

“I’ll do just that, Mr. O’Brian.”

*


A week later, O’Brian returned to Kimberton, and watched as Michael John Wilkins was inducted into the Church of England. Jane had agreed to be young Michael’s godmother. A brother of Mrs. Wilkins was designated the godfather since O’Brian was ineligible. Later, at a celebratory repast held at the Wilkinses’, O’Brian presented Mrs. Wilkins with a handsome, leather bound edition of the King James Version of the Bible.

“If I’d’ve been able to accept the honor you offered me, ma’am, I’d’ve been undertaking responsibility for young Michael’s religious education. Giving this to him as gift he’ll be able to refer to in the future is as close as I’ll be able to come to fulfilling that role. Once again, thank you for naming the boy for me.”

Later, Jane asked O’Brian to walk her back to Kimberton.

“I’m not the walker my sister, Lizzy, is, but the day is pleasant, the path smooth, and the distance not so very great. We should make it in under an hour, and I should like the company.”

“Did you bring an armed footman with you?”

“No,” said Jane, a little sheepishly. “It seemed overcautious. Do you still believe I may be in danger?”

“I believe it's a strong possibility. I’m sure your brother, Mr. Darcy, would agree. Since you've taken no other security precautions, it’ll be a pleasure to walk you back.”

They went the first quarter mile in silence. Then Jane spoke.

“May I ask, Mr. O’Brian, why you were interested in my relationship to Lord Fitzwilliam?”

“Wasn’t. I was interested to find out if you were the Mrs. Bingley who was married to the closest friend of Mr. Darcy of Pemberley on the same day her sister married Darcy himself. But I’m in the habit of playing my cards close to my vest. If you turned out not to be that Mrs. Bingley, my asking about the earl wouldn’t seem that suspicious. Everybody’s interested in the aristocracy. If you were, I’d find out what I was trying to find out without asking a direct question.”

“Sort of like a boxing feint or a sacrifice in chess.”

“In the sense that it was a form of strategy, that’s a very good analogy.”

“Why were you interested?”

“Well. I’d heard about you and your sister shortly after I arrived here. Turns out there are a surprisingly large number of people back home who knew about you both before I even left. Quite a romantic story. Like two Cinderella sisters, only in real life. When you turned out to be that Mrs. Bingley, the Mrs. Bingley, I was just surprised at what a small world it is.”

“I’m very surprised to learn that the story is that widely spread.”

“You have no idea,” replied O’Brian.

“Are you back on the trail of some criminal after you leave here.”

“I certainly am. One of them being the unknown party behind your abduction.”

“I wasn’t quite abducted, you know.”

“You were taken from the coach, tied up, and forced to accompany your captors to where they turned you over to their leaders. You were both compelled to walk at least twenty feet while in captivity. That’s distance enough to count as full-fledged abduction for legal purposes.”

“So I suppose this is good-bye,” said Jane. By this time they had arrived at the front entrance of Kimberton.

“Perhaps more like au revoir. I imagine we’ll cross paths again before too long. As I said, it’s a small world.”

(To Be Continued)
SubjectAuthorPosted

The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (2nd Installment)

Jim D.February 10, 2018 03:42AM

Re: The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (2nd Installment)

Shannon KFebruary 10, 2018 11:15PM

Re: The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (2nd Installment)

ErynFebruary 10, 2018 08:19AM

Re: The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (2nd Installment)

Jim D.February 10, 2018 06:47PM

Re: The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (2nd Installment)

KateBFebruary 10, 2018 04:36AM

Re: The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (2nd Installment)

DorisFebruary 10, 2018 07:36AM



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