As they approached the willow which served as shelter over the grave of Richard Fitzwilliam. The location brought tears to the eyes of his mother and sisters. Even James was holding back the tears which threatened to escape his eyes.
“This is a beautiful spot, Mrs Darcy.” Agatha said in barely over a whisper. “A fitting location for Richard.”
“Please, I insist you call me Elizabeth. And I agree with you. The first moment I saw this location, I could find peace. William found it fitting as well.”
“Elizabeth, I know I can never make amends for my behavior. I know Darcy will never be able to forgive my nearly killing him. But my regret is honest and true. I should never have behaved as I did.” Agatha’s eyes were cast downward.
“There has been far too many harsh feelings. Now I can understand why your mother felt the way she did towards me. We have all loved Richard. When jealousy rears its head, it can sometimes take hold of us in unpleasant ways. I am pleased to see you have both come to realize what happened, and that your love for Richard is still strong. I did not have him as long as your family, but he was most dear to me. He will always be a part of my life, as William and I do not intend on hiding the truth from the children.”
Elizabeth looked towards the house and noticed the Duke walking towards them. “If you would excuse me, I wish to check on William. When you are finished here, I ask that you return to the sitting room we were just in.”
When she neared the Duke, she held out her hand. “Would you be so kind as to join me? I wish to check on William, and, if he is awake, I need to speak with him. The conversation will involve you as well.”
Winston gave Elizabeth a confused look, though he followed her without hesitation.
~~ ** ~~
Bingley stood in front of Mr Bennet’s desk, nervously attempting to find the words he wished to say. Never in his life had he been at a loss for words. As soon as he began, it was as if all the words he knew were pulled from his mind and he did not know how to make his mouth work.
“Mr Bingley, did you come here to speak with me or are you planning on standing before me all day? You do not make a very good statue, as you are moving about, fidgeting.”
Moving his mouth, open and closed, it was nearly five more minutes before he was finally able to speak. The entire time, Mr Bennet took great pleasure in tormenting the young man before him. Remembering how nervous Jacob had been when he prepared to speak to Sir William, Mr Bennet found it delightful to tease Bingley. Having endured the torture of not only his wife’s father, but her brother as well, when Mr Bennet asked for Fanny’s hand, he felt it was his right to return the…kindness.
Finally, words began to flow, only they flowed all together. “Iwishtospeak asIwishtomarryyourdaughter.”
“Forgive me, Mr Bingley, but I did not understand you.” Mr Bennet held up his hand for a moment, requesting Bingley to hold off. Mr Bennet then poured the young man a glass of port and told him to drink it. Once the glass was empty, and Bingley was given a moment calm himself.
“Now, Mr Bingley, let us try your statement once again.”
Blushing, Bingley nodded his head. “Mr Bennet, forgive me. I wish to speak with you, as I wish to marry your daughter, Miss Jane Bennet.”
“And have you spoke with my daughter on the matter?”
“I have. And she has accepted my offer.”
Mr Bennet stood, holding out his hand to Bingley. “Then it is my honor to give you my approval. Now, I suggest you wait until my wife’s sister has left before we make the announcement. Fanny will be pleased with the attachment, but her sister will be wild and making all sorts of suggestions. You would never be allowed to get a word in with Mrs Phillips in the room.”
“Thank you, Mr Bennet. I am grateful to you for your consent and your advice.”
“Then off with you, my boy. I wish to return to my book.”
~~ ** ~~
Jane and Bingley decided to take a walk to be out of the house until Mrs Phillips had left. They decided to walk towards Oakham Mount. Mary had joined them as their chaperone, though she quickly lost the couple. Knowing that Jane and Mr Bingley were just that day engaged, she wished to give them some time together. Mary was quite certain that her elder sister could be trusted to behave herself with her betrothed.
But the newly betrothed were not to find themselves alone at Oakham Mount. It seemed her brother and his betrothed had the same notion. Charlotte and Jacob were seated on one of the tree trunks which laid on the ground, forming a bench. “Jane, Mr Bingley, what a pleasure to see you.” Jacob called out to them. “Did Mamma feel we needed a chaperone?”
Jane laughed. “After all the years you two have been courting, I cannot see why anyone would feel you need a chaperone, not now that you are betrothed.”
Charlotte chuckled. “And to just where did you lose your chaperone?”
Jacob was smiling. “I would hazard a guess that the chaperone was Mary and she somehow wandered in a different direction with a book in hand. On your way back home, I am certain that you will suddenly be joined by our dear sister.”
