All Elizabeth Bennet could think was that she must escape the two men, find her father, scream for help, anything that would protect her. She had heard enough to know Denhem was not who she had believed him to be, and now, she was unsure if she could trust the colonel. Had she heard Denhem correctly? Had someone been murdered? It was far too much for her to comprehend. Growing up in a small community, her life had been sheltered from the wickedness in the world. But she had come to care for her father’s new steward. Her heart had been engaged, seeing that this man accepted her intelligence and had made her feel she could attract a young man, no matter what her mother had always stated.
Before she could take too many steps in her escape, Elizabeth felt Denhem take hold of her, placing one of his large hands over her mouth, in an attempt to keep her silent. The only thing she could think of was to bite the hand, which was what she did. Denhem drew his hand away, cursing lightly. When Elizabeth began pulling away from his grip, Richard hurried forward, pleading with the young lady to allow them to speak. “Miss Bennet, please, allow us to speak with you. We will answer any questions you must have about us. Please, allow us an opportunity to explain.”
Elizabeth’s eyes squinted as she looked at the colonel, who was now standing in front of her. “And if I do not, you will murder me? I heard you say that someone had been murdered. If I promise to keep quiet, will you spare me and my family?”
“Miss Elizabeth, I have no intention to murder anyone, especially you and your family. I beg of you to allow us to explain everything you may have overheard.” Denhem stated.
Her gaze took in one man, and then the other. Seeing no alternative she could like, she agreed. Richard looked about, curious as to where they could go to have the discussion. “William, we should go to your cottage. We would not wish to have another person overhear the conversation.”
“It would be improper for Miss Elizabeth to be alone with us. I cannot ruin her reputation.”
“This is not the time to worry about her reputation. To be honest, with Wickham in that area, the lives of all the women in the neighborhood are in danger. Perhaps Miss Bennet can assist us in keeping the young ladies of Hertfordshire safer.” Richard explained. “Miss Bennet, are you willing to hear us out?”
Finally, Elizabeth nodded her head in agreement. The men hurried her towards the steward’s cottage, looking about, before whisking her inside the cottage.
“Miss Elizabeth, please forgive me. I have not wished to cause you or your family any difficulties.” Denhem stated.
“Who are you? I heard this man call you William. You told us that your name was Fredrick Denhem. Is this your name?”
“My name is Fitzwilliam Darcy, of Derbyshire. This is my cousin, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam.”
“Why would you lie to us? I heard you speak of someone being murdered. Do you plan to murder my family? My father is not wealthy, you have seen the books. It would do you no good to attempt to rob us.” Elizabeth remained alert. Her courage always rose when someone attempted to intimidate her.
“No, Miss Elizabeth. Please, I beg of you, allow us to explain everything.” Denhem motioned to a chair. “Might I bring you a glass of water?”
“No, Sir, I wish to hear what you have to say.”
“Very well. First, I must give you some knowledge of my family. The colonel is my cousin, his father and my mother were brother and sister. My mother was Lady Anne Darcy. My father is Gerald Darcy of Pemberley.”
“I have heard of Pemberley. My aunt spent her childhood in Lambton. She said that Pemberley was the biggest estate she had ever known.” Elizabeth was still uncertain of whether to trust the men.
“When I was a boy, my father’s steward was a good and kind man, named Mr Wickham. Mr Wickham’s wife died giving birth to his son, George. George Wickham was cared for at the main house, as my father felt it was a way he could reward Mr Wickham for his devotion to our family. My father was named as George’s godfather. Later, when I went to school and to university, my father sent George Wickham, out of gratitude for the father. When old Mr Wickham passed, my father kept George at the estate, as the younger Wickham brought comfort to Father. You see, my mother died, leaving my father bereft. My sister is the spitting image of my mother, so my father could find no comfort in Georgiana’s presence. I am too much like my mother in personality, so spending time with me was painful. George Wickham has a charm about him, and can make anyone think him perfection. What my father was unaware of was George’s misdeeds when he was away from my father.”
Richard took up the explanation. “My cousin is a good man, and rather than cause further pain to his father, William covered the debts Wickham wracked up everywhere he went. Debts to merchants, debts of honor, Wickham left a trail of people he had harmed.”
