The hidden paths of Netherfield were convenient for sneaking about the grand house undetected. He had been exploring every inch of the house since he had been hired by the Bingleys.
Little did the Bingley family know of his already being employed to join the staff of Netherfield. Lady Catherine de Bourgh was keeping watch on her nephew, as it was her desire that Darcy marry her daughter soon. Anne de Bourgh had become stronger in her opinions, not giving in to her mother’s designs on everything that mattered. The sooner Lady Catherine had her daughter married to Darcy, the better it would be. The grand lady explained that she knew Darcy would not wish to reside at Rosings, the de Bourgh estate in Kent. And Anne would obediently do as her husband instructed, living at Pemberley rather than her childhood home. With Anne securely relocated to the north, Lady Catherine would be able to continue ruling over Rosings as she wished.
The footman had been wise, as he knew that he could make a fortune from the elderly woman. He allowed her to believe she had seduced him into her bed, when, in fact, he had been in complete control of his emotions. Though he found the arrogant hag repulsive, he knew the pot at the end of the rainbow would set him up for life.
So he had no difficulties in taking the assignment of taking a position with the Bingley staff. The footman led an anonymous life, as he was rarely even noticed.
He had written to Lady Catherine explaining to her of the obvious attraction Mr Darcy had for one Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Due to his letter, Lady Catherine had written to Mr Collins, offering to pay the simple minded buffoon to marry the same said Elizabeth Bennet. She demanded he take the second eldest as his bride, which, of course, was met with delight on the parson’s side. Mr Collins had found Elizabeth to be attractive, her figure being fine and her face being the next best of his cousins, coming in second, behind only her eldest sister.
The footman had witnessed the foolish attempt to compromise his cousin that the parson had perpetrated. He knew that Mr Collins stood more chance of being arrested for his attack on the young lady, rather than achieving her hand in matrimony. If he were allowed to continue, Lady Catherine’s involvement would be discovered. The parson was too foolish to be able to keep such information secret. This left no choice for the footman, but to end the bumbling buffoon’s life. He had pulled the knife from the sheath he kept strapped to his lower leg, and plunged it into the chest of the puffed up parson, twisting the blade as an added measure, as he watched the realization flicker into the few brains belonging to Mr Collins.
Wickham had been easy to convince to assist him. Lady Catherine knew of Wickham’s need of funds, and had hired the man to join the militia at Meryton, so that he would be available to assist her footman. But Wickham wanted more funds. He was aware that Sir William had lost his sister in Lambton. Having been the scoundrel who had committed the murder of Sir William’s sister, Wickham knew all the details and could convince the gentleman of Darcy’s involvement, claiming Darcy committed the crime that he, himself, had done.
With Wickham demanding more funds, so he could disappear, the footman knew that the lieutenant of the militia would need to disappear forever. The only problem was the storm. The footman could not travel far from Netherfield, as the weather kept everyone in or near the house. Wickham had been sent to one of the abandoned tenant houses to stay, after he had given his witness statement to Sir William. But he was restless and eager to make his escape. So the footman was required to eliminate any further problem from him.
Then there was Miss Elizabeth Bennet. The murder of Mr Collins had been done just before Mr Darcy had come looking for the Bennet sister. Fortunately, the footman was able to take position on the terrace, and suggest to Darcy to carry Elizabeth into Bingley’s study, through the exterior door. Darcy did not think twice of the unknown footman lurking about on the terrace, his mind was on Elizabeth’s injuries.
Once the footman had done Darcy’s bidding, informing Mr Bingley and Mr Bennet of their presence being required in the study, the man was free to collect Wickham and prepare the con artist to stand as witness for Sir William.
But Elizabeth Bennet was garnering far too much attention from Darcy. Knowing his patroness’ requirement for Darcy to marry her daughter, the footman took advantage of Sir William’s anger and distrust of the Bennets and Darcy. Finding Elizabeth Bennet alone, he was able to slip poison into her water. Unfortunately, he was unable to finish what he had started and had to flee the room quickly.
Now his patroness had arrived. She had been staying at an inn, not far from the neighborhood surrounding Meryton. When the storm set in, and the footman was unable to send word to her, she had decided to come to Netherfield, to ensure her plan was coming to completion. Her arrival had not surprised the footman.
After the dinner that night, and knowing that Lady Catherine had retired early, the footman utilized the hidden passageways to make his way to the rooms of the grand lady.