“Jacob, our sister is a dear girl. She knew Mr Bingley had just finished speaking with Papa, and she wished to allow us some privacy. If she had known this location would not be private at the moment, she most likely would have continued to come with us.”
“No, Jane, you know Mary has never been a great walker. She would not come this far of her own choice.” Jacob reminded his sister. “So, shall I guess what brought Mr Bingley to our father’s study today?”
“Jacob, stop teasing your sister. You do not wish to be the recipient, so do not dole it out.” Charlotte said as she slapped his arm.
Bingley was pleased to see the affection the Bennet family shared amongst its members. Soon, he would be a member of this family, and it made him nearly giddy. “I am proud to announce that I made the request for Miss Bennet’s hand in marriage, and Mr Bennet has granted his approval.”
Charlotte and Jane embraced while the men shook hands. Jacob then drew his sister into his arms and swung her about. “I am so pleased, Jane. You have found yourself a good match. Now, as I will be married to Charlotte, and no real connections to Town, it will be up to you and Bingley to set our sisters in the path of other fine gentlemen, aiding them to make good matches.”
“Jacob, you sound just like our aunt. Mrs Phillips is concerned for such things, Mamma only hopes we are all happy in our choices. Since your birth, it is not necessary to fret over an entailment. Papa says that the entailment was broken and he has had Uncle update the papers for the future. If you and Charlotte only have daughters, the eldest could inherit.”
“That is a blessing, indeed.” Charlotte stated. “So many families in the neighborhood, not to mention the country, struggle when there are only daughters born. The girls are left destitute. I was pleased that my father was able to set up his estate in a manner which protected Maria and me, along with our brothers.”
“Mrs Long’s niece had to come live with her due to her father’s estate being entailed away from the female line.” Jane added. “Poor girl. Her parents died from influenza and then she was forced from her home due to a distant cousin from the Americas inheriting the estate. And the cousin wanted nothing to do with the estate. He up and sold it off. Disgraceful.”
“Now, let us get back to pleasant things. When do you two plan to marry?” Charlotte inquired.
“We have not discussed a date as yet.” Bingley said, looking at Jane with surprise.
Charlotte looked at Jacob and both smiled. “Why do we not have a double wedding? We are planning to wed just after the first of the year. Though Jacob will still have a little longer before he finishes school, we wish to marry sooner. Jacob will be home for the holidays, and return after twelfth night. Mr and Mrs Bennet have worked on the dower’s house, for us to live in. I will remain there while Jacob finishes school.”
“I like the idea of a double wedding. And this way, Mamma can assist Lady Lucas with the plans. Between the two of them, it will be quite the event.” Jane agreed. The conversation continued on, and the decision was made. The Bennet’s two eldest children would marry in a double ceremony.
~~ ** ~~
“William, how are you feeling?” Elizabeth asked as she stepped to the side of his bed.
“Sleepy, but the pain is lessened considerably. What has been happening?”
“That is what I wish to speak about with you. Are you willing for the Duke to join us, as I wish his opinion on the matter?”
Darcy frowned, though nodded his approval. Once the Duke had joined them, sitting in one of the nearby chairs, Elizabeth began the discussion. She told both of the men of the drastic change in the attitudes of Lady Matlock and Agatha, of Lord Matlock’s death, and of the members of the Fitzwilliam family having similar visits from Richard. She told of Lady Matlock’s honest admission of her jealousy, and her having felt her beloved son’s presence through the horse. Darcy was shocked to realize that Jericho had died on the same day as Richard, not to mention the spiritual visits from Richard to his loved ones.
“I do not know why I am surprised, Richard was the one who kept the family together. It pleases me to see he has made improvements in his mother and siblings.” Darcy stated.
“It was strange, watching her at Richard’s grave. It was as if all the bitterness and fury was stripped from Lady Matlock and Agatha. The peaceful look each held was genuine.” Elizabeth was surprised at her tenderness, after having endured several years of conflict.
Winston had been listening carefully. “What have they said about the children?”
“They have not asked to see them, as I believe they are too nervous to ask me. It is my belief, though, if they were to see the children, their hearts would be at ease.”
“I do not trust them.” Darcy announced. “What if they are only placating you until they get their hands on Tom and Ari, and then they will be right back to their attempts to take them?”
