​CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Kitty’s eyes opened, and her hand instantly rose to shield the harsh sunlight that flowed into the room.  “Lizzy…” she attempted to call out, though her voice was rough and hoarse.
She felt the hands of someone aiding her to sit up, as a glass of cool water was held to her lips.  The water was soothing, and gave her comfort. As she laid back down, she realized her left arm pained her. Confused, Kitty squinted in an attempt to see through the bright sunlight.
“Aunt Helen…where…”
“Hush, my dear girl.  You are safe.  We are at Pemberley.”
“Lizzy…”
“She is here as well. You must rest, as the physician said you are not to over exert yourself.  Your arm had a terrible cut, from the glass, when you broke with it.  He had to stitch the cut, and you are to hold it still, so it heals properly.  And you need to rest your lungs, as all the smoke did you no good.  You were coughing so hard, we feared losing you.”
“Lizzy…”
Mrs Gardiner had a difficult time responding.  “It has been three days, and Lizzy has not been awake since she was found in the rubble.  The storm blew in and snow fell heavily on the buildings, putting the flames out.  God was watching over us, as the living quarters was unharmed, and the buildings beside ours were saved from extensive damage.”
“But Lizzy…”
“She has had a difficult time breathing, as she inhaled a tremendous amount of smoke, much like yourself.  Lizzy also had some burns, the worst on her hands and arms.  One of the beams from the ceiling fell on Lizzy, breaking her leg.”
Kitty knew her aunt was keeping something from her.  Once again, she uttered her sister’s name.
“Lizzy has a large bump on the back of her head.  We do not know the extent of her injury, as she is unconscious.  The physician said that Lizzy has, at the very least, a concussion.  Hopefully, she is simply recovering, so her body is putting all effort into her healing, rather than allowing her to wake.  All we can do is pray.”
“Jane…”
“She is here, at Pemberley.  She spends most of her time tending Lizzy.  You know how close the two of them are.”
Kitty nodded her head carefully.  “Miss…B…”
“Miss Bingley?” Seeing her niece nod her head, Mrs Gardiner looked away for a moment.  “Miss Bingley was found in the debris.  She…she died. No one could reach her because of the smoke and flames.  When you broke the front window, there was so much smoke that rolled out.  It was amazing that you and Lizzy were able to escape.  Miss Bingley was further in the building, and would never have survived, even if the building had not collapsed upon her.”
Tears welled in Kitty’s eyes, causing them to sting.  “I had hold…of her arm…I let go…to help…Lizzy.”
“It is not your fault that Miss Bingley died.  Mr Bingley and Mr Hurst have made that clear to all of us.  Evidently, she had climbed down the trellis on the outside of the inn.  As the doors and windows did not appear broken, it is believed that the woman used a trick she had learned in her youth.  Mr Bingley stated that his sister was very adept at picking locks.”
Kitty was shocked.  Mrs Gardiner held the glass to the young lady again, allowing Kitty to drink as much as she wished. The coolness of the liquid quelled the scratchy feeling the smoke had left in her throat. When she was able, Kitty asked her aunt to give her dear sister a kiss, and to tell Lizzy to return to them.  With that said, Kitty was exhausted, and slipped back to sleep.
Mrs Helen Gardiner sat in the chair beside her niece’s bed, allowing the tears to flow freely.  They had come close to losing everything, especially Elizabeth and Kitty, but God had watched over them.  She now prayed that her nieces would recover completely.