As he entered the bedchambers that Lady Catherine was to use during her stay, the footman snuck up behind her, wrapping his arms about her waist. He whispered into her ear. “I have missed you, my lady.”
“It is high time you came to see me. You have made a mess of the situation. How could you foul everything? It is plain to see that my nephew is smitten by this hussy. I expected the situation to be under control and the chit married to my parson by this point. Collins is dead, the country nobody has my nephew at her beck and call. Where is Wickham? He should be assisting you.”
“Wickham got too greedy. He is dead. I had to silence him, as he threatened to go to your nephew, believing that Darcy would pay him far greater for his information. To protect you, I did what I thought necessary.”
Lady Catherine turned around, reaching up and pulling the footman’s face towards hers. She kissed him roughly, with great demand for the young man’s vitality. The woman had never liked her husband, who had been nearer her father’s age than her own. But the young footman was virile and satisfying to her needs. “Very well, Jacob, I will accept your explanation. Once you have pleased me in my bed, we will discuss our strategy for ridding the world of Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
~~ ** ~~
Determined to follow through on her plan, Caroline waited until after she had performed on the pianoforte, after dinner, to act. She would announce her intentions to retire to her room, and then she would pretend to fall on the third step.
For the first time since the ball, Darcy had dined with his hosts, and joined them in the music room after the men enjoyed a cigar and a glass of port. She was pleased to see him paying attention to her family, even if it was mostly his speaking with Charles, as the pair sat on the other side of the room from where Caroline was playing on the pianoforte. And an added bonus was that the Bennet family had kept to their own, preferring to dine in their rooms. Jane Bennet was with her sister, Elizabeth, and Mr Bennet had taken to the sitting room connected to his most cherished daughter’s bedchamber, with a book he had liberated from Bingley’s library. Though the choices were slim, Mr Bennet was pleased to see that there were some books he would be able to find pleasure in reading.
Lady Catherine had long retired to her own rooms, and Mr Jones was spending time with his family in the rooms they had been given. Why her brother had to be so kind and generous, Caroline could not understand. She planned to discuss the matter with him while they were in Town. If it were not for his nature, the Bennets would be snowed in at Longbourn, and she would not have to fret over Mr Darcy’s attention towards Eliza Bennet.
As Caroline stepped on the first step, she heard Darcy at the music room door. “Really, Charles, I am in need of sleep. The past few days have left me exhausted. Miss Bennet is to inform me immediately if Miss Elizabeth wakes, though I doubt it will be tonight. Mr Jones stated he expected Miss Elizabeth to sleep until morning. What time she had been awake had exhausted her. So I will get some sleep as well. My aunt being here will be trying on my nerves, so I will need all my faculties functioning.”
Charles could be heard in the hall calling out good night to his friend. Caroline suddenly decided on a different road to take to obtain her goal. As no one else was about, she would stage a compromise, forcing Darcy to propose to her, to save both of their reputations.
Darcy approached the stairs with his eyes focused downward, and did not realize Caroline Bingley was near until he nearly collided with her. “Miss Bingley, I thought you had already made your way up to your rooms.” His voice showed his obvious distress at meeting this woman alone.
“I had just remembered I wished to ask my sister a question, so I was on my way back. But this gives me the time I wished for, as I am desperate to speak with you. Those Bennets have kept you apart from us, and I have been fearful of your health. Are you well, Mr Darcy?”
“I am well, Miss Bingley. The Bennets have not caused me any difficulties, have no fear. Now, if you do not mind, I wish to retire.” Darcy attempted to move around his friend’s sister.
Caroline moved to block his way. Her hand reached forward, lightly touching the buttons of his short coat. “I am pleased to have time to spend with you, Mr Darcy. I have missed you tremendously. You know how fond I am of you.”
Darcy brushed her hand away. “Be that as it may, Miss Bingley, but you are well aware of my sentiments. I have no desire to have any connection with you, other than the fact that you are my friend’s sister. Now, Miss Bingley, I suggest you continue on to your destination. I will make my way to my rooms. Good night.”
As he began to move, Miss Bingley lifted her other hand and tore her gown. “Mr Darcy, how dare you.” She declared in a loud voice.
Before Darcy knew what was happening, Bingley came hurrying from the music room to see what was wrong. The sight before him was appalling. Caroline’s gown was torn, hanging in a manner that would have shown her décolletage, if her hand was not holding the fabric up. “What is going on here?”