“William, Agatha feels terrible for what she has done, especially to you. After hearing her words, I am convinced of several things. First, she has been bullied by her parents to do what was expected of her in marrying Lord Farnsworth. Secondly, she has spent the entirety of her married life suffering from violent acts being perpetrated on her. And thirdly, she was jealous of my having spent the last years of Richard’s life with him. She has made a radical change since her dream of Richard, as each of us has done. And I believe she would like to make her apologies to you, William. Whether you agree or not, I believe she would like to make them.”
“Darcy, your wife has a point. If anyone has a right to hold a grudge against the Fitzwilliam family, it would be her, yet she can see a change in them. I have to admit, I have not been with them, as I wished to allow them some time to come to terms with Lord Matlock’s death. I have not been the best of friends with Henry, but I know his death will be felt extensively. James has taken his position as the new Lord Matlock, and he made his opinion clear. He supports you and Mrs Darcy in this matter.”
Darcy looked deeply into Elizabeth’s eyes. “I wish to see my aunt and cousin, before we make a determination of their seeing the children. I have known them all my life, and I know their ways. It will make me less leery if I see their behavior.”
“Very well, are you up to their visiting now?” Elizabeth asked, concerned with over taxing her husband.
“Yes, I believe I will be fine.”
~~ ** ~~
Lady Matlock was frightened to enter her nephew’s rooms. She realized how close she and Agatha had come to killing the young man who was nearly as dear to her as Richard. Though she wished to convey her apologies, she feared how he would be treated. The dread was clear to see in her expression.
“Rebecca, William will not harm you. He has been angry with your behavior, but he wishes to see you and Agatha for himself.” Elizabeth took hold of Lady Matlock’s arm gently, leading her into the room.
Agatha had no fear, for she was filled with disgust with her own behavior. She went directly to Darcy’s bedside, dropping to her knees and took hold of her cousin’s hand, bringing it to her cheek.
“William, I cannot apologize enough to you for my actions. I am grateful for the Lord’s efforts to control my hand, for if I had killed you, I would not have been able to withstand it. You have never done me wrong, and have always treated me as a sister, just as Richard did. I cannot ask for forgiveness from you. All I can say is that I have learned a harsh lesson and will not allow such madness to come over me again.”
Darcy watched his cousin’s behavior and heard her words, realizing the young lady before him was the Agatha of their youth. The bitter woman she had become in the past years was gone, leaving the girl who loved him as a brother. At that moment, Darcy knew Elizabeth was correct in her judgment. “Aggie, I am pleased to know you have returned to us. I could not imagine what had come over the girl who always wished to ride on the estate and play games with Richard and myself.”
Her eyes looked into Darcy’s, searching for his forgiveness of her transgressions. Finding it there, in his blue eyes, Agatha found peace at last. “I cannot thank you enough, and promise you will never have need to worry over what I will do. My plans for the future are to live quietly in the country of Ireland, giving no one any troubles.”
Lady Matlock finally moved forward to her nephew’s bed. “And I will not cause any further difficulties to you and your family. I am pleased that my grandchildren will be raised by such loving parents. You do us a great honor, William. It is more than I deserve, but I am grateful for this chance to tell you in person.”
None of the Fitzwilliams realized Elizabeth had slipped from the room, and they were surprised when she returned with two very alert infants in her arms.
A gasp was heard from both Agatha and her mother. Tears of joy, mixed with tears of regret and loss filled their eyes. Lady Matlock was moved by the gesture on Elizabeth’s part, to allow the ladies a chance to meet the only children Richard would ever have. Each were allowed to hold the infants, taking turns with Tom and Ari.
“Elizabeth, when the children are older, would you be willing to have their portraits done and sent to me?” Lady Matlock nearly begged. “I will happily pay for the portraits.”
“There is no need for you to worry over the cost of portraits, Aunt Rebecca.” Darcy stated clearly. “And I believe we can arrange for you and Agatha to spend time with the children as they grow up. James, do you object with your mother and sister living in the dower’s house at Matlock?”
Surprise was obvious amongst the family, as Darcy was famous for telling everyone that his good opinion, once lost, was lost for good. James took a few moments before he responded. “I believe I can accept them, only if they agree with allowing me to choose a bride for love rather than for wealth and position.”
“I am more than willing to allow you to marry for love, Brother.” Agatha said as she nodded her head.
