Bingley and Colonel Fitzwilliam arrived at Longbourn in time to be introduced to the members of the Bennet family. Both men were immediately taken with Jane Bennet, both finding her to be breathtakingly beautiful. When Denhem entered the drawing room, he was surprised to see his cousin and dear friend standing before him.
“Ah, Mr Denhem, I would like to introduce you to our guests and new neighbors. Mr Charles Bingley and Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, this is my steward, Mr Fredrick Denhem. Mr Denhem, Mr Bingley has taken the lease of the estate of Netherfield Park. They just moved in today, and, as they have little in the way of staff, we decided to invite them to join us to dine.”
“A pleasure to meet you both.” Denhem stated, giving a slight bow to the men. He was pleased to see his cousin, but was shocked to find Richard in such a manner, speaking with the Bennet family as if everything was perfectly normal. And he never expected Bingley to be with his cousin, let alone taking the lease of the estate neighboring Longbourn. It was too good to be true. Denhem wondered if Bingley knew what had happened. If he did not, he would be completely confused and likely to put an end to the rouse Denhem was perpetrating to protect himself.
“Mr Denhem, a pleasure to meet you.” Bingley said, returning the bow to the other man. “I am hoping Mr Bennet would be kind to loan you to me in the next few days, as I could use the advice of someone with knowledge of running an estate. My father dreamed of our family becoming members of the landed gentry, so I have no experience in the field. And my friend has a little experience, though being the second born son, turned his future towards serving our country in the military. So we throw ourselves on the mercy of you, Mr Bennet.”
“Of course. Mr Denhem has not been here long, but he has learned the neighborhood rapidly. And he comes with plenty of experience in the field.” Mr Bennet bowed his head to the men. “We are very neighborly here in Hertfordshire, and wish to assist our neighbors in thriving. It is good for all of us if we help one another.”
“You could not ask for a better neighbor, Mr Bingley. The entire Bennet family has welcomed me and treat me like family.” Denhem praised his employer. “As my employer has stated his approval for you to ask for assistance, please feel free to send word when you wish to speak with me. I reside in the cottage behind the barn, near the stables.”
“You have my gratitude, Mr Bennet and Mr Denhem.” Bingley thanked the men.
The supper was enjoyed by all, though the men were quick to learn how persistant Mrs Bennet was in her desire to match her daughters with eligible young men. Denhem was seated near Mr Bennet, across the table from Elizabeth. The pair had become comfortable in discussing many topics which Mrs Bennet thought inappropriate for a young lady to discuss. Frustrated in her attempts to curb her second born daughter, Mrs Bennet had all but given up changing Elizaneth, and was attempting to promote her other daughters to the new neighbors.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam, you say you were injured in battle. How frightening. I cannot imagine how dangerous being at war is. Your mother must be constantly worried.”
“Unfortunately, my mother passed several years previous. She did say she disapproved of my choice of occupation, as she was frightened for my safety. But my injury is minor in comparison to many of the young men we have sent to battle Bonaparte. And it is minor compared to the horrifying treatment he has inflicted on those in his own country and the countries he has invaded. So I am willing to do what I can to eliminate his threat.”
“How brave of you, Sir. If I were you, I would begin to long for home and hearth. Do you have a betrothed? Someone promised to you, waiting for your permanent return to English soil?”
Richard shook his head, a chuckle escaping him. “No, Madam, I have been far busy with my career, as I did not find it fair to engage myself to someone when I may return to the continent at any time. To ask a young lady to wait for me to return would be cruel.”
“Well, you should have someone to think of in fondness, waiting for you to return to her. It would be of comfort during difficult times when you are on the battlefield. Having someone to think fondly of you gives one a purpose in life.” Mrs Bennet stated, looking about the table of her daughters. She had already set her sights on Bingley for Jane, as her eldest was far too pretty to be married to a man in the military, no matter if he were the son of an earl. A second son had no property and likely no funds beyond what he earned. No, Jane would be better as the Mistress of Netherfield Park. Mr Bingley would be perfect for Jane. Knowing Elizabeth was not showing any interest towards the colonel, Mrs Bennet looked at her younger three daughters. Perhaps Mary would be perfect. Lydia would not be pleased with a husband deployed to the continent and to battle. No, Lydia would be better for someone in the militia rather than the regulars. If not Mary, perhaps Kitty would do for the Colonel.