Elizabeth frowned. “You called him William.” She said, then turned to Denhem. “But you stated your name is Fitzwilliam.”
With a nod of his head, Richard continued. “Our family has always referred to him as William. With my family name being Fitzwilliam, calling us both by the name could be confusing. So we have always said William, or Wills when referring to my cousin.”
“Continue Colonel.” Elizabeth was still unconvinced, but she was willing to listen further.
“While at university, rumors circulated that Wickham was likely the natural child of my uncle, for why else would my uncle send the son of his steward to school alongside his heir? But our family knows the truth, for Uncle Gerald was on his grand tour when Wickham was conceived. Forgive my bluntness, Miss, but it is the only way I can state the fact. My uncle could not possibly be Wickham’s father, yet now, after years of hearing the rumors, the scoundrel believes himself to be the true heir, as he was born a year before William.”
“And what does this have to do with someone being murdered?” Elizabeth inquired. She was not sure why, but she had found herself beginning to believe what the men were saying.
It was Denhem who spoke. “Unfortunately, Wickham is a rake. He has two natural children I have found homes for, after their mothers had been ruined by Wickham. I could not allow my father to be harmed by news of his godson behaving in such a manner. The morning I entered a guest room, finding a young maid lying motionless on the floor, blood surrounding her head, and Wickham standing over her body, I knew that I was in true danger from the man. He had purposely committed murder of the maid, after ruining her and leaving her with child. Wickham was prepared to inform everyone that I had murdered the girl, and that I was the father of her unborn child. In his mind, he had come to believe the rumors of his being a Darcy by blood. And he believed that Father would make him the heir, after I was out of the way. What better way to be rid of me than to frame me for murder. The weapon he used to kill the maid was a stone carving that my mother had given me when I was a boy. It is one of my treasures, and it was used to make my father believe I had used it to take a life.”
“How did you come to be here? Did he not raise the alarm when you entered the room?”
“Fortunately, he made to attack me, and as I moved to avoid the attack, Wickham hit the floor, knocking him unconscious. This gave me time to escape, for I knew that he would convince others that I was to blame for the murder. I had to find somewhere that I was not known, to hide from the accusation, while I made every attempt to clear my name.”
“I had returned from the continent due to an injury in battle. While I was there, I received word from my father, informing me of William’s situation. I sent man, who had once served under me in the military, to Pemberley, as he had become an investigator. Waiting for word from the man, a letter arrived for me from William. Remarkably, Bingley had already taken the lease of Netherfield. I knew from what William had said in the letter, and from what Bingley told me, that the two estates were likely in the same neighborhood. It was only a stroke of luck that it turned that the estates were next to each other. It was not until we arrived here, and had met your father, that I informed Bingley of what had happened with my cousin.”
Elizabeth looked back and forth between the two men. Could she believe their story? Could such a story be believed? Their story was far too strange. But there was something in the look in the young man her father had hired, something that pleaded with her to believe. “And this Wickham, he is in our neighborhood?”
“I witnessed his walking down the road in Meryton. He has joined the militia.” Richard replied. “I must tell you, he will take advantage of anyone he can.”
Turning towards her father’s steward, Elizabeth posed another question. “When will you speak with my father? I cannot keep a secret this important from him. If the merchants in Meryton are in danger of being conned from their merchandise and young ladies reputations are at risk, we cannot sit back and do nothing.”
“We need to use caution, as he will not hesitate harming others to further his plans.” Denhem stated. “Miss Elizabeth, what do you recommend we tell your father? I am grateful for all he has done for me, but I wish to protect him and your family from such a scoundrel. I would not wish for you, or your sisters, to be harmed by the man.”
“I believe we must inform Papa of the entire situation. He would be able to notify the merchants. Colonel, is there a possibility you could point him out to me? I wish to know which officer he is, so I might warn my sisters from engaging such a man in even the simplest conversation. With my mother, she would have one of my youngest sisters married to one of the men in red coats.”
The men agreed with Elizabeth, and they discussed what should be told to Mr Bennet.