Lady Matlock looked at the infant in her arms. “It will be difficult for me to change my foolish ways, but if you are willing to work with me, I am willing to accept your choice in bride. I look forward to meeting Miss Jenson. And with all the scandal which will come from this situation, with Agatha’s divorce and all, perhaps it would be best for us to remain in the country for some time, forsaking society.”
“That, most likely, would be best.” Martha agreed. “Not to mention, we will be in mourning for Father. I am certain that you will find the peace of Matlock to be soothing during this trying time.”
Looking into Elizabeth’s eyes, Lady Matlock found acceptance, something she never expected from the young lady. “What a fool I have been, and so cruel to you. Thank you for making this possible.”
“You owe your thanks to your nephew, as it was his decision. But I will say that I am pleased we are all willing to make the situation better.” Elizabeth took hold of Rebecca’s hand and squeezed lightly.
~~ ** ~~
It was decided, during the next day, to take Lord Matlock’s remains to Matlock the following day. Once he had been given a proper funeral, James would accompany his mother and Agatha to a visit to Ireland. Both of the ladies wished for a change of scenery and some peace to put the pieces of their lives back in some sort of order. Then Rebecca and Agatha would return to Matlock, staying in the dower’s house. James would speak with Miss Jenson, asking her for her hand in marriage. If all went has he wished, when the first half year of mourning his father was over, he would be able to bring home the newest Lady Matlock.
The Fitzwilliams had stayed at Willows, rather than Lady Matlock and Agatha being returned to Netherfield. Darcy and Elizabeth were still cautious around Rebecca and Agatha, which was understandable. But the ladies were able to spend time with the entire Darcy family, including Georgiana, for the time they had. When it came time to part, it was with promises of seeing them when they returned to England in the following year.
~~ ** ~~
While her brother’s family were at Willows, Lady Catherine and Anne were found at the inn, located on the edge of Meryton. The truth of Anne’s disability was known now, though Lady Catherine was not yet ready to give up her quest.
Sending out messages, Lady Catherine awaited word on the whereabouts of George Wickham. She had never known the young man not send reports to her, as his need for financial assistance was always high.
It pleased her to put Wickham in the position to do her bidding. She knew of his birth, and his connection to her husband, as her husband had informed her only months after Wickham was born. Knowing of her husband’s infidelity, Lady Catherine did everything she could to torture Sir Lewis de Bourgh. Due to her treatment, not to mention his regrets over Wickham’s birth and inability to claim his son, who should have been his heir, Sir Lewis died young from what many would claim was a broken heart.
When Lady Catherine had discovered the money which her husband had placed in the hands of Gerald Darcy, for the future of George Wickham, the lady had a tantrum. Many items were destroyed at Rosings that day, windows, dishes, mirrors, figurines, and more. What no one knew was that Lady Catherine also was violent with her very young daughter. The fever which had caused such damage to Anne de Bourgh’s mind was brought on due to being injured first. Anne had been struck by her mother’s hand, in a state of fury, causing Anne to fall, resulting in a large gash on the girl’s leg. Refusing medical treatment for her daughter, Lady Catherine informed her staff there was no need to tend the wound.
The gash became infected, leading to a high fever. It was well over a month before Anne recovered from the fever, though the damage was done and there was no chance for it to be reversed. The lady who watched over Anne, Mrs Jenkinson, became angry at the treatment of the mother to the sweet natured girl Anne had been. The change in Anne’s personality was extensive, as she watched her mother’s behavior and copied it for her own. She would fuss and make demands of the staff, in the same manner as her mother, treating people harshly. No matter how many times Mrs Jenkinson attempted to correct the young Anne, Lady Catherine’s behavior always overruled any other example.
Now Lady Catherine was waiting for word on the bastard child of her husband, growing more and more impatient as the time ticked away. When she as finally at a point of storming from the room, there was a knock on the door. Opening the door, Lady Catherine took the message from the soldier’s hands, slamming the door in his face.
Reading the words did nothing to improve Lady Catherine’s demeanor. Several words of anger were heard throughout the inn, as the volume of Lady Catherine’s voice carried far.
~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~
Darkness had draped the neighborhood surrounding Meryton, as the clocks announced it was after midnight. Having left her daughter asleep at the inn, with her companion, Lady Catherine de Bourgh found her carriage ready for her. She had informed the driver to be prepared, for she would be making a short journey in the early hours.
The driver knew his Mistress’ unusual demands, but she compensated him well to remain silent. With his wife’s confinement close at hand, the driver could not afford to anger Lady Catherine, so he did what he was told.
