Elizabeth thanked Cook for the fresh baked roll, still steaming from the oven, that the woman handed to her favorite of her master’s daughters. Cook had always preferred the two eldest of the sisters, and Elizabeth’s vivacity had always brought a smile to the woman’s face. She knew the young lady enjoyed the rolls that were served each morning, especially when they were fresh and warm. So, each morning, she made certain that the rolls were ready for when Elizabeth came downstairs to take her morning constitutional.
As most mornings, being her favorite time of day to be in nature, Elizabeth strolled along the path to the base of Oakham Mount, a place she loved more than any other. She climbed the incline, and took a seat on an overturned tree trunk. From this location, she could gaze out over the neighborhood, and feel as if she were a princess overlooking her kingdom. Since her childhood, Elizabeth had felt a giddiness with such a notion, but it had always brought her comfort and joy. In her years, this had become her location when she chose to forget her pain from hearing her mother chastise her for her behavior or when her mother spoke of Jane’s beauty, while declaring the second born daughter not nearly as handsome. And it was where Elizabeth came when she wished peace in her soul.
Of late, it was where the young lady came to think about the man who had entered her life. She knew it was not right, that nothing could come of her feelings for the man she knew as Denhem. After all, he had been in hiding from charges of murder. Even if his name was cleared, she had understood, from speaking with Colonel Fitzwilliam, that the Darcy family estate was nearly half of Derbyshire. And that did not include all of the other holdings the family held. There was no possible way that a man such as Fitzwilliam Darcy would ever offer for a young lady such as her. She was simply too low in status and wealth to garner his notice.
She sighed as she thought of the gentleman the night before. Having his name cleared was wonderful in Elizabeth’s opinion. The only problem was he would soon be leaving Longbourn, to continue his life of wealth and importance. And all the while, Elizabeth Bennet would remain in her small neighborhood, where she could pass as higher society to those she had known all her life.
While Elizabeth enjoyed her roll and she looked out, over her beloved home lands, she had no notion that there were two men nearby. Two men, who had a nefarious motive in mind. The pair had been hidden behind the foliage, waiting for Elizabeth’s appearance. They remained hidden while she made her way up the side of the mound, preparing to sneak up behind and capture her.
When the men prepared to make their move, they were forced to return to their hiding place when a tenant was passing by. The tenant had seen Elizabeth, and called up a greeting to her. “Miss Elizabeth, how are you this morning?”
“I am well, Mr Norton. How is your family?” She replied.
“The lil’ un is on the mend. Thank your mother for sending the elixir for the boy. We are in your family’s debt for such kindness.”
“Tell Charlie I expect to see him at the chicken coop as soon as he is able. He has been such a dear help in collecting the eggs.”
“It was right nice of yur pa to allow my boy such a position. He is plum pleased with himself to have a job and help the family.”
“He is a good boy, Mr Norton. It is a pleasure to have him as part of our estate.” Elizabeth said as she began walking downhill.
“Most people would of shipped him off, thinking him unable to do work, his legs being crippled as they is. But yur pa and you see Charlie for what he be, a good and caring boy.”
Elizabeth smiled. She had always held a soft spot in her heart for the boy. “Mr Norton, anyone who knows your son would attest to his charm and his desire to be of use to others. His willingness to learn has pleased my father, as he has stated he could picture Charlie as the steward one day.” This thought brought Elizabeth back to the man who currently held the position.
“His ma and me be proud whatever he does. Well, I best be on me way. Good day to you, Miss Elizabeth.”
“And good day to you, Mr Norton.” Elizabeth began strolling back down the path leading back towards her home. Her mind continued to return to a certain dark haired man with brilliant blue eyes, and a most handsome dimple when he smiled. How I love when he smiles.
As she was walking, Collins and Wickham began following her, determining when it would be best to put their plan in action. They were getting near the house, and Wickham motioned to Collins that it was time to act, when Collins stepped into a hole, his foot turning and he felt something snap. The bumbling fool opened his mouth to cry out in pain, when Wickham grabbed the man, putting his hand over his mouth. He hissed in the clergyman’s ear. “Quiet, you fool. We cannot have her hear us.”