          ~~ ** ~~

“Miss Bennet, you need to rest.” Mrs Reynolds said, as she had her hands on Jane’s shoulders.  “You will do your sister no good if you make yourself ill.”
“My sister needs me.  I cannot leave her alone.”
“Miss Bennet, she will not be alone.  I will stay with your sister.  And Lady Matlock has offered to sit with Miss Elizabeth.”
“She is my sister, I need to be at her side.” Jane could not look at the housekeeper, as she was certain she would lose control of her tears.  Jane felt that she had to keep strong, for if she did not, her sister would be lost.  In Jane Bennet’s mind, if she fell asleep, she was certain that Elizabeth would perish.  So the eldest Bennet sister convinced herself to remain at her sister’s side, night and day, only dozing in the chair when she could no longer hold her eyes open.
“Miss Bennet, you are making yourself ill.  What good will that do for your sister?” The voice came from the doorway of the rooms now occupied by her beloved sister.  Jane turned to see Fitzwilliam Darcy looking nearly as exhausted as she.  Darcy did not care what society deemed appropriate, he would not be forced to remain away from Elizabeth.  He had come in the room several times over the days since the fire, but most of his time was spent pacing in the sitting room connected to Elizabeth’s bedchamber. 
“Mr Darcy… there has been no change.” Jane announced, her eyes darting back to take in her sister’s face.  Elizabeth was pale, nearly as white as the bedding.  And she was perfectly still, only a slight movement could be detected with each breath Elizabeth took.
“Miss Bennet, please, I beg of you, go to your room and sleep.  If anything were to happen, I will send for you immediately.  Mrs Reynolds is correct, you are only going to make yourself ill, and that will do nothing to assist your sister.”
“Is that not the pot calling the kettle black?” Jane gave a soft snort.  “You have had little sleep, and I am sure you have not eaten since the fire.”
“I have slept on the sofa in the sitting room.  And I have eaten, to which my sister and aunt can attest.  They have done the same as I am doing for you now, only they threatened to have me placed in shackles or tied up, and they would force food down my throat.  Knowing both of them, I feel certain they would have obtained the assistance of my cousins, and between Richard and Albert, they could have succeeded.”
Jane attempted to control the chuckle that bubbled to the surface.  His description was one that her sister would have found diverting.  “I will rest in the sitting room, if you will allow me to use your sofa.”
Darcy smiled softly.  “You may have the use of the sofa for as long as you can rest.  Mrs Reynolds must have known your choice, as she placed clean bedding and a fresh pillow in the sitting room.  I believe there will be hot water waiting when you wake, so you can refresh yourself.”
“And there will be a tray ready for you to nourish yourself.” Mrs Reynolds announced.  “Tea, biscuits, some cold meat and cheese, and some rolls that Cook is preparing as we speak.”
“I cannot thank you enough, both of you.” Jane said, allowing the elderly lady to guide her from the bed.  “And if there is even the slightest change, you will wake me?”
Darcy nodded his head. “You have my word.”
Jane and Mrs Reynolds left the bedchamber, leaving Darcy and a maid alone in the room with Elizabeth.
Sitting on the side of her bed, Darcy looked at Elizabeth’s hands.  The physician, Mr Tweed, had been unsure of her condition.  In his opinion, he did not know how Elizabeth was still alive. After the man’s words, Darcy sent a rider to Manchester for the surgeon. Darcy would not tolerate anyone who did not hold faith that Elizabeth would recover.
The surgeon arrived at Pemberley, after a difficult trip through the snow and ice.
The man’s name was Mr Freemont, and he had served as surgeon to His Majesty’s army before moving to Manchester after he resigned his position.  Mr Freemont was extremely knowledgeable, and he kept current on all the new methods to treat patients.  He had impressed Darcy with his bedside manner as well as his fountain of information.