Suddenly, there was clapping from above. Everyone turned their attention towards the sound. Thomas Bennet leaned over the railing of the upper stairs. “A performance worthy of the stage, Miss Bingley. You should think about a career in the theater.”
Caroline’s cheeks colored instantly. She grabbed the front of her gown and ran up the stairs, hot tears of humiliation rolling down her cheeks.
Darcy looked up at the father of the young lady with whom he was in love. “I owe you tremendously. That was a close call.”
Bingley was confused. “What just happened? Why did my sister run off, and her dress, it was torn, was it not?”
Mr Bennet took each step with a light touch. “Your sister’s gown is torn, due to her own hand. She attempted to force Darcy by making it appear she had been compromised. Fortunately, I witnessed the entire scene. Mr Darcy did nothing inappropriate and was attempting to leave the location, only to have Miss Bingley thwart his efforts.”
The young man’s eyes rolled back in his head. “My sister is becoming desperate. No matter what I tell her, she insists she has all that is necessary to be the next Mistress of Pemberley. I can only pray that she has finally learned her lesson. I will speak with her in the morning, informing her that if she does not leave you alone, I will cut her off completely.”
“I have exhausted my civility when it comes to dealing with your sister, Charles. If she cannot respect my privacy and my repeated insistence that she is not my choice for a wife, I will be forced to remove to the inn. My tolerance for Miss Bingley is finished.” Darcy stated, appalled by the actions of the woman. “Charles, I consider you one of my closest friends, but I will not be forced into a marriage to her, even if she were found, naked as the day she was born, in my rooms. Do I make myself clear?”
“You do, my friend. Please forgive me for not putting my foot down with her sooner. If necessary, I will form her own establishment. I have not wished to go so far, but she has pushed the situation too far this time.”
“Very well. Mr Bennet, you have my greatest appreciation for your presence. Is all well with your daughter?”
Mr Bennet nodded his head. “Jane stated that Lizzy is resting peacefully. I was planning to turn in myself.”
“Then let us all retire for the night.” Bingley said, as he clapped his friend on the shoulder. “And hopefully, there will not be more excitement tomorrow.”
~~ ** ~~
Wickham’s body had been taken to the stables and placed beside the body of Mr Collins. A message had been sent to the camp, informing Colonel Forster of the lieutenant’s death. The Colonel decided to wait until the following day to see the body for himself.
In the morning, Mr Jones led a group of men to the stables to examine the remains of George Wickham. Amongst the group were Darcy, Mr Bennet, Bingley, Sir William, and Colonel Forster.
“If you look at the wound, it was made in a similar manner as the one that ended Mr Collins’ life. The knife was thrust into the chest, and the blade was then twisted, inside the body. The angle was nearly the same as what it was on Mr Collins.” Mr Jones shook his head. “At least it appears we have only one killer to contend with. I would hate to think we have multiple murderers running about the estate.”
Sir William stood back, glaring at the remains of the young man who had likely been the one responsible for his own sister’s brutal death. “To think, I believed the lies this filth spewed. What a fool I have been. He told me what I wished to hear, to learn more about my beloved sister’s death. Of course, he knew the details, due to his being the one who murdered my sister.”
“Come, Lucas, all is finished. His lies were exposed and he is now dead. It appears that his devious lifestyle caught up with him. Your sister has been slightly avenged, without our even lifting a finger.” Mr Bennet stated.
“My only wish is that he burn in hell. The blackguard deserves nothing less.”
All of the men accepted the findings of Mr Jones, and returned to the house. Colonel Forster was frustrated. “I wish to beg forgiveness for the actions of one of my men. I may not have known Wickham long, but he served under me. There must have been some way of knowing the sort of man he was. You may rest assured that, in the future, I will learn all there is to know about a man before he is trusted by me.”
“Colonel, I knew Wickham all of my life. He knew how to sweet talk his way through life, convincing every one of his being a good man. Even my own father fell for Wickham’s good nature and sweet talk.” Darcy stated. “He was very convincing and persuasive, you cannot blame yourself for falling for his manipulation of the events.”
“Well, I plan on being careful in the future, and know more about the men that come under my command.” Colonel Forster replied. “And I will ensure my men have more to keep them busy in the future. They have been given far too much leisure time. There will be more drilling and training.”
The men bid Colonel Forster farewell and all went about their business. Unfortunately, for Darcy, that meant he would have to deal with his aunt.
~~ ** ~~
Elizabeth’s eye opened and she looked around the room. “Jane…Jane…”
“I am here, Lizzy. Oh, my dearest sister, it is a pleasure to see you awake. How are you this morning?”