As the supper was coming to an end, Mr Bennet made a comment that surprised his family. “Mrs Bennet, I have had so many distractions today, and have forgotten to inform you of a guest who will be coming to visit.”
“And who is this guest?” Mrs Bennet’s attention had been peaked.
“The distant cousin who is to inherit the estate when I am gone. He will be arriving tomorrow afternoon and will remain in the neighborhood for a sen’night.”
“That odious man, do we truly have to endure his visit?”
“Indeed. But know that it is the son of my cousin, not the man you have met in the past. The son is a clergyman now, and stated he wished to mend the breach in the family that was caused by his father, who has passed from this world. I do not hold out great hope for the son to be an improvement over the father, but I will hold out hope.”
Mrs Bennet was still disgusted. “The father was an awful man, despicable and rude. He made such a scene at our wedding breakfast.”
“Fanny, we must hold out our hope for the son being better than the father. It is my belief he wishes to marry one of our daughters, thus repairing the breach and ensure a place for you to live when I am gone.”
“Mr Bennet, if the son is even half as odious as the father, I will not allow him to marry one of my daughters. I would prefer living in the hedgerow than subject one of my girls to such a horror.”
Those words shocked everyone at the table. It was several moments before anyone was able to speak again.
~~ ** ~~
Danvers opened the door of Darcy House to welcome his master and Lord Matlock to enter. “A pleasure to have you returned, Mr Darcy.”
“Thank you, Danvers. Has there been any problems? Has Wickham been here?” Gerald Darcy inquired.
“He was here late, three days ago, when we informed him his presence was no longer welcome at Darcy House.” The butler answered the gentleman. “He returned yesterday, attempting to enter, until the footmen reiterated that he was not to come here again.”
“Thank you. Forgive me for placing the duty upon your shoulders, but I did not trust him to be here with no supervision. I expect that he will attempt to return, and I will need to confront him if he does come back to Darcy House. When I have the confrontation, I will ask that you have the footmen on hand for removing Wickham after I have said my piece.”
“As you wish, Mr Darcy. Lord Matlock, will you be residing here or will you be staying at your own townhouse? The message was not clear, so we did prepare a guest room for you, just in case.”
Lord Matlock smiled. “Danvers, if you every wish a different employer, I would be pleased to steal you from my brother in law. I will remain here, as I did not feel it justified for my staff to be put upon for me alone, and as I am uncertain how long I will be staying in Town.”
“Very well, Sir. We prepared the green guest room you usually prefer.”
“Gerald, please allow me to steal this man. Jordan has spoken of his retiring and I wish for someone as proficient as Danvers.” Lord Matlock teased Darcy.
“Sorry, Henry, you are out of luck. Though, Danvers, did you not state your nephew was in training? There might be a solution.”
The butler puffed out his chest. “As a matter of fact, I have been training the lad myself. I believe he will soon be ready. He has interned under me for nearly a year, and I have been keeping an ear open to find a position for the boy. His name is Michael, the son of my sister.”
“Well, if I cannot have the original, I will be interested in meeting the young man you have trained.” Lord Matlock was pleased.
The pair of gentlemen made their way to Darcy’s study. It was obvious, immediately, that someone had attempted to access areas of the study that were locked. Gerald was frustrated. What he had learned over the past week had made him ill. How could I have treated William so abominably? My son has been a good man, and I believed Wickham’s lies.
After Lord Matlock had spoken with Darcy, just after Lady Catherine had left Pemberley, it was as if a dam had burst. Mrs Reynolds, the housekeeper at Pemberley, finally broke her silence on the behavior of Wickham. She had remained silent at the request of Fitzwilliam Darcy, as he preferred his father think ill of him rather than lose the young man who made him laugh. To the son, it was worth seeing his father enjoy something in his life. But Mrs Reynolds could withhold her opinion no longer.
The housekeeper informed Darcy of the items that had been stolen from the house and of William purchasing the items from pawn shops in villages surrounding the estate. She told of the young maids and tenant daughters who had been ruined by Wickham, and how William had found places for the offspring that had resulted. She told of the injuries that she had noticed William incurred, injuries which happened when Wickham was present. And she told of the shops in the villages where Wickham charged items, and then refused to pay his account. William had seen to all he could, repairing all of the damage he could, to protect his father.