~~ ** ~~
Mr Bennet had escaped to his study, after meeting his cousin upon his arrival to Longbourn. Only ten minutes was required to know that Mr Collins was an exact copy of his father, a man Mr Bennet detested from the first time they had met. Mr Frank Collins had been a cruel and disgusting man, angered over the fact that he did not inherit Longbourn, as he felt that it was his birthright over Thomas Bennet. The fact that Thomas Bennet was the first in line to inherit and carried the Bennet family name, mattered not to Frank Collins. He was thrilled when he learned that each of the Bennet babes from his cousin’s marriage were female, as it placed Frank’s son, William, to be the heir.
Mr Collins had been raised to believe that groveling to those who were of higher society would take him higher on the ladder of success than he could attain on his own. Having taken orders, Collins was thrilled to gain the living of Hunsford Parish, which was part of Rosings Park. Having Lady Catherine de Bourgh as his benefactor was a blessing for the sycophantic man. The woman had always thought herself to be royalty, demanding others to treat her as if she were the Queen. So having such an obsequious toad, devoted to her every need, was feeding the woman’s vanity.
Feeling his position as clergy for none other than Lady Catherine de Bourgh to place him on such a high pedestal, Mr Collins found it important that he pass along any and all opinions his patroness had shared with him. “Mr Bennet, my grand patroness told me that I should make an attempt to repair the rift in our family which was caused by my father. As I am to inherit upon the most distasteful event of your demise…(the look on his face spoke of Mr Collin’s true opinion of Mr Bennet’s future death), Lady Catherine gave me the benevolence of her opinion. ‘Mr Collins, you are in need of a wife. You should choose a wife from the daughters of your cousin, which would guarantee their future after their father is gone. Choose one who is pretty, for yourself, yet one who is aware of her place in society. She must be a hard working young lady, not one who has been spoiled and believe herself above her station.’”
Mrs Bennet, always on the search for husbands for her daughters, was uncommonly quiet. Her husband found his wife subdued. “Mrs Bennet, are you well?” he asked while he was still in the sitting room. Fanny Bennet nodded her head.
“I am well, Mr Bennet. Just a bit fatigued. It would be best if I were to rest for a bit of time.”
“Very well, my dear. Shall I see you up to your room?”
“No, no. I will be fine. Mr Collins, please forgive me. We will dine at seven, I will see you then.” Mrs Bennet left the men, and made her way upstairs.
Not wishing to continue speaking with his cousin, Mr Bennet suggested the man rest himself, as travel from Kent must have been tiring. Once Collins was shown to the guest room, Mr Bennet was pleased to finally find peace in his study. As he picked up his book, Mr Bennet opened to the page he had stopped at earlier that day. Thomas Bennet leaned back in his chair, making himself comfortable, and had just begun to read, when there was a knock on the door. Frustrated, he called out for the person to enter.
“Papa, Mr Denhem and Colonel Fitzwilliam would like to speak to you.” Elizabeth said.
Though he was disappointed in not being able to return to reading, Mr Bennet was certain that his daughter would not have disturbed his peace for some petty reason. Elizabeth was far too level headed and responsible, so whatever was deemed necessary, must be of great importance. “What is the matter?” Mr Bennet asked, noticing his daughter’s expression. “Has something happened? Has something else happened to the Crawford family?”
“No, Papa, it is nothing to do with the tenants. Mr Denhem and Colonel Fitzwilliam have an extremely important matter to discuss with you. As I am aware of the situation, I must beg you to allow them to tell you the entirety, before you make any decisions.”
Mr Bennet’s curiosity was peaked. “Very well, gentlemen, take a seat. Should I send for tea?”
Neither of the men desired refreshment, and the discussion was soon on its way. Mr Bennet was not pleased, and his fury continued to grow by the minute. Only his favorite daughter was able to calm the gentleman, and even she was having a difficult time convincing him not to call for the constable and magistrate.
“Papa, I believe Mr Denhem. He is not capable of committing murder, especially of a young maid. I have spent enough time in his presence to be confident in his honesty in this situation.”
“Lizzy, the reason he is at our estate, living under a false name, is that he is on the run from the law. How am I to believe anything he has to tell me? I do not dare allow him to be near my daughters, as I fear for your safety.”
“As I said, Papa, I believe in his words. Though he portrayed himself as being a different person, fundamentally, he is the same man. If you had only witnessed his reaction when he learned of Mrs Crawford passing, his painful memory of his mother’s death was heartbreaking. He would need be the best actor of England to make me believe he was pretending his emotions.” Elizabeth remembered the moment in vivid detail.