“My face still pains me, as does my head. But I am not as sleepy.” Elizabeth said as she stifled a yawn. “Are we at Netherfield?”
“We are. It has been six mornings since the ball. A storm settled in and there has been so much snow. I have never seen so much snow.”
“Was I dreaming, or was Mr Darcy here, in my room?”
A smile grew on Jane Bennet’s lips. “I knew that he cared for you, Lizzy. You should see how devoted he is to you. Last night was the first time he dined with Mr Bingley, in the dining room. He has been taking meals on a tray outside your door or in the sitting room attached to this room.”
“I remember talking with him…at the ball. It is the last thing I remember, before waking to Mr Darcy being here, with Mr Jones. What happened…between…?”
Jane looked at her hand, as it held tightly to her sister’s. Finally, she took her other hand and brushed a curl from Elizabeth’s forehead. “Lizzy, perhaps it is best that we wait until you are better to discuss all that has happened.”
Elizabeth became concerned. “What are you keeping from me, Jane? I wish to know.”
A tear escaped from the corner of Jane’s eye, trickling down her cheek. “Lizzy, Mr Collins was murdered. And you were accused of being the one to kill him. Then you were poisoned. Yesterday, Mr Wickham was found in the barn of one of the tenant farms. He was also murdered. It has been awful, Lizzy. Sir William was told lies about Mr Darcy and about you. He believed the lies for a while, until the truth was finally made clear to him.”
“Who lied to Sir William? Why would someone believe I could murder anyone?”
“Mr Wickham. He told Sir William that he witnessed you murder Mr Collins. He even made a written statement stating that he saw you kill our cousin. And Mr Wickham made up lies about Mr Darcy, attempting to make the gentleman look like a heartless scoundrel and killer.”
Elizabeth gasped. “Who committed the murders? And why would someone try to poison me?”
“We are not certain. But you can guarantee that Mr Darcy will do all he can to find who the guilty person is.”
~~ ** ~~
Mrs Bennet and her younger daughters were in the sitting room attached to her bedchamber. Her husband had insisted that she and the girls remain in the sitting room, when they were not in their private bedchambers. He refused to allow any of them to go down to dine with the Bingleys or anyone else. This frustrated Mrs Bennet, as she wished to secure Mr Bingley for her eldest daughter. But her husband had threatened that he would cut her pin money if she did not obey his demand, so obey him she did.
Being forced to remain in such small proximity, with her youngest two daughters, was beginning to wear on Fanny Bennet’s nerves. Lydia’s whining was grating, becoming more and more demanding.
“Lydia, enough already. Your father has set his foot down. Besides, there are none of the militia visiting here. You would be bored no matter where we were, due to this snow storm making it difficult for anyone to go visiting.” Fanny looked out a nearby window, frowning at the brilliance of the sun causing the snow to glitter. “Why can you not read one of the books your father brought to keep you occupied?”
Lydia and Kitty looked appalled. “Read?” Both of the girls were shocked. Lydia continued. “Mamma, you have always told Lizzy that no man would ever want her as a wife, due to her reading so much.”
“Well, you are beautiful and lively, and this is a temporary situation. If you do not find a way to pass the time without forcing me into Bedlam, I will not be responsible for my actions.”
Lydia looked over the selection of books on the nearby table. After several moments, she chose one of the books, and took it to the sofa to begin reading. Kitty followed her younger sister’s actions and chose a book for herself. Mary was already reading a book she had picked the day before.
Feeling the calm come over the room, Mrs Bennet turned and watched her daughter’s reading. Several moments passed by before she walked over to the table, sorting through the remaining books. “I might as well do some reading, to occupy my time.”
Needless to say, Mr Bennet was extremely surprised when he checked on his family, two hours later. He thought he might have need of his wife’s smelling salts.
~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~
Darcy was shocked when his aunt did not come downstairs to break her fast. She had requested a tray sent to her room, though the request was much later in the morning than was her usual want. Lady Catherine de Bourgh had always been an early riser, so Darcy was concerned when she did not rise until after ten.
Knocking on the door to her sitting room, Darcy took a deep breath to calm himself. He could hear someone moving about the room for a few moments, before he heard his aunt’s voice call out for him to enter.
“Ah, Fitzwilliam, it is time to discuss my parson’s death. I have learned from several of the servants that a witness saw the murder, and that it was committed by a Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
“Miss Elizabeth is not responsible for Mr Collins’ death. The witness lied.” Darcy replied.