And Mrs Reynolds informed her employer that she was certain it was Wickham who had ruined the young maid who had been murdered. She had seen the girl speaking with Wickham frequently, and the housekeeper had planned to speak with the girl.
After learning all which Mrs Reynolds had to inform, a rider arrived from London. Seeing that the message was from Danvers, a knot began to form in his gut. The flood gates could no longer stem the hold back the truth, a truth that was more painful with each revelation of another lie that Wickham had declared, and a revelation of his own son’s innocence. With each line of the missive, Gerald Darcy chastised himself for trusting his godson. But how to discover the truth when it came to murder? How could he prove his son’s innocence?
Quickly, Gerald penned a letter in return to his butler in Town, sending it express to Danvers. He would take no chances, having Wickham removed from the townhouse prior to Darcy and Lord Matlock arriving in Town.
Upon arrival, and after seeing that his office had been assaulted while Wickham was in residence, Gerald had no problem believing him the culprit. “Henry, you were correct in your information. If I had not have Danvers evict Wickham, it is hard to say what damage he would have further caused. Just look at my office. He made no attempt to conceal his search of the study. Most likely looking for more money. From what Mrs Reynolds told us, it would be wise to have Danvers make a list of items missing and have someone check the shops in the area, to purchase back any items that scoundrel pawned.”
“I know this is difficult, Gerald. For years, you have seen the good in the young man. He played to your vulnerabilities, and knew William would do everything in his power to protect you. Wickham knew that and used it to manipulate you. But now, we need to see William’s name cleared from charges.”
A knock was heard on the study door. Darcy called out for the person to enter, and found Danvers opening the door. “Mr Darcy, there is a letter here for Lord Matlock. It was sent over from your townhouse, Sir.”
“Thank you, Danvers.” Lord Matlock stated, as he took the missive from the salver that the butler held out in front of him. “Ah, it is from Richard. Let us see what my son has to say.”
The seal was broken, and the earl began reading his son’s words. “Richard has a lead on where William is to be found. If we can meet with your son, and Andrews sees the marks from William’s fingers, we may be able to clear this entire matter up in a short time. And, when we find Wickham, we can have him charged for the murder of the maid.”
“I pray Andrews is correct. And I pray my son will forgive me for my foolishness.”
~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~
“William, I cannot tell you how pleased I am to find you and ensure myself that you are well. I have been worried for you, Cousin.” Richard said as he pulled his cousin into an embrace. “You have had us all worried.”
Bingley nodded his head. “When your cousin informed me of the situation, I was at a loss. How could anyone ever believe you to be capable of killing a maid? I am pleased that I had taken the lease here , and that Richard was able to come for a holiday.”
“I have to admit, when I first saw you last night, my heart leapt. Not knowing of what Richard had informed you, it took me a moment to gather my thought.” Denhem shook hands with his friend. He had come to Netherfield Park shortly after breaking his fast, under the pretense of giving Bingley some advice. “Your sisters and Hurst did not join you, I presume.”
“You are correct. Caroline is furious that I was looking at taking the lease on a place like Netherfield. She has been adamant that if I found an estate that was not in Derbyshire, near Pemberley, she would refuse to visit. So this is perfect. She is staying with Louisa and Hurst for the time being.” Bingley was well aware of his sister’s desire to marry Fitzwilliam Darcy, and one day being the Mistress of the grand estate. And Bingley was aware that his friend had no plans to ever fulfill Caroline’s desire.
“What have we learned from the investigator?” Denhem inquired?
“I sent word to his residence to inform him of our being here. It is my belief that we will hear from him in the next few days. And I left a letter for my father, if he should return to Town. When I left Town, Wickham was still at Darcy House. That will make it simple when we need to have him arrested.” Richard responded.
Denhem shook his head. “I do not know how we will clear my name. Wickham has tightened the noose, and intends for me to swing.”
“And we intend to see you cleared. If anyone can find evidence to clear your name, it is Andrews. I swear the man is part hound.”
“Are you safe at the Bennet estate?” Bingley asked. “They have no notion as to your true identity?”
“They have been kind and caring. I am fortunate to be here. Mr Bennet and Miss Elizabeth are devoted to their estate, and they take care of those who make the estate run smoothly. Bingley, you could learn well from their example.”