Richard Fitzwilliam was shocked. Turning to his cousin, he addressed the young man. “You spoke to someone outside the family of you mother? You never speak of Aunt Anne, and I have never inquired to your pain in losing her.”
“And I never inquired about your mother either, Richard.” Denhem spoke in a soft voice. “What good does it do to discuss something that we have absolutely no control over? Your mother died, and you rarely speak of her to me.”
“It only tells me that you felt yourself comfortable in Miss Bennet’s presence to be open with her.” Richard was unable to believe his cousin. In the back of his mind, Richard hoped that all would work in his cousin’s favor, as he prayed Fitzwilliam Darcy would be able to have a future, especially a future filled with a loving spouse at his side.
Mr Bennet stood. “Well, Colonel, perhaps you should make the journey to Meryton with me, and show me the scoundrel of which you have spoken.”
“I believe it would be wise if I were to join you, Papa.” Elizabeth added. “As I am usually with Kitty and Lydia when they walk to Meryton, my knowing the man by sight would be vital.”
“Very well, Lizzy. And I must come up with a reason why your sisters are not to speak with any of the officers. Your mother will not be pleased if I do not allow the two silliest girls in England to make fools of our family.”
“That is a bridge that can be crossed at a later time.” Elizabeth smiled, as she exited the study, to retrieve her bonnet and spencer.
~~ ** ~~
Wickham had just received a mug of ale from the serving girl at the tavern. “Thank you, my dear girl. Could you add it to my account?”
“Mr Walden donnut like people not paying for thems drinks. I cannot lose me job.” The girl replied.
“You have nothing to fear. We are paid on Friday, and I can bring what I owe to Mr Walden. I promise you, there will be no problem, Mr Walden will see his funds.” Wickham’s hand wandered over the girl’s form. “And if you are a good girl, and bring me a bit of bread and cold meat, I will see that you are rewarded on Friday as well.” His hand smacked the girl’s rump playfully.
“Mr George, please, not here. I told ye, I be set to wed in a fortnight. I canna risk him learnin bout you.” She swatted his hand.
“My dear Penny, I swear, he will never learn of our…dalliance. I promise you that you are safe with me. You are just such tasty morsel, and I find it difficult to keep my hands from wandering over your luscious curves. Please, Penny, I have told you, there is no one like you. And if necessary, when my father sends me funds, I can afford to take care of you.”
“And why would you be here in the militia if you be from a high and mighty family? You expect me to believe in ya with no proof.”
“My father is in a difficult position, Penny. He is having to deal with my younger brother, who has committed a crime and has caused my father grief. As soon as my brother has been dealt with, Father will see to my fortune. I am to inherit, after Father legitimizes my being his son.”
The girl was not completely falling for his words, but she did not wish to burn any bridges, just in case he was telling the truth. “You best be bringin the funds Friday, or Mr Walden will sack me and take the coin from you hide.”
“As soon as I have my pay, this will be my first stop.” Wickham smiled as he accepted the drink she placed on the table. When she returned with food, he thanked her with another smack on her ample rump. “On Friday.”
~~ ** ~~
Mr Bennet and Elizabeth rode to Meryton in the curricle that the Bennet family kept at Longbourn. Usually it was used for the Hills to use when they went to Meryton for shopping. Elizabeth was not fond of horses, even ones pulling a carriage or wagon, and she usually walked to where she needed. Her reputation for walking was well known in the neighborhood, and she had been teased for years for her preference. But her father insisted that she make the trip to the village with him, so they would not appear suspicious. Their mission was to learn of the man who was allegedly a murderer, so they could protect their family and loved ones.
Another reason that Mr Bennet insisted on his daughter joining him in the curricle was to avoid having to accommodate Mr Collins. The toad had declared his decision to spend time with Elizabeth Bennet, having set his eye on her to be the object of his affection, and his future happiness. By using the small curricle, there was no room for the blundering imbecile, and they would not be forced to walk beside him, as he regaled them of everything miraculous that was Lady Catherine.