Elizabeth’s head injury had concerned the surgeon. He had seen to Elizabeth’s other injuries, cleaning her burned hands and arms, and setting her broken leg.  Fortunately, she had only developed a slight fever.  Her breathing was occasionally labored, from the damage the smoke had caused.
Darcy reached out, moving a lock of Elizabeth’s hair that had slipped over her eye when last she was lifted to administer medicinal draughts.  He loved her hair–the color, the curls.  In Darcy’s opinion, after her eyes, Elizabeth’s most beautiful feature was her hair.
The memory of the night of the fire was seared in his mind.  He had gone to bed, after spending the evening with his relations and Bingley.  Georgiana played the pianoforte, though she was sad to not have her companion with her.  Lady Matlock had retired early, leaving the men and Georgiana alone.  When his sister decided to turn in, the men went to the game room to play billiards.
Once he was in bed, he was in the middle of a passionate dream, when a loud pounding was heard at his bedchamber door.  Taking several moments to wake enough to realize someone was attempting to garner his attention.
Darcy opened the door to find one of the footmen.  The young man was anxious, obviously something was terribly wrong. 
“Mr Darcy, we just received word. A fire in Lambton. The tea shop, is completely burned.”
“Bloody hell.  The people, were they saved?”
“All but one, Sir.  The body of a lady was found burned in the rubble.”
Fear gripped his heart.  “Which lady?”
“Miss B…”
Bingley opened the door of his bedchamber.  “What is the matter?  Has something happened?”
“A fire, in Lambton.  The tea shop.”
“Good God.  We should go there, offer our assistance.”
Darcy looked away, making Bingley nervous.
“Someone died.  I do not know which lady…”
“Sir…I was about to tell you.” The footman said.  “The body they found was that of Miss B…”
Richard had heard the commotion and came from his bedchamber, inquiring of what was happening.
“Richard, dress yourself.  We need to hurry to Lambton.  The tea shop, there has been a fire.” Darcy was attempting to control the pain that was squeezing his heart.  Had he lost Elizabeth?
Nodding his head, Richard returned to his room to prepare.  Darcy looked at the footman, dreading what he knew he had to ask.  “Which of the Bennets was lost?”
Bingley had walked across the hall and was standing close to his friend.  He prayed it was not Jane, as he had taken a liking to her.
The footman looked between the two men.  “It was not any of the Bennet ladies, Sir.  The body was that of Miss Bingley.”
~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Bingley was shocked.  The words did not make sense.  How had his sister ended up inside the tea shop in the middle of the night?  What had happened for her to be there?  Hurst and the footmen they sent to Lambton were to keep watch over Caroline, keep her at the inn.
Darcy felt guilty for feeling relieved.  He could breathe again, knowing that the death was not Elizabeth or her sisters.  But were they unharmed?
The footman seemed to read Darcy’s mind when he spoke again.  “I do not know any further details, other than the ladies and children from the tea shop were taken across the street, to the inn.  The storm has become strong, which smothered the flames, but the business was completely destroyed.”
“I want two carriages and two wagons prepared immediately.  Have three horses prepared to leave as soon as we are dressed. We will need blankets for the wagons and carriages.  Whatever is needed.  Most likely, we will be bringing back what belongings the family has left. We can put their trunks and such in the stable, until after the storm abates.”
“Yes, Mr Darcy. I will send word to the stable.  Do you require assistance in dressing?”
“No, I will be fine.” Darcy’s attention was distracted by the sound of another door opening.  Lord Matlock stepped out of his bedchamber.
“Nephew, what is happening?”
“A fire, at the tea shop.  I do not know all the details, but Richard, Bingley, and I will be leaving shortly to go there.  We will have the carriages and wagons prepared to bring the ladies back here.”
“Very good.  I will prepare the staff to be ready for your return. Your aunt will assist me.”
“Thank you, Uncle.  Pray that the ladies are unharmed.”
“Of course.  Bring the family home.” Lord Matlock patted his nephew on the shoulder.

