Mr Bennet was surprised to have his butler bring an express to him, especially as it was from Hunsford Parsonage. He feared what news could be inside this message, as his beloved daughter, Elizabeth, was visiting there, and the handwriting on the letter was not that of his daughter’s.
Breaking the seal on the letter, Mr Bennet opened the letter and began to read.
Mr Thomas Bennet
This letter is to inform you of the need for you to collect your daughter from my home, immediately. My patroness, the grand Lady Catherine de Bourgh, has stated Miss Elizabeth Bennet has brought shame to not only my home, but the home of Lady Catherine. If I were you, I would pack her belongings and ship her off as far away from your family as possible. She has ruined her reputation, and ruined her family in the process.
It has been discovered by my patroness that her nephew, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, has taken your daughter as his mistress. You may remember, from my visit to Longbourn, that Mr Darcy is to wed his cousin, Miss Anne de Bourgh. It appears your daughter has used her arts and allurements to capture Mr Darcy’s desire, most likely in hope that the man would wish to set her up in her own home and with money. Lady Catherine, who is all that is good and compassionate, has stated that she will not file reports to the papers announcing your daughter’s behavior, if you come immediately, and keep her away from Mr Darcy. Lady Catherine is willing to compensate you the sum of ten thousand pounds, to give your other daughters better chance at securing their futures, though I am certain that no decent man would marry any of them.
I have already informed my wife that she is to cut all ties to your family. Upon your death, we will insist on your wife and daughters be removed within two days of the funeral. A letter is being prepared for my Charlotte’s family to know the truth of this situation, since they are neighbors of yours. They should be protected from a family which raised such an immoral and devious female. If your other daughters are like Miss Elizabeth, your entire family should leave England.
Charlotte has prepared Miss Elizabeth’s trunks, so there will be no delay in your removing your daughter from my home.
Mr William Collins
Mr Bennet was shocked. If this letter had been speaking of his youngest two daughters, Thomas Bennet would have accepted the words as true. But not his Lizzy. She and Jane were the best of his daughters, and she would never be as mercenary as Mr Collins described was ridiculous. Especially since Elizabeth detested Mr Darcy when he stayed with his friend at Netherfield Park.
Knowing he would require his eldest daughter’s calm and caring nature on the trip, Mr Bennet sent for Jane to join him in his study. Only a few moments passed before a soft knock was heard on the door. “Papa, Mr Hill stated you wished to speak with me.”
“Indeed, Jane. I received an express from my cousin, demanding I come to remove Elizabeth from his home. The man must have struck his head, for what he said was far from being true.”
Jane frowned. “What would Mr Collins say about Lizzy, especially to demand you to make the journey to retrieve her?”
“Mr Collins is stating that Lizzy has forced herself on Mr Darcy, who is at Rosings Park, visiting his aunt, Lady Catherine. The buffoon had the audacity to state that my daughter wishes to be Mr Darcy’s mistress, as she desires a home and wealth.”
A gasp was heard from the eldest Bennet sister. “That cannot be true, as Lizzy would never behave so improperly.”
“I know you have only just returned from London, but I would be grateful for you joining me. Your sister would be grateful to have your comfort, I am certain.”
“Of course, Papa. I will prepare immediately.”
Mr Bennet spoke as his eldest daughter retreated. “Do not mention any of this to your mother or your sisters. I will insist that they remain in the house while we are gone, as I do not wish for there to be any gossip happening while we are gone.”
“But how can we conceal anything if Mr Collins should send word to Lucas Lodge? Lady Lucas would have no difficulty spreading any information she receives, as she is a worse gossip than Mamma.”
“Let us pray that the news does not reach Lucas Lodge. Hurry and prepare, we must leave as soon as possible.”
~~ ** ~~
The room was dark, and she could not focus on anything to identify where she was. An attempt to move told her that she was bound, with her hands tied behind her back. She could not even kick her legs, as they felt as if they were wrapped together. There was something in her mouth, keeping her from speaking or calling out for assistance.