He drove her to a small estate, only four miles outside the village. The carriage came to a stop out of sight of the main house, and Lady Catherine slipped out of the carriage and made her way to the house alone.
Finding the rear door unlocked, Lady Catherine stole her way inside. She found no one awake, as she had suspected. Searching for the Master’s study took some time, as she had to look in each room carefully. Finally, she felt rewarded for her diligence. The study door was unlocked, which surprised Lady Catherine. She slipped inside the room and closed the door behind her.
Lighting a candle, Lady Catherine began searching the room for the papers she still insisted on appropriating. She was certain that, with the papers in her hands, she would be able to convince Darcy to do what was right for Anne. Anne needed to be protected, and married to a man who would be kind to her. And it would take Anne away from Rosings, allowing Lady Catherine to live the remaining years of her life without suffering her daughter’s difficulties.
Two hours slipped by and Lady Catherine was becoming frustrated with her lack of success. She decided to search further areas of the house. The house was quite different, with many rooms underground, and it was fortunate for her that Lady Catherine had taken the opportunity to learn what she could before she made the journey there. It was a topic which garnered a lot of humor in the people of Meryton. One of the chambermaids at the inn found the unique conditions at Longbourn to be interesting.
Lady Catherine made her way down the stairs, finding most of the rooms on the level to be bed chambers. To her shock, Lady Catherine found another set of stairs, going further downstairs. There were several rooms, though there appeared to be a void area which should have been open. Suspecting something amiss, Lady Catherine moved her fingers about the wall and then on the set of shelves attached to the wall adjacent to the first. Suddenly, she felt a latch move and the wall she had already searched opened slightly. Pushing the piece of wall further showed the void area Lady Catherine had suspected. She entered the room, closing the panel behind her, and set her candle on the small table nearby. There was only a single chair next to the table, no other furniture was to be found. A set of shelves lined the wall with bottles of wine, port, and brandy. There were several wooden boxes, carved beautifully, which were locked. Most likely some sort of jewelry these common people feel is important. Nothing like what I have, I am certain.
On the top shelf was a package wrapped in paper and tied with ribbon. Her height prohibited her from gaining access, so she brought over the chair and stood on it. It was obviously in need of repairs, as the chair wobbled terribly. As Lady Catherine reached up to pull the package down, she heard a sound from outside the room. Turning towards the sound, Lady Catherine found herself tumbling as the chair overturned. She struck her head hard against the foot of the table. Blood began to trickle from her ears, trailing down the side of her face and on to the floor. Never again would she cause trouble for anyone.
~~ ** ~~
The sun was high in the sky when the carriage driver became extremely nervous, for his mistress had yet to return to the appointed location. But what was he to do? He was not to inform anyone of Lady Catherine’s behavior, for she was not one to cross. The driver had witnessed her anger against one of the other servants, and he was not in a position to lose his employment.
Every hour which went by brought more concern, and the driver decided to return to the inn, praying that he had been mistaken and Lady Catherine was safe in her room. Finding only Miss de Bourgh at the inn, the driver could not decide what to do. The Fitzwilliams family members had left for Matlock, and the only other family members of the de Bourghs’ was the Darcy family. But Mr Darcy was injured, and not in any condition to be of assistance.
Fortunately, Mrs Jenkinson was with Miss de Bourgh, so the young lady was looked after.
Near the time dinner was to be served, Mrs Jenkinson came in search of the driver. “Where is the Mistress? She was gone before I woke this morning, and has not been seen all day. Someone stated you were seen bringing the carriage back shortly after luncheon. Where did you go? Did you take the Mistress somewhere?”
“I cannot discuss such with you. You know how the Mistress is. If she were to learn of your asking such of me, she would give us both the boot.”
“But the Mistress is particular of what Miss de Bourgh eats. I cannot wait much longer, for Miss de Bourgh is hungry and she requires her medication after she dines.”
“The best I can offer is that you make the decision for her food. It is best the Mistress becomes angered over you doing the best for her daughter, rather than for neglect.”
“Very well, but I am concerned for the Mistress. If you have done something to bring her harm, I will report you to the local magistrate.” Mrs Jenkinson stated clearly, before turning and walking from the room.
~~ ** ~~
“Mrs Darcy has received a message from Meryton, from a lady who is companion to Miss de Bourgh.” Mr Blaine stated to his wife.
“I will take it up to her.” Mrs Blaine took the paper from his hand. “She is with Mr Darcy and the children at the moment.”