“How do you know that the witness lied? I have also been informed that you have been moon eyed over this girl, and that she has used her arts and allurements to persuade you to forget yourself.”
Fury grew inside Darcy. “Forget myself? How dare you make such claims? How dare you make false accusations against a young lady that you have never even met? The person who claimed to be a witness was George Wickham. Do you remember Wickham? His father was my father’s steward. The son has always been cruel, but he turned violent and heartless. He lied in his statements against Miss Elizabeth.”
“I would not be so quick to believe the word of the young lady. Mr Collins frequently wrote to me. He told me about the Bennet family. Miss Elizabeth is the second eldest, is she not?”
“She is.” Darcy nodded as he spoke.
“Mr Collins informed me that she was vocal over her feelings of Mr Collins inheriting her father’s estate. She was rude in some of her words, making my parson fearful of what she might do to cause trouble for him.”
“Where are these letters? I wish to see them for myself.”
Lady Catherine squirmed slightly. “Why would I bring them with me? They are in Kent. I did not take them seriously, until now. I am too late to prevent my parson’s death, but I will see that she is brought up on charges and made to pay for her crimes. Now, when we are finished at Matlock, you will make the journey to Rosings with me. It is high time you and Anne are wed. I have taken the liberty to post an announcement in the London papers of your engagement. Perhaps we should send for Anne to make the trip to Matlock. Since we no longer have a parson, the banns will need to be called for at Pemberley. Anne will be pleased to be at Pemberley, she was fond of the estate when she was young.”
“Aunt Catherine, it is time you forget the nonsense you have spewed for years, of my marrying Anne. My mother did not wish for the marriage, as you have said all these years. My mother did not approve of Anne as a potential spouse for me, as she knew you would never allow your daughter to live her own life. Mother disliked the way you attempted to rule over the lives of everyone in the family. Anne and I have spoken on the matter, and she agrees with me. We will never be married to each other. That is all there is to the matter, and it is best that you come to terms with the fact.”
“Your mother got everything she ever wanted.” Lady Catherine’s eyes were filled with the venom of her hatred. “She was treated like a princess by our father, doted on by our mother. I was the first born, but Father was displeased I was a girl. Anything my dear sister wished was granted. When Sir Louis de Bourgh wished to marry your mother, precious little Anne wanted no part of him. Father persuaded Sir Louis to take me instead. I was considered to be on the shelf by then, and Father had no faith that I could land a husband of my own.”
Lady Catherine stood, walking over to the sideboard, where there was a bottle of brandy and several glasses. She poured a glass of the liquid and downed it quickly, the burning sensation was ignored as she poured another glass. Turning around, she looked at her nephew.
“That is when your father came calling on sweet Anne, as he forever called her his Sweet Anne. Perfect Anne, Sweet Anne, Anne was beautiful, Anne was kind, Anne never misbehaved. Everything fell at Anne’s dainty little feet. All the while, I was forced to marry an old man who wanted my sister. Did you know, even the first night of our wedding, he called me by my sister’s name? My husband, in moments of passion, called me Anne. It was he who named our daughter for my sister. And all the while, your mother was living the perfect life, in her perfect home, with her perfect husband, and then her perfect son. I was unable to give my husband a son, so he had to settle for a daughter as an heir.”
Lady Catherine downed the second glass of brandy and began to move towards the sideboard again. “So now you and my daughter decide to ruin all my plans. You do not care a bit for my wants or desires. No respect for your family, just do as you please. How dare you? After all I have been through, you dare to ignore me? I have heard about you and this Bennet chit. You go against propriety. I have even heard that you were found in her bedchamber. How dare you? You could marry Anne, and have this chit as a mistress. Anne will not care. Your mistress can carry your children, and they can be passed off as Anne’s children.”
Darcy was livid. “Why is it bloody important for you to have me marry Anne? Why would you be so willing to have me bed someone else and pass them off as your grandchildren? Just because you are jealous of my mother?”
“Your mother had everything, all I ever had was Rosings, and I refuse to give it up to anyone, especially someone named for my sister.” Lady Catherine lost control of her emotions and laid out all her cards on the table. “I never wanted to have a daughter to remind me of what I did not have, in comparison to what my perfect sister had. I wanted a life of my own. I wanted to be loved, to be important in the lives of my husband and any children with which I was blessed. But that was not meant to be. I should have known it would always be the same, how could anyone care for me if my own parents did not?”