The pain was overwhelming to Collins. Tears began streaming down his cheeks, as his breathing was in gasps. He had never felt such pain in his life. Sobs were choking the man, as Wickham refused to release his mouth until Elizabeth was further away. Finally, Wickham released Collins, warning the man to keep his voice down.
“It is broken, I am certain it is broken. I felt something snap.” Collins said. “I need a physician. You must take me back to Lady Catherine, for she will send for her personal physician to tend to me.”
“We must follow our plan. I must leave the neighborhood quickly, and this is my only chance to bring pain to my brother.”
“Your brother? Who is your brother?”
Wickham glared at the sycophant. “Fitzwilliam Darcy. I must bring him pain, as he has done all of my life. He cannot win again. He will not have Miss Elizabeth Bennet, as he does not deserve happiness.”
“You are Lady Catherine’s nephew? Why did you not say so? She will aid you, I am certain she would.”
“She is not my aunt. My mother was never acknowledged. I am the rightful heir, the first born Darcy son.” Wickham’s eyes had grown wild. “My brother was to be convicted of murder, and then I would inherit my proper place, after he was led to the gallows. I have worked too hard to get what I want, I cannot lose now.”
Mr Collins did not have the sharpest mind, so it was not shocking at how long it took him to realize what Wickham was saying. “You are the one involved with killing the maid? It was you who committed the murder?”
Wickham had had his fill of the toad of a man. “Yes, I killed that maid. It was supposed to be blamed on my brother. I wanted to be rid of him, so my father could bestow my inheritance upon me. All of my life, I have taken the second place in my father’s life. His son, yet never allowed to be treated as his son. It is not fair. I want what was mine from birth.”
Nervously, Mr Collins attempted to think of a way to escape from his current predicament. All that he knew was he could not walk, and would need Wickham to return to the inn, where Lady Catherine awaited him. “I will wait here, while you make your way to the inn, and bring assistance. Lady Catherine will pay you for your assistance. Then we can determine another way of abducting Miss Elizabeth.”
“It is no wonder that Lady Catherine hired you, as you are an imbecile. Do you not comprehend what I have already told you? I told you, I cannot return to the village. I have left my unit, and am a wanted man. If I return to the inn, I would be discovered and arrested. With my brother being cleared of the murder, they will come looking for me, and I will not hang. You are on your own. I will take my revenge against my brother, and take Miss Elizabeth for myself.”
“You cannot, she is to be my wife.” Collins stated, a bit louder than he should have. Wickham, who had begun to walk away from the parson, turned quickly, lunging at the fool. A knife was in his hand, quicker than the clergyman could react. The knife was plunged into Collins’ chest, as Wickham leaned the man to the ground, his hand over Collins’ mouth.
“She will never be your wife. And Lady Catherine can do nothing to save you.”
Wickham kept his hand over the man’s mouth, watching as the life ebbed from Collins’ body. Once he was assured of Collins being dead, Wickham pulled his knife from the man’s chest, using the clergyman’s coat to wipe the blood from the blade. He stood up, looking about, and moved in the direction that he had last seen the Bennet daughter. She came into view, as she neared the barn. Hurriedly, Wickham followed, his mind working on a possible change of his plans. If all else failed, he would ruin Elizabeth, so no man would ever want her again. This would strike at Mr Bennet, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and the Darcy men. The barn could be a convenient location to carry out his plan.
Elizabeth was near the door of the barn, and noticed it was closed. Thinking it to be highly unusual, as the men were diligent about their care of the animals, and, when the weather was clear as it was that morning, they would leave the doors open for a breeze to come through the building, Elizabeth took hold of the handle and began to pull it open. Suddenly, she felt as if something has slammed into her back, forcing her inward, landing her on the floor. The wind knocked out of her, Elizabeth was still for a moment, before she turned her head and glanced behind her. What she saw made her heart nearly stop.
George Wickham had shoved her inside the barn, closing the door behind him and securing it. In his right hand was his knife, nearly a foot long and as wicked as his sneer. “What are you doing here?” Elizabeth cried, though her voice cracked.