Mrs Blaine mounted the stairs and made her way to the Master’s bedchamber door. After knocking, when a voice called out to enter, Mrs Blaine opened the door. “Mistress, there is a message for you, from Meryton.”
“Thank you, Mrs Blaine. Would you send Jessie to take the children to be tended?”
“Very good, Ma’am. If you need anything else?”
“I require my wife’s meal to be served with mine tonight, Mrs Blaine.” Darcy stated as he adjusted the bedding around him. “She has promised me to read from one of my favorite authors tonight, after we dine.”
The housekeeper smiled. “Very good, Sir. Miss Georgiana was planning to dine with the Bennets at Longbourn, so Mistress Lizzy would have dined alone downstairs.”
“Then it has worked in my favor.” Darcy smiled. After Mrs Blaine left the room, Elizabeth opened the message.
“Good God.” Elizabeth declared.
“Elizabeth, language.” Darcy said, shocked at her speech.
“Your aunt is missing.”
“Aunt Rebecca? They only left this morning.” Darcy frowned.
“No, your other aunt, Lady Catherine. No one has seen her all day. Miss de Bourgh is with her companion, which is who has written to me. The companion is afraid of what has become of Lady Catherine, as it is not like her to vanish. And the driver of her ladyship’s carriage was seen bringing the carriage back to the inn, early in the afternoon. The driver has not divulged where he went.”
“Good God.” Darcy declared.
“William, language.” Elizabeth chuckled. “I will send word to my uncle and ask him to accompany me to Meryton. We will get to the bottom of this quandary.”
“It should be me to see to the matter.” Darcy was clearly frustrated with his limitations.
“William, you rest. I will keep you updated with news as we receive it.”
~~ ** ~~
Mr Bennet was prepared to accompany his niece when her carriage arrived at Longbourn. It had been unseasonably warm that day, and he was pleased to be able to be out of the house, as it was also baking day. Between the heat from baking and the weather, it was one of the few times Longbourn was uncomfortable to live in.
“So William’s aunt has come up missing. Is there something in his family’s roots that causes the ladies to become difficult to their relations?”
Elizabeth smiled. “No, as I have it on good authority that his mother was one of the sweetest ladies in all of England, and look at Georgiana and Martha. Even Rebecca and Agatha are returning to some semblance of normal behavior, at least normal for the majority of the country, not the ton.”
“So there was no word as to where Lady Catherine might have disappeared to? This is the aunt who wished your husband to marry her daughter?”
“Yes, the one who hired Mr Wickham to find the papers for her, as she wished to have our marriage annulled.” Elizabeth nodded as she responded. “Martha informed me that Winston was able to determine why Lady Catherine was so bent on her daughter marrying William. It seems that Miss Anne de Bourgh is mentally a child. When she was a child, she had a terrible fever which left her damaged in her mind. Miss de Bourgh is no more than Lydia and Kitty in her mind.”
“The mother would not have just left the daughter here, hoping someone would step forward and care for the girl?”
“I cannot imagine, from what I have been told of the lady, she would ever do such a thing without making a big to do over it. She is the sort who would make a fuss over someone having to take care of her poor daughter.”
“Well, let us determine what the situation is. Perhaps it is all a misunderstanding.”
The carriage arrived outside the inn, just as the sun had slipped below the nearby hillside, leaving the sleepy village of Meryton darkened.
Elizabeth and Mr Bennet entered the inn and were shown into the dining room. There, they found Mrs Jenkinson and Anne de Bourgh had just finished their meal.
“Good evening, Mrs Jenkinson and Miss de Bourgh. I am Elizabeth Darcy, and this is my uncle, Mr Bennet. I received your message and came to discover if there was any news.”
Anne looked perplexed and turned to her companion. “What would there be news of?”
“Do you remember what I told you earlier? Your mother has gone somewhere and has not returned or sent word to us.”
“Oh, yes. I am certain Mother will come along soon. You are Mrs Darcy? My cousin’s wife?”
Elizabeth could see the behavior of the young lady was indeed that of a child. “I am. I married Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, your cousin. My husband sends his regard, as he is unable to come due to his injury.”
Anne was confused. “Darcy is injured? I do not remember him being injured. Perhaps Mother did not wish to upset me. But she told me that your marriage is not real. I am supposed to marry him. So you should not be here. Mother would not approve of me talking with you.”