~~ ** ~~

Arriving in Lambton, Darcy’s eyes scanned the people who were standing around the charred remains of the tea shop.  The thought of Elizabeth and her relations being inside made his heart ache.  He had to find her, ensure that she was safe.  Having not found her or any of her relations in the group outside, he asked one of the men standing about.  The answer was given, the family was taken to the inn.  Darcy hurried his steps, desperate to see Elizabeth.  He was directed to the dining parlor, where people were huddled around two bodies on the floor. 
Hurst had seen Darcy and Bingley enter and motioned for them to come closer to him and his wife.  Bingley moved as if he were made of wood.  When he finally stood next to his eldest sister and her husband, Bingley searched their eyes for the truth.  His younger sister was dead.  Caroline was dead.  Nothing made sense.
While Bingley was with his family, Darcy moved to see the two people on the floor.  The first was Kitty Bennet.  He could see the blood on her arm, as she had a large gash on it.  She was coughing severely, and was covered in soot.  Mrs Gardiner was at Kitty’s side, with her children nearby.  Darcy’s eyes darted across the room, seeing the feet of the other person, obviously the feet of a young lady.  His heart was pounding so hard, he was certain everyone within a mile could hear him.  Was it Jane or Elizabeth?  His leadened feet made him feel as if he was made of stone.
The memory of the crowd dividing, and his first sight of the woman he loved, would be etched in his mind forever.  It was a terrible memory, as if the floor opened up and he had been swallowed.  Elizabeth was injured, unconscious, and in a terrible way.  Jane was at her sister’s side, attempting to cleanse Elizabeth’s face with toweling and water.  There were tears visibly streaming down Jane’s cheeks, and Darcy could hear the eldest Bennet sister pleading with her dearest sister to stay with her. 
The physician having declared there was nothing more he could do for either of the Bennet sisters, Darcy quickly scooped up Elizabeth, while Richard picked up Kitty.  The men walked to the carriages waiting outside, and they were off, to Pemberley, where Darcy planned to keep them safe and sound.

          ~~ ** ~~

“Master William, I just spoke with Mrs Gardiner.  Miss Kitty has returned to the world.  The poor thing, she is still coughing and is in pain.” Mrs Reynolds spoke gently.  She had placed a hand on William’s shoulder.  The years of watching the current master grow had allowed Mrs Reynolds insight to the gentleman’s feelings.
Darcy nodded his head.  “I wish Elizabeth would wake.  She does not even cough, she is so weak.”
“We must have faith, Master William.  I believe in the power of love.  Your love for Miss Elizabeth is strong.  If it was her time, I believe she would have died in the fire.  But she is still here.  Her body just needs time to heal.  And she will.  My heart is telling me that Miss Elizabeth will recover.”
Looking up at his devoted housekeeper, the dam overflowed, as tears rushed down his cheeks.  Fitzwilliam Darcy had only cried twice in his life.  The first time was at the death of his mother.  The second time, when his father joined his mother.  The tears nearly tore the elder woman’s heart in two.
“Mrs Reynolds, I cannot lose her.  She is everything to me.  I will never marry, if Elizabeth does not survive.”
“You will do what you need to do, Master William.  You always have.  And that is why Miss Elizabeth cares for you.  It is clear; all you need do is look in her eyes.  She may not have said the words, but that young lady loves you.”
Darcy’s hand moved to cover Mrs Reynolds hand, which was still on his shoulder.  “You are dear, Mrs Reynolds.  I am blessed to have you as part of my family.”
There was movement on the bed, alerting Darcy.  He turned back to look at Elizabeth, just as her eye lids began to flutter.  “Elizabeth…can you hear me?  Elizabeth…please, do not leave me.”
Her lips began to move, though nothing came from them but a raspy groan.  Darcy picked up a glass of cool water, and with the assistance of Mrs Reynolds, lifted Elizabeth enough to coax her into sipping the liquid.  After several moments, they returned her to the pillow.  Elizabeth’s eyes finally opened enough for her to look about.
“W…W…William…” She whispered.
“Yes, my dearest.  I am here.  How are you?  What can I get you?”
“K…K…”
“Kitty?  Your sister is here, she is recovering.  She saved your life.”
“W…w…what…” She lifted one of her hands, her brows scrunched together as she frowned. 
“Your hands were burned.  The surgeon put salve on them before bandaging them.  It will be some time before you will be able to use them.”
Mrs Reynolds had left the room to alert Jane, while Darcy continued answering the questions Elizabeth asked.
“M…M…Miss…B…B…”
“Miss Bingley?”  Darcy saw a minute nod, so he continued. “Miss Bingley died in the fire.  We learned that Miss Bingley started the fire.”
Jane entered the bedchamber from the sitting room, anxious to see her sister’s eyes open.  “Lizzy, oh Lizzy, welcome back to us.”
“A…A..Aunt…”
“Aunt Helen is tending to Kitty, though she will wish to see you as soon as possible.  The children are well, none were harmed by the fire.  The residence was saved, thanks to the snowstorm.  But the shop is gone.  The ceiling collapsed, which caused your broken leg and the lump on your head.”
“S…s…s…”
“Sleepy?” Jane asked. Elizabeth gave another faint nod. “Then you sleep.  You need your rest to recover. I will be close by, do not fret.  And I am certain that Mr Darcy will be near, as well.”
A smile graced Elizabeth’s lips, as she closed her eyes, drifting off to sleep.
Jane could not stop crying, though they were now tears of joy.  Her dearest friend and sister had been awake.  Elizabeth had returned to her.  Speaking in a soft voice, she thanked Darcy for all he was doing for her family.
“As I pray your family will be mine, there is no need to thank me.  I cherish your sister, and would do anything I can to care for her needs.” Darcy looked at Elizabeth.  He could sense a slight improvement in her; perhaps, she had a little more coloring, no longer ghostly white.  Whatever it was, he was thrilled.
“I will inform my aunt and Kitty that Lizzy has been awake.  I know they will be excited for the news.” Jane left the room, promising to return shortly.
When the door closed, Darcy began to weep.  “I thank you, Lord, for watching over this wonderful woman.  Keep her in your care, so she can continue to improve.”