“I am here to see you, Miss Elizabeth. I am here to teach you a lesson on being civil.” Wickham touched the tip of his knife to his left index finger. “The Colonel will not be coming to your rescue this time, so it will be just the two of us. Alone…”
He lunged forward as Elizabeth grabbed a handful of grain from the ground, throwing it in Wickham’s face. Momentarily blinded, Wickham stopped to wipe the debris from his eyes. In that moment, Elizabeth gathered up her skirt and ran towards the ladder, climbing to the loft, quick as lightning. She heard someone screaming, and it took are a moment to realize the screams were coming from her own throat. As she neared the top of the ladder, she could hear voices of men, coming towards the barn. From the sound beneath her, Elizabeth was certain that Wickham was climbing the ladder and would soon catch her. Not knowing if the men would arrive in time to rescue her from Wickham’s intent, Elizabeth looked about the hayloft.
Wickham was near the top of the ladder when the door of the barn was forced open. Several men rushed in, including Fitzwilliam and Gerald Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Lord Matlock, Bingley, and Mr Bennet. Once he was off the ladder, Wickham kicked at it, breaking it free, and forcing it to the ground. He just needed enough time to destroy the heart of his nemesis. All Wickham wanted was to see Fitzwilliam’s expression as Miss Elizabeth was taken from him forever.
“George, what are you doing? Come down from there.” Gerald called up to his godson.
“It is too late. Everything is coming apart. All my plans, I would have had it all.” Wickham looked at Elizabeth, growling at her as he spoke, the handle of his knife being rolled about in his hand. “It is too late for me, but I can destroy one last thing.”
It was clear to everyone just what Wickham had on his mind.
~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~
Gerald Darcy moved forward as he called out to his godson. “It is not too late, George. We can make everything right. Just come down, now. I will do what I can to fix all to rights. Please, George, do as I say.”
George turned slightly, looking at the man he believed to be his father. “How can I trust you? You had Danvers toss me to the street. What was I to do? How could you treat me so unfairly?”
“I was wrong, George. Please, forgive me for having Danvers treat you so poorly. Come down, so we can discuss the matter.”
Wickham shook his head. He knew he would be taken to the gaol. If they had cleared Fitzwilliam’s name, they knew he was the guilty party in the murder of the maid. And he had just committed another murder, leaving Mr Collins body in the woods. He knew there would be no possibility that even the Darcy name could protect him.
“All I have ever wanted was to have you acknowledge me as your son. I was the first born, not that whelp. I deserve to be heir, not him.”
Gerald frowned. “I am not your father, George. Did you believe the rumors? Did you honestly believe that I would have lied to you all these years if you were my flesh and blood? Please, George, you are not of my blood. You are the son of Amos and Martha Wickham, who loved you dearly. Amos was a good man, and he was devoted to Pemberley. He named me your godfather, and, as a reward for his diligent work for the Darcys, I paid for your education. I have even left you a living in my will, though I doubt you would ever wish to take orders. But you are not my son.”
“No, no, I have heard what was said. No gentleman of your standing would treat the son of a steward as you have done for me. And all these years, you preferred my company over that of Fitzwilliam and Georgiana. You cared for me, more than you did them.” Wickham’s voice was nearly pleading.
“Wickham, I can affirm the truth of Gerald’s words.” Lord Matlock stated. “I was with Gerald for the months before his Grand Tour. We were in Bath for a bit, then we arrived in Town, where we remained until Twelfth Night. The following day, we left on the ship, and we did not return until August. You were born the first week of December, am I not correct? I was at Pemberley, as my sister and I were guests of Gerald’s, the night you were born. There is no possible way that Gerald could be your father.”
Wickham’s head was shaking back and forth. “No, it cannot be true. I do not believe you. Why are you all lying? Tell me the truth, for once in my life. I want to hear the words from your lips. Please, Father, tell me I am your son. Acknowledge me as your own.”
“If I could, George, I would do so gladly. You have brought me joy, when I was at my lowest. Truly, George, after my Anne died, you brought me comfort.” Gerald attempted to plead with his godson, wishing desperately that he could reach the part inside him which had been good at one time.