“Miss de Bourgh, forgive me, but I wish to speak with Mrs Darcy. I sent for her.” Mrs Jenkinson assured her. “Your mother cannot be angry at you when it was me who contacted Mrs Darcy.”
“But I am confused. Mother told me, only yesterday, that I was to marry Darcy soon as she was able to get the papers she needed. Darcy could not possibly remain married to you, even though I have decided I do not wish to marry. I do not wish to have a man touch me or give me a baby. I do not like babies.”
“Do not fret, Miss de Bourgh. You will not be forced to marry Mr Darcy.” Mrs Jenkinson said in a soothing voice. As she began to rise from her seat, Mrs Jenkinson noticed the carriage driver had entered the room. “Mrs Darcy, Mr Bennet, this is Lady Catherine’s carriage driver. He left here long before sunrise and returned, alone, near one in the afternoon.”
The driver, Floyd, knew he was backed into a corner. He would have to answer the questions from the people before him.
“Sir, do you know where Lady Catherine de Bourgh is to be found?” Elizabeth asked the driver.
“I know only where I was told to stop and let her out, and that I was instructed to remain at the location until she returned. It was odd that Lady Catherine would ask to be let out of the carriage and walk any distance, but I did not see any houses in the area.” Floyd responded. “When she did not return, I was fretting that I had misunderstood her, and I came back to the inn.”
“Where was it that Lady Catherine wished to exit her carriage?” Mr Bennet asked.
“It was some estate nearby. I cannot remember the name, something like long storm or lock storm.”
“Longbourn?” Mr Bennet asked, frowning.
“That be it, Sir. But she did not wish to be taken to the main house. We stopped in a wooded area.”
“What time did you go to Longbourn?” Elizabeth asked.
“After midnight. I got no sleep all night.” Floyd responded. “I took some drink and food with me, not knowin’ how long we was supposed to be there.”
“And you returned here, to the inn, in the early afternoon?”
“Yes, Ma’am. I was fretting that I was supposed to meet her somewhere other than there.” Floyd looked down at his feet as he was nervous.
Elizabeth looked at her uncle curiously. “You saw nothing out of the ordinary at Longbourn?”
“I spent most of the day out of the house, as it was baking day. With the heat from the baking and the unusual weather today, it was stifling to work in my study.” Mr Bennet stated. “Though, now that I think of it, Hill stated that there was a strange odor just shortly before you came. She was not certain what it was.”
“Uncle, we must return to Longbourn and do a search of the house.” Elizabeth said as she turned, preparing to exit the dining room. “Mrs Jenkinson, I will return as soon as we discover any news.”
Mr Bennet turned to Floyd. “Sir, it would be best if you came with us. Neither my niece or I has ever met Lady Catherine, so it would be of assistance to us to have someone who knows her be with us.”
Floyd nodded his head and followed Mr Bennet and Elizabeth out to their carriage.
~~ ** ~~
The search began at the location where Floyd had stopped to let Lady Catherine out of the carriage. Mr Bennet was certain that, if she had remained in his home, someone in his family or the servants would have noticed her. They called for everyone available to assist in the search, bringing lanterns and torches to light up the area. No sign of Lady Catherine was found. Once they reached the house, Mr Bennet requested his wife and daughters to stay in the drawing room, while the house was searched. Elizabeth stayed with her relations, as she was growing fatigued from the searching.
Mr Bennet agreed with Hill, there was an odor in the house. In his opinion, it smelled as if someone had lost control of their bodily functions. The search produced no sign of Lady Catherine. The hour had grown late, and no one could account for where the woman had disappeared to. Mr Bennet began to give his staff leave to go to their beds, while he continued to search through the house. The ladies of Longbourn went to their rooms, while Elizabeth remained in the drawing room. She had sent a message to Mrs Blaine, explaining the delay and asking her housekeeper to placate Darcy’s questions.
The odor was disturbing Mr Bennet. It had the smell of an outhouse, and no one could locate where it was coming from. Mr Bennet was certain that no one knew of his secret room, as there were few inside the trusted members of the household, for even his daughters were not aware of its existence. To Mr Bennet, it would not be possible for a stranger, who had never been inside his home, to find the room, in the middle of the night.
After making another search of the house, Mr Bennet and Mr Hill went into the drawing room, finding Elizabeth dozing on the sofa. She heard the men enter the room, and sat up straight. “Still no luck?”