Arriving at the merchant village, Mr Bennet first went to the book shop. He had received word of the arrival of a book he had ordered previously, and Elizabeth wished to find something new to add to her personal collection. As they finished there, the father and daughter made their way to where Colonel Fitzwilliam was standing, near the entrance of the mercantile. Coming close to the young man, Mr Bennet held out his hand as he spoke. “Colonel Fitzwilliam, what a pleasure it is to see you today. Are you well?”
“Mr Bennet, Miss Elizabeth, the pleasure is mine. I am well. And yourselves? How is Longbourn fairing today?”
“All is well. It was a pleasure having you dine with us the other night. I hope to have it repeated often while you and Mr Bingley are in the neighborhood.” Mr Bennet stated. Several people walking past the trio quickly moved on about their business, ignoring the group. Then came a group of men who gave the trio their complete attention. Several officers from the militia were on their way to the haberdashery to place an order. One person in particular focused upon Colonel Fitzwilliam.
“George Wickham, fancy meeting you here.” Richard stated, looking at the new officer. “And in a uniform. Did my uncle finally learn his lesson about paying your bills and insist you find a profession?”
Wickham gulped. He had never been fond of Richard Fitzwilliam. Richard had always seen Wickham for what he was, and had protected the younger Darcy from Wickham’s cruelty. “Colonel, a pleasure seeing you here. I thought you were still on the continent.”
“I was injured in battle, and am on leave. Just happened that Charles Bingley had leased an estate near here, and he asked me to visit. I have been pleased to make the acquaintance of the Bennet family, as they are one of the prominent families in the neighborhood. Mr Bennet, did you not state, when we dined at your home, that you are close friends with the local magistrate, Sir William Lucas?”
Mr Bennet understood Richard was issuing a threat to the scoundrel. “I am indeed. And, when Sir William has been away, I stand in his place. We keep a quiet neighborhood, and am pleased to see the new crop of militia has caused no disruption to that peacefulness.”
“Forgive us, but I was on my way to the haberdasher’s shop to place an order.” Wickham stated cautiously. “Our colonel has sent us to order some clothing we will require.”
“I pray you have the coin to place the order, men. Our village will not stand for the sort of unit that comes into our neighborhood and leaves a mountain of bills when they move on to another location.” Mr Bennet announced. “Sir William has been harsh on those who have behaved so in the past, as he was the former owner of the mercantile before being knighted. We do not tolerate foul treatment of our merchants.”
The nervous appearance of Wickham made Richard nearly laugh. Clearly, the man was planning to do as he had in the past, charge his purchases and then leave the neighborhood, leaving the merchants at a loss. “There is no reason to fret, Mr Bennet. We are officers, and represent the crown. To behave in such a manner would be disrespectful to the King.” Denny stated, unaware of his friend’s proclivities.
“Very good, Sir. Make sure that your fellow officers abide by the same principles and all will be well. And I would also state that Sir William has two unmarried daughters, and he does not approve of any man who takes advantage of young ladies. So you had best mind your steps when it comes to how you treat the ladies of the neighborhood. As a father, I agree with Sir William in his view of dandies who take advantage of unsuspecting girls.” Mr Bennet drove home his opinion, glaring directly at Wickham.
Denny defended his fellow officers. “We would never disrespect a young lady by behaving inappropriately towards her. You have my word of honor, Mr Bennet.”
“Very good.” Mr Bennet turned his attention towards Denny. “It will be an honor see you next week, at the dinner that is being held in honor of the militia coming to the neighborhood.”
Mr Bennet and Richard remained outside the mercantile, excusing Elizabeth to enter the shop, to make a purchase. Richard spoke to his companion. “Mr Bennet, I believe you have made your point to most of those young men. Unfortunately, Wickham is not intelligent enough to realize you were speaking directly towards him.”
“Well, we will see what happens. If his fellow officers find his behavior distasteful and they know we are keeping close watch over all of them, those men will be more likely to speak out against him. They do not wish to pay the price for his misdeeds. Men such as they are easily persuaded towards proper behavior if they are rewarded.”
“Sir, you would have made a perfect general for King and country.” Richard lightly patted the gentleman’s shoulder. “And I will have to ensure that I never cross you, as I would not wish to have you angry at me. I fear you more than I do Napoleon’s army.”
“Never underestimate the determination of a gentleman in possession of five daughters and no sons. Contrary to what many might think of me, I would do anything necessary to protect my daughters. And that includes dealing with dandies.”
~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~