“It is not fair. He always wins. He always gets what he wants. Well, no more. I heard that he fancies this chit. I will make sure Fitzwilliam will never have her.” Wickham moved forward, advancing on Elizabeth, his knife at the ready.
Elizabeth stepped one direction, then darted another way. Seeing her attempt to distract him, Wickham ran straight ahead at her, his arm raised to bring the knife down to her chest. And then suddenly, Wickham was no longer in the hayloft. He had plunged through the weakened boards that had not been repaired, and Elizabeth’s movements had been to avoid the area which she knew was damaged.
The men quickly moved forward. While William and Richard returned the ladder to its rightful place, the other men went to secure Wickham. There would be no need to restrain him. When he crashed through the floor, his body met with a pitchfork, which had been resting against one of the stalls. The three tynes of the pitchfork had thrust through his back and penetrated out of his chest. Though his eyes were open, there was no life behind them.
William had hurried up the ladder, while Richard stayed at the bottom, anchoring it in place. Reaching the top, William took Elizabeth into his embrace. “Are you well? Did he harm you?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “I am unharmed. Other than when he pushed me inside the door, he never touched me.” She felt safe in his arms, her head resting on his chest. Nothing else seemed to matter, all she wished for was to remain there, wrapped in his arms, protected. All too soon, she heard her father call up from where he stood, near the stall where Wickham’s body was located.
“Lizzy, are you harmed? Did he injure you?” Mr Bennet had seen his daughter in the arms of the young man who had touched her life in a way no other had. The only reservation Mr Bennet had held was the charges against the man, and now that they had been removed, he wished only for his daughter’s joy.
“No, Papa, I am well.” Elizabeth replied, still unwilling to push away from William’s embrace.
Gerald Darcy and Thomas Bennet shared a look and a smile. With a nod of his head, Mr Bennet approved of what the other gentleman had in mind.
“William, I believe you have compromised Miss Elizabeth, and in front of her father. If I were him, I would demand you marry the girl. We cannot have her reputation sullied, with so many witnesses to the act. Why, it would be the ruin of all her sisters, and Georgiana as well.”
William looked down at the young lady in his arms. He knew that his heart had been stolen by the extraordinary young woman, who was unlike any other in the world. There would never be another for him, he was certain of that fact. With his finger, he gently lifted her chin to be able look into her eyes. What he saw there made his heart nearly stop. Elizabeth’s eyes spoke of her love for him, a love that had come upon both of them before they knew what was happening. She felt for him, as he felt for her. Giving her a questioning glance, William was pleased to see her nod in response.
“Well, we cannot have her reputation ruined. I must see to arrangements immediately. Mr Bennet, are you willing to assist me in speaking with the rector?”
Mr Bennet attempted to sound stern. “Well, to protect the reputation and future of all my daughters, I must do so. Though, can it be delayed until after we deal with certain difficulties?” His head tilted towards the stall.
“Indeed.” William replied. He placed a kiss on the top of Elizabeth’s head. “Are you well enough to climb down?”
“I am, Mr Den…oh my, what am I to call you now?” Elizabeth chuckled. “Mr Darcy is your father.”
“And my cousin is usually referred to as Fitzwilliam. That is why most of my relations and close friends refer to me as William. I would have you refer to me so, if you wish.”
Elizabeth reached up a hand and gently placed it on the side of his face. “William…I like that.”
~~ ** ~~
As Elizabeth and William made their way from the hayloft, the other men did their best to keep her from witnessing the ghastly sight of Wickham’s body. The couple left the barn, along with their family and friend. Just as they were reaching the manor house, Mr Norton came hurrying back towards them.
“Mr Bennet, sir, I found a man near the trail. He was covered with blood, and his eyes, they had no life. I hurried back, cuzzen I sawed Miss Elizabeth near there earlier.”
The men each looked at the others. They each came to the same conclusion. Collins. He must have been conspiring with Wickham.
Mr Darcy shook his head. “Sir, if you would show me where the body is, I will identify if it is who we believe it is.”
“Uncle, I will see to it. Mr Bennet, if you can send for the apothecary, constable, and magistrate, we will get this matter quickly managed. Then we can get down to more important issues, such as preparing for a wedding.” The colonel gave his cousin a wink.