“You have Rosings, why would you insist on my marrying your daughter?” Darcy was confused.
“Because Anne is the rightful Mistress. Any day now, she will send me to the dower house and take over MY estate. Rosings is mine. I will not give it up. If you were married to Anne, I could keep my estate, as you would prefer to live at Pemberley.” Lady Catherine was growing wobbly as she downed yet another glass of brandy. Giving a cynical chuckle, she continued. “I knew about you and your little harlot. I have had you watched for the past two years. Everywhere you go, I have had someone watching you and reporting back to me. I even offered to pay Mr Collins to marry your precious Elizabeth. He would have, if it had not been for his death. He wanted to please me, do everything I asked of him. So he would have married the chit.”
“Aunt Catherine, I have heard enough.”
“Oh, no you have not. Now that I have begun, I will continue until I have had my share of the conversation. I was furious when I heard that you were smitten with this country nobody. How could you choose her over my daughter? How could you pick someone who was so wholly beneath us in society? This was not to be born. If you had gone against my wishes and married, it should at least have been a young lady from the ton. Instead, you choose someone unworthy of such esteem.”
“I am suspicious of your claims of my uncle having sent word for you to come to Matlock.” Darcy stated, clearly angry at his aunt. But he had finally gotten her to speak openly, and he wanted to learn all he could before she decided she had said too much.
“My brother…such a foolish man. How he deserved to be the Earl of Matlock, I will never understand. Just because he is a man, the law gives him rights over me. I should have been the head of our family, Matlock should have been mine to rule. My brother was pampered and coddled, just as your mother was as a child. The heir, the next Earl of Matlock. Everyone praised him for everything. He is weak willed, and would not support my efforts of making a match between you and Anne. But I thought you would leave here, leave the little harlot, and come with me to ensure Henry was safe and well. Never did I believe you would forsake your ties to him, especially for a little country nobody.”
“So you did not receive a summons from Uncle Henry. How is it you have come to be here? The storm has kept the neighborhood isolated for days now. Yet you were able to arrive here.” Darcy was hoping to learn all that he could. He was certain that, at any moment, Lady Catherine would return to her wits and stop talking so candidly.
Lady Catherine snorted. “Collins has always been a bumbling idiot. I could not rely on his being able to do as he was told, so I took rooms a few miles from here. I was there for several days before the storm covered this area with snow.”
“I never admitted to anyone that I cared for Miss Elizabeth until the night of the ball. How is it you knew before that night?”
“You have always been so closed to emotions, so it was simple enough to know when you took a liking to someone. As I said, you have been watched for years, and my servants know your habits and behaviors. It was easy enough for my servant to tell you had feelings for the little nobody. I knew then that I needed to be close, in case I had to take you from the neighborhood. The storm slowed me down a bit, but I was finally able to arrive, and now I will remove you from this forsaken place.”
Darcy shook his head. “I am going nowhere, Aunt Catherine. I will remain here, and do as I see fit. And, if that means spending time with Miss Elizabeth that is what will happen.”
“I will make certain she is never accepted in society. Her reputation will be ruined, no one of any worth will have anything to do with her. And what of your sister? She will be coming out soon. Will you ruin her chances to make a good match by marrying someone so beneath our society?”
“Miss Elizabeth is the daughter of a gentleman. I am a gentleman. She is not beneath me, we are equal.”
Lady Catherine snorted again. “But who is her mother? And her mother’s relations? You know that her mother’s family comes from trade. When Mr Collins first told me of his being heir to the Bennet estate, I had the family investigated. Mrs Bennet has a brother in trade and a brother in law who is a country solicitor. Your uncle is an Earl. My own husband was a baron. A far cry from a tradesman and a lowly solicitor. And not only do they lack connections, they lack wealth.”
“Am I so poor as to need a hefty dowry?” Darcy shook his head. “I am one of the wealthiest men in England. A dowry has no incentive to my marrying anyone. I wish to marry for love.”
“Love…a poor excuse for all the woes of the world. Everyone wishes to be loved, yet most of us have our hearts trampled into the dust. Very few have married for love, and you had best learn that lesson before it is too late. As my own father taught me, marriage is a business transaction, nothing more. A combining of wealth or land. You are a fool to believe in marrying for love.”
Darcy stood and walked towards the door to the hall. “Believe what you wish, Aunt Catherine. But I am praying for a wife who will love me and care for me, as I do her. And there will be no more interfering, do I make myself understood?”