A glassy expression came over Bingley, as he thought of the eldest Bennet daughter. “Miss Bennet is an angel. Please tell me she has no suitors.”
Richard chuckled. “We are attempting to prove my cousin is not a murderer and you find time to fall in love with the first gentlewoman you meet. You never seem to fail in making me laugh, Bingley.”
A sheepish grin grew on Bingley’s face. “Well, it will give us excuses to visit Longbourn frequently. And I noticed that you were watching one of the Bennet sisters as well, William. You seemed comfortable speaking with Miss Elizabeth.”
Denhem was surprised that his friend could discover his behavior. “She is intelligent and kind, and it is a pleasure to speak with a young lady who has an opinion, rather one who fawns over everything one says. Miss Elizabeth can hold her own when debating subjects, and has even given me some new views on issues.”
“Of course, my friend. Have no fear, it is a pleasure to see you so comfortable around a young lady. Usually we have to pry you out of the corner of the room.”
~~ ** ~~
Having just left his horse in its stall, Denhem was walking to his cottage when he heard the sound of someone crying. He walked around the side of the barn, discovering Elizabeth seated on the ground, holding a kitten in her hands, stroking it, as tears flowed down her cheeks. “Miss Elizabeth, are you well?”
Surprised, Elizabeth swiped at the tears quickly. “Forgive me, Mr Denhem. I should be returning to the house.” She began to rise from the ground, and Denhem moved forward, reaching out an arm for her to take hold. The young man could see that she had been distraught, her eyes were extremely red and swollen. The handkerchief she held in her hand was soaked, and he reached inside his pocket and pulled a fresh one, handing it to her.
“I will not pry, but it is obvious that something has happened to cause you pain. Perhaps I can bring something to comfort you.”
“There is no possibility of comfort at the moment, Mr Denhem. I do appreciate your kindness though.”
Denhem’s heart was torn by the pain the young lady was displaying. “Please know that I will do whatever I can to be of assistance, even if it is only in the way of a friendly ear to listen to you.”
“Mrs Crawford…she began her labors.” Fresh tears overflowed down her cheeks. “Lucy went for Mrs Jenkins, but there was a problem. Mrs Crawford…Mrs Crawford…”
“Oh no…Mrs Crawford…she did not survive?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “She and the babe were lost. The cord, Mrs Jenkins said it was wrapped around the babe’s neck. Mrs Crawford bleed to death. It was a little girl. Lucy was devastated, blaming herself for wishing for a baby sister. Mr Crawford was numb. He could not even speak, just sat on the side of the bed, holding his wife’s hand in his. They were so much in love, and had been since they were children. Now he will have to raise his children without their mother. It is devastating.” She made no attempt to stem the tears. But she became weak, nearly collapsing.
Denhem wrapped an arm about Elizabeth’s waist, attempting to steady her. In that moment, Elizabeth turned into his body, sobbing uncontrollably into his shoulder. Denhem welcomed the embrace, using his other hand to soothingly stroke her back. He remembered his mother’s death, as she was giving birth to his baby brother, who did not survive. The memory of his father, lost and devastated, weeping openly at the side of Lady Anne’s bed, brought the pain back to the young man, and he made no attempt to stem his own tears.
“Oh, Mr Denhem, forgive me. I have behaved inappropriately.” Elizabeth said, as she pulled back from the man’s arms. “Please, forgive my behavior. I should not have placed you in such a position.”
Instantly, he felt the loss. “Miss Elizabeth, you have nothing to fear from me. I…I…”
At that moment, she realized he had tears streaming down his cheeks. “Mr Denhem, are you well? Forgive me if I have caused you any pain. I should have returned to the house and the privacy of my room, rather than force you to suffer my behavior.”
“Miss Elizabeth, it is my behavior which requires apologies. Unfortunately, you have touched on a tender emotion with the news of Mr and Mrs Crawford. My own father was lost in his grief when my mother died, also giving birth. Your description of Mr Crawford’s reaction reminded me of my father. It was a painful time for him.”
“And obviously, to yourself. How old were you when you lost your mother?”
“I was twelve, and my sister was near two. Mother was near to term, a son, and she was very ill. She had never fully recovered from my sister’s birth, leaving her weak. My father has always blamed himself for her death. He has told me many times that he wishes it had been him, rather than mother.”