~~ ** ~~

Bingley and the Hursts gathered in one of the sitting rooms of Pemberley’s grand house.  They remained shocked by the actions of their sister.
“Charles, we should send word to our Aunt, and our cousins who are in the south.  It would be wise to keep the nature of her death quiet, as we do not wish to draw further attention.  Caroline’s behavior could be the ruin of us.”
“She nearly killed people, Louisa; how do we keep such quiet?” Bingley asked.  “I am ashamed at her behavior, and I cannot believe I am related to her.  Caroline was a bitter, spiteful woman.  Our parents spoiled her, made her believe she was above all others.  How many times did we tell her that she had best look elsewhere for a match?  Darcy had no desire to ever marry Caroline, and she knew the truth.  But she could not be graceful about her the situation.  No, she had to set fire to the Bennets’ business.”
“But we now have to protect ourselves from any future gossip which could ruin your chances to marry well.  As it is, I am surprised Mr Darcy has not come, demanding our departure from his home.” Louisa was nervous.
“Your brother has the right to be angered with Caroline.” Hurst said. 
“I do not deny his anger, but we must think of the future, for our family.  If we do not take control of the matter now, it will be too late.”
“It was too late the moment Caroline behaved as a fool and was banished from here.  It was too late when Caroline escaped her room at the inn, and set fire to the shop.  It was too late for many years, Louisa.  Far too many years.  Caroline has only been tolerated for many years, as she used people to better herself in society, not caring who she injured in the process.”
Louisa had never heard her brother be bitter.  “Charles, we both know that our sister thought higher of herself than she was.  She believed herself worthy of royalty, though was cruel and vulgar in her attempts to move amongst society.  But we do not have to punish her any further.  Caroline is dead.  She will never misbehave again.  And I am thinking of the future.  My husband and I were planning to wait until after the New Year, but we are expecting our first child.  You will one day marry, and hopefully you will have children.  Do you wish our children to suffer for Caroline’s behavior?  Do you wish to become a member of the landed gentry?  If you do, then the less that is said about Caroline’s behavior and the fire the better.”

~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~

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