Then he opened the door. Darcy took another look at his aunt. “And you had best keep your servants from watching my every move.”
~~ ** ~~
“Enter.” Jane Bennet’s voice called out. She was sitting on the bed, beside her sister, who was awake.
Darcy entered the room, with a slight hesitation. Seeing Elizabeth awake, he was drawn into the room and closer to her. “Good morning, Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth. I must say, it is a pleasure to see you both awake and alert this morning. How are you faring this morning, Miss Elizabeth?”
“Much better, from what I have been told. I do not remember much since our talk at the ball.” Elizabeth replied. “Please forgive me for not rising, but my sister refuses to allow me to even sit up.”
“Miss Elizabeth, I not only forgive you, I join your sister in refusing to allow you to sit, let alone stand.” Darcy smiled. “I would not wish for you to injure yourself further for propriety’s sake.”
Jane was pleased with the behavior of the gentleman who was obviously in love with her dearest sister. “Mr Darcy, I must inform you that my sister took broth and toast, as well as some tea, this morning. It has made me so very happy to see her awake and able to take nourishment.”
“I am pleased as well. This is wonderful news. You, Miss Elizabeth, have frightened us during the past few days. I beg you to refrain from such antics in the future, as my heart could not take such strain again.”
Elizabeth felt a sensation of warming in her cheeks. Is Mr Darcy saying what I think he is? Does he care for me? “I will do my best, Mr Darcy. I dare say Jane would agree with you, and most likely my father would as well.”
“What would I agree with?” Mr Bennet said as he entered the room. “Ah, Lizzy, it does my heart good to see you awake. My dear girl, I must have aged twenty years in the last few days. See that you refrain from further tormenting me, my dearest Lizzy.”
“Mr Darcy was just commenting on the same subject, Papa.” Elizabeth gave a slight chuckle. “I intend to behave myself.”
“Good, good. Now, I will leave you young folk to yourselves. I am going to spend some time in Mr Bingley’s sparse library.” Mr Bennet was standing beside the bed, and leaned down, placing a gentle kiss on his daughter’s head. “Get some more sleep, my dear girl.”
After Mr Bennet left the room, Jane decided she needed to attend her mother for a short time. “Mr Darcy, would you keep my sister company until I return? I will leave the maid with you. Perhaps you could read to Lizzy, so she can relax and rest.”
“I would have no difficulties in reading to Miss Elizabeth, if she approves.”
“I do approve, Mr Darcy.” Elizabeth replied. “Thank you.”
With Jane now gone, Elizabeth had many question for Darcy. “Sir, I cannot thank you enough. My sister informed me of all you have done to care for me and protect me.”
“Miss Elizabeth, I would do anything to protect you and see that you are well. You may not remember all of which we spoke at the ball, but I must state that I care for you, Miss Elizabeth. I care for you and cannot imagine a world without you. I am grateful to see you are recovering, and that you do not think ill of me.”
“Though I know I questioned your character previously, I remember enough to make me wish to know more of you.” Elizabeth looked at Darcy briefly, gauging the gentleman’s reaction.
“That is music to my heart. I wish to know more of you, Miss Elizabeth Bennet. It is my wish to one day claim your hand in marriage.” Darcy reached over and took hold of her hand. “But for now, I insist on your resting. We need you to recover your health, as it is most important to me. I shall read to you, so long as you promise to rest.”
Elizabeth agreed. She was beginning to appreciate hearing Darcy’s voice, and she relaxed, allowing his baritone voice to sooth her. Before long, Darcy could see her breathing was calmed and she had fallen asleep.
~~ ** ~~
Lady Catherine arrived downstairs for dinner that evening, slightly worse for the wear. Entering the drawing room, it was obvious that she lacked the tolerance of loud noises around her, though she refused the offer of having a tray sent to her rooms. The grand lady wished to have one final attempt at forcing her nephew’s hand, hoping to finally capture the young man as a husband for her daughter.
“I see that none of the Bennet family dare to show their faces.” Lady Catherine spouted. “Are they ashamed of being involved in the murder of my parson?”
“Mr Bennet has kept his family to their rooms, not wishing to cause any problems for the Bingleys.” Darcy replied. “Mr Bennet realized that his family being forced to remain here would put a burden on the Bingley household, and he insisted that he does not wish to cause further strain for Miss Bingley, being hostess. Mr Bingley does not find there to be any difficulties, but he will not force them to dine down with the family. Besides, Mr Bennet has wished to keep close to his daughter, Miss Elizabeth, as she was injured.”