Fitzwilliam Darcy blushed vividly. Everything had happened so quickly, he was shocked at the acceptance his relations had for young lady who had stolen his heart. But one glance at his intended, and his heart calmed. He would gladly accept any teasing his cousin doled out, as he knew his future was secure.
Lord Matlock quickly penned a message that Mr Hill took to Netherfield Park, to Andrews, who was finally able to sleep, after working late into the night, as he finalized all the paperwork to clear William’s name, completely, of the murder charges. He had also sent out express messages to numerous locations warning of Wickham’s being wanted in connection to the murder and deserting from the militia unit. Mr Hill was to also instruct Mrs Nichols to send footman to fetch the apothecary, the constable, Sir William Lucas, and the undertaker, sending them to Longbourn. Mr Bennet had sent for Colonel Forrester.
So much needed to be discussed. There were the bodies of two men to be dealt with, and Lord Matlock would need to deal with his sister. All of the legalities would have to be attended. As others began arriving, Mr Bennet sent for his brother-in-law, Mr Phillips, who was the solicitor in Meryton.
Mrs Bennet was beside herself. When she learned of her second born daughter’s engagement, she was elated. When she was informed that the wedding would be simple and immediate, she balked. “But Thomas, it is not proper. Mr Darcy’s family are of the higher circles of society, why, his uncle is the Earl of Matlock. No, there must be proper time to plan, as we will need to invite his friends and relations to be in attendance. And Lizzy will need a gown for the wedding, and her trousseau will need to be ordered. That will take weeks to prepare, if not months. We will require at least six months, though a year would be preferred.”
Gerald Darcy decided to assist the gentleman who had given his son shelter and protection. “Forgive me, Mrs Bennet, but your husband was attempting to protect you from the scandalous event from this morning. My son has compromised your daughter, in front of numerous witnesses. If word was to get out, why, your other daughters, and my own daughter, who is near Miss Lydia in age, could be ruined. We will see to Miss Elizabeth’s needs, either in London, or when we arrive at our estate in Derbyshire.”
Obviously disappointed, Mrs Bennet grudgingly gave in, though she was pleased to be able to brag to her friends that an earl would be in attendance of the nuptials and that her daughter would one day be the Mistress of Pemberley, the largest estate in Derbyshire. And the fact that Mr Darcy invited the family to join them for the holiday season helped to seal the deal.
Upon his arrival at Longbourn, Colonel Forrester was disgusted to learn of the actions of his lieutenant. He apologized multiple times, especially to Elizabeth, as he could not tolerate any man who was willing to cause harm to a woman. The fact that he had murdered a maid was bad enough, but to openly attack a gentlewoman in front of her family and friends, with the intent to kill her, was beyond comprehension. “I will see that his body is buried in the cemetery in Meryton. He will be no further burden for all of you.”
“Out of respect for his father, I had thought to send the body to be buried next to his parents, but perhaps it would be best if he was buried in Meryton. The man who died this morning was not the young man I thought him to be, and I know his parents would have been extremely disappointed in his behavior. To think that he believed the lies for so long that he had convinced himself he was a Darcy rather than a Wickham.” Gerald Darcy turned to his son. “I pray you can forgive me for my foolishness.”
“There is nothing to forgive, Father. The past is over, and I will look towards the future that I believe to be quite positive.”
Elizabeth held the arm of her intended, giving him a small squeeze. “I tend to believe in the philosophy of remembering the past, only as the memory brings you pleasure. Do not hold on to the pain or anger, it does no good.”
Gerald reached over, taking hold of his soon to be daughter’s other hand. Raising it to his lips, the gentleman placed a gentle kiss on her skin. “My dear girl, I look forward to many years of you and my son bringing joy to our home. Pemberley has long been in need of a Mistress, and I believe my beloved Anne would agree.”
Lord Matlock nodded his head in approval. “My sister would have welcome you with open arms, for you are such a unique young lady. Now, if my sons would find such young ladies, life would be perfect.” The mention of his sons brought a redness to Richard’s cheeks, and a smile to his father’s lips.
~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~