Elizabeth was confused. “Forgive me, Mr Denhem, you speak as if your father is still alive. I thought you had stated he died when you were a child.”
Denhem realized he had made a dangerous mistake. “It feels as if it were only yesterday that I last saw my father. He never fully recovered from the loss, and, in a way, I lost both of my parents that day.”
“Where is your sister? You have never spoken of her. Is she in England or Ireland?”
“She…lives with distant relations. I could not turn to the relative, and went to Ireland. My sister, she lives in the north.” Denhem stated, careful to protect his story. “I had best see to the Crawford family. They will require assistance with the care of the children and services for Mrs Crawford and her daughter.”
Quickly, Denhem left the area, with Elizabeth watching the curious man he was. Looking down at the handkerchief, she realized the quality of the fabric. It was fine, much better than most stewards would have. Turning the cloth over in her hand, she noticed his initials stitched elegantly, with Sweet William flowers surrounding the letters. It was obvious that a lady had stitched the fabric for him, a treasured gift for a young man with very little in the world. Perhaps it had been a gift from his sister. I must remember to have it laundered and return it to him soon.
Elizabeth made her way back to her father’s house. She had sent word of the loss of Mrs Crawford to the manor house, and Elizabeth was certain that her father would return home from his meeting with Sir William Lucas to the news. Once he knew of the tragedy, Mr Bennet would pay call on his tenant and family, to discuss what the future would hold for them.
~~ ** ~~
Denny and Wickham strolled down the street of Meryton. Having just enlisted in the local militia, both men planned to stay only long enough to wait for something better to come along. Wickham had told his tale of woe to his friend, making the man believe that he was truly a Darcy, and the rightful heir to Pemberley. Denny felt poorly for his friend, seeing that there had been a severe disservice forced upon Wickham by an unjust family.
The pair reported to Colonel Forrester, and had been assigned duties and training. Wickham knew it would be simple to manipulate the colonel, the elder man was foolish over his new wife, a girl of six and ten, in comparison to the colonel’s five and forty. The girl had her husband wrapped around her little finger, and knew how to get what she wanted. And it was clear she was taken with the new lieutenant, George Wickham. Wickham would have to use caution, as the last thing he wanted was to infuriate his superior, as that would cause extreme problems.
What Wickham did not know was the vicinity of the one man he despised. And he was unaware of the fact that he was being watched from the mercantile. A pair of blue eyes had spied the young man, in his bright red coat, sauntering down the street of the merchant village, as if nothing was wrong.
Richard Fitzwilliam had spied Wickham from the window, and moved closer to ensure he was not mistaken. What is he doing here? I must warn William. We cannot have him call attention to my cousin. After I speak with William, I will send an express to Andrews. As much as I fear Wickham being so near William, perhaps it is better that he is where we can keep a close watch over him. And it might be best if I introduce myself to the colonel of the militia.
Careful not to be detected, Richard made his way to retrieve his horse and mounted the animal. Not long after, he had arrived at Longbourn, leaving his horse with the stable hand. “Do you know where Mr Denhem is?”
“He was in the barn a bit ago, most likes he still be there.” The lad stated.
Richard nodded his head and headed towards the direction the boy indicated. Denhem was just leaving the barn when Richard located him. “What has happened?” Denhem asked, noting his cousin being frustrated.
Looking about, Richard did not see anyone, so he spoke. “Wickham is in the village. He has joined the militia.”
“What in the world has made him decide to join the militia? He has my father accepting all his lies and paying for all his expenses. I wonder what has happened.”
“Perhaps my father has finally convinced yours in the truth.” Richard was hopeful. “We can only hope that your father has opened his mind to the nature of Wickham.”
“That is too much for which to hope. I will need to use extreme caution, as I cannot allow that scoundrel to know I am here. He was willing to commit murder to be rid of me, and I cannot risk anyone else being harmed or murdered because of him.”
The pair heard a sudden gasp from behind them. Turning, they spotted Elizabeth Bennet, her hand over her mouth, and her face deathly pale. She took a few small steps backwards, preparing to run, when Denhem took hold of her and placed a hand over her mouth. “Miss Elizabeth, please, allow me to explain.”
A moment later, he felt the pain of her teeth sinking into the palm of his hand.
~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~