“Ah, yes, the one who was originally accused of the murder of Mr Collins. There must have been an ounce of truth to the accusation. Was the young lady not found alone, near the man’s body? I heard that even you, the one who discovered her and Mr Collins, found the murder weapon in her hand.”
Darcy was beginning to anger. “Aunt Catherine, we have already spoken on the matter. Miss Elizabeth was framed to appear guilty. She had nothing to do with the murder of Mr Collins or Mr Wickham.”
“Mr Wickham is also dead, how convenient. The man gives a written and verbal statement of what happened, accusing this Bennet girl of murder, and then he is suddenly murdered. I know that she was supposedly unconscious, but what of her family? What of their ability of harming the poor man?”
An angered snort came from Darcy. “The poor man? The man attempted to frame an innocent young lady for murder. The man attempted to frame me for some of his past crimes, including the murder of a young lady who lived in Lambton, and was related to Sir William Lucas, one of the leading members of this neighborhood. Poor fellow, his murder is shocking, indeed. I am surprised an angry father or brother had not murdered him before now. He made far too many enemies to live a long life.”
Caroline Bingley was shocked at the conversation. It was clear that Darcy and his aunt were not getting along. She decided to do what she could to assist Darcy, in an attempt to garner his appreciation.
“Lady Catherine, your nephew is correct. Though the late Mr Wickham shocked us by being completely untrustworthy, Mr Darcy was a victim of the man’s cruelty. Why, I heard…”
“I have heard of your shameless behavior, young lady, and if I were you, I would remain quiet. Attempting to compromise my nephew into offering for you, tearing your own gown, thank the heavens that your ploy was uncovered before it could truly begin. My nephew would never marry the likes of you, the daughter of a tradesman. He is the grandson of an earl, and is one of the richest men in all of England. His father’s family holds a long history of strong men who created this country. No, I would rather see my nephew compromised by the Bennet hussy than by you. At least she is the daughter of a gentleman, something you will never be.”
“Thank you, Aunt Catherine.” Darcy stated, a smile curling the corners of his mouth upwards. “As, truth be told, I have compromised Miss Elizabeth Bennet this very day. I was in her bedchamber earlier today, while she was in her bed.”
A horrified look came over Lady Catherine’s face, while Caroline Bingley gasped. “Nephew, enough of this nonsense. You are not engaged to the Bennet chit, so you would never do something so shameful as entering her bedchambers with her in there. This is just your vulgar attempt to keep from fulfilling your family obligations towards my daughter. You know you are to marry Anne.”
“We discussed that topic earlier, Aunt, and I thought I made myself quite clear on the matter. I am not engaged to Anne, and will never marry her. But I have compromised Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and I intend to have her as my bride.”
Mr Bennet was suddenly at the door of the drawing room, as if he had been summoned by magic. “Forgive me, Mr Bingley, I came to inform you that my family will be removing from Netherfield the day after tomorrow. Mr Jones believes my daughter will be well enough to make the journey to Longbourn.”
“Mr Bennet, please know that you are welcome to remain as long as necessary.” Bingley stated, obviously not wishing to have Jane Bennet leave his home so soon. “I would not wish for Miss Elizabeth to have a setback due to being moved too soon.”
“No worries, Mr Bingley. But, while I am here, I will discuss the matter of Mr Darcy’s compromising my Elizabeth. Though this lady has claimed it to be impossible, I can stand before you and acknowledge that I saw this young man in my daughter’s bedchamber just a few hours ago. And yes, my daughter was in her bed. So I claim that Mr Darcy is correct, and he has compromised my daughter. Sir, we will sit down and discuss the situation before I move my family to our home.”
Darcy bit his lower lip to keep from smiling at Mr Bennet’s words. Of course the gentleman had seen Darcy in the room, though he left out the part stating that Elizabeth’s sister and a maid had also been present. It was simple to see from where Elizabeth’s quick mind came.
“Of course, Mr Bennet. I will speak with you in the morning. We can begin discussing the wedding settlement, after I have had a chance to speak with your daughter.” Darcy attempted to look shameful for his behavior, though he was far from such.
“I will meet you at Elizabeth’s room by ten tomorrow morning.” Mr Bennet wore a stern look, though Darcy was certain he saw a mischievous twinkle in the elder man’s eyes.