“No. I have to say that there was no possible way for her to have gotten in here and remained, without our having located her. Perhaps we should wait until the sun rises to search outside again. It makes more sense that she is somewhere outdoors, and we missed her earlier.”
“There is one room we have not searched, Mr Bennet.” Mr Hill said in a soft voice.
Elizabeth was curious as to what the men were discussing.
“It is not possible. So few know of the room, and they would not be careless enough to speak of it to others outside the family. Even my daughters are ignorant of the room.”
“Uncle, what is happening?” Elizabeth asked.
“There is a secret room, which only your aunt, Jacob, Jane, and Mr and Mrs Hill know of. The younger girls do not know of it. It was constructed as a secure area for valuables, and there is a safe in the room, where all of our documents are kept. Your marriage certificates and articles of marriage are in the safe. But it would be impossible for Lady Catherine to learn of the room, let alone find the room, in the dark.”
“Where is the room?” Elizabeth was surprised.
“In the lowest level of the house. The level which is completely underground.” Mr Bennet shook his head. “It cannot be possible, but I will not rest until we go down and check the room. After which, we can go to bed and sleep a little before we begin the search again.”
~~ ** ~~
The door to the secret room opened and Mr Bennet stepped inside with a candle. “Dear God, how did she come to be in here?”
It was clear to see the lady had died. Unfortunately for the grand woman’s dignity, her death caused certain body functions to involuntarily act, which caused the odor which had been noticed. The blood which had trickled from her mouth and ears had dried, adding to the appearance that Lady Catherine de Bourgh had been dead for many hours. The overturned chair spoke of what had probably happened.
“We need to send for Mr Herbert to pronounce her death, for I do not wish to have any difficulties with her family.” Mr Bennet stated.
“Let us go upstairs, and wait for him to arrive. Should we also send for Sir William Lucas?” Elizabeth asked.
“Yes, yes, of course. We will not touch the body or move her until both Mr Herbert and Sir William arrive.” Mr Bennet escorted his niece and his butler upstairs, and into the drawing room.
Stepping to the sideboard, Mr Bennet poured a glass of port for himself, and a glass of sweet sherry for his niece. “I believe times like this require fortification.”
Elizabeth accepted the glass and took a sip from it. “How could this have all come to such an end? Why was that woman searching your home, not to mention, ending up in a room which is unknown to most who live here?”
“I have often thought it peculiar that no one realized there is a section of the basement which appears to be missing. It takes a trained eye, but it is noticeable to me, even before my father showed the room to me.”
“It would not have even dawned on me, if you had not mentioned it to me.”
“I have always enjoyed architecture, so it was easily spotted. My father always teased me, for I always enjoyed drawing up plans for buildings. He would never allow me to rebuild anything on the estate.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Are you saying that your father refused to allow you to create a house which would rival the palace?”
“Father did not appreciate the need for a mote and draw bridge. I thought it was quite logical, especially after becoming a father myself, with daughters who would attract young men to come courting. Father did not have to worry as I have, as he had no daughters.”
“Having a daughter does make your suggestion more logical, but please do not inform my husband of such improvements. He would have not only a mote, but a tower, built to keep Ari protected from any future courters.”
“Ah, yes, William is quite devoted to being a father.” Mr Bennet took a sip from his glass. “It pleases me that he has taken his position as a father so devotedly. Seeing him with the children brings a smile to this old man.”
“Uncle, you are far from old. Papa would tease you mercilessly for such a comment.”
“I miss your father, Lizzy. Robert was my dearest friend when we were children. I admit that when he first decided to move to Belgium, I was angry with him. Though he had no real future staying here, I could not imagine his being away from us. Fanny and I were married a month before Robert left, so I devoted myself to my wife.”
“That is how it should have been, Uncle. Papa knew you cared for him, but you had to find your future. And, if he had not gone to Belgium, we would not be sitting here as we are.”
Mr Bennet leaned towards his niece, seated on the sofa. He placed a hand on top of hers. “And I would not trade you for anything. You were the gem in Robert’s life, and every letter he sent was filled with his love for you. If you wish, I can give you the letters. I have them bundled in the secret room, on the top shelf.”
“I would like that, Uncle. But if they are in that room, with all the important items, perhaps it should only be a loan, for I am sure you wish to have then close.”
Nodding his head, Mr Bennet smiled. “It has been comforting, at times, to have his words near. You are welcome to keep them as long as you wish.”
“Thank you. It would be pleasant to read Papa’s words.”