What is happening? I was enjoying the park, and now I am here. Where am I, and why am I bound? And why does my head ache so much? What could be the reason for someone to bring me here?
She heard footsteps coming near. A door opened, though the light from outside silhouetted the person, leaving her unable to determine who they were.
“I see you are finally awake. Good. I would not wish for you to be released from the suffering I have in store for you.” The person gave a wicked laugh. A hand reached forward, taking hold of her hair and pulling her slightly from the floor. There was an odor of liquor detected from the person. “You had best accept the fact that you will never leave this room alive. But I will not kill you immediately. I wish to see fear overwhelm you, make you beg for mercy. You deserve to pay the price for all you have done.”
The sting of a hard smack across her face made the young lady slowly drift back into oblivion.
~~ ** ~~
“What do you mean, my nephew struck you?” Lady Catherine was furious. “Mr Collins, I tell you that my nephew, Darcy, is securely locked in his bed chambers. I saw to locking the door myself.”
“But…but…it was Mr Darcy who was just at my cottage. And he struck me, breaking my nose, I am certain.” Collins groveled.
Richard had just come from the upper level of the grand house. “Aunt Catherine, it appears my cousin has escaped from his rooms. Most likely, he went out the window. As a child, Darcy spent many hours in trees.”
“We need to discover him immediately. If we do not bring him back, when the magistrate arrives, Darcy will appear to be guilty.”
This comment brought a frown from the colonel. “Guilty of what?”
“Of killing his mistress. Can you not see the clothing on the floor, where Mr Collins dropped them? It is Miss Bennet’s spencer, and it is covered in blood. And Darcy’s initials are on the handkerchief, which is also covered in blood.”
“I cannot imagine Darcy killing Miss Bennet. He is in love with her.” Richard stated. “Darcy is not one to lose his temper in harm a lady.”
“He struck you, his cousin and close friend. And he struck my parson; just look at Mr Collins. No, Darcy is out of control and needs to be returned here, so we can protect him from the gallows. Just imagine what would be said if my nephew was found guilty of killing his mistress, while at my home. It is not to be borne.”
“Please, Lady Catherine, I will testify that Mr Darcy was with me the entire time. He wished to discuss his upcoming wedding to Miss de Bourgh, and we spoke of the calling of the banns. No one would dare question a parson of lying. Once Mr Darcy is located, I will speak with him, make him see reason in our decision to protect him.” Mr Collins declared. “If only my wife had not invited Miss Bennet to visit. I pray you forgive me, your ladyship, for what Miss Bennet has wrought upon your family. She could not even die properly, leaving a horrible situation for us to cover. I had already written to my cousin to come and remove his daughter, and he is likely on his way as we speak. What should I tell him of his daughter’s whereabouts?”
Lady Catherine took her seat in her throne like chair. “I would suggest you claim that the hussy left your home, as Mr Darcy had promised her a large settlement if she were to go into hiding. Perhaps tell Mr Bennet that Darcy refuses to inform anyone where he sent the chit. It is true, for Darcy has not spoken of where her body is to be found. I believe, if Darcy does not return to the house before Mr Bennet leaves, we can say that Darcy and Miss Bennet ran off together, most likely to one of Darcy’s properties, so my nephew can establish his mistress before marrying Anne. With the many properties that Darcy owns, we can claim it is one in Ireland or Scotland. Does he not have an estate in Italy?”
Richard nodded his head. “Near Genoa.”
“Perfect. We can inform Mr Bennet that Darcy took his daughter to install her in the estate in Italy. I doubt that the man could afford making such a journey,”
“What of Mrs Collins?” Richard asked. “Will she be willing to lie to her friend’s family?”
“My wife will do as I state, for if she does not, I will punish her for disobeying me.” Mr Collins puffed up his chest. “Too many young ladies not knowing their place, that is what is causing our society to decline. Do not fret over my wife’s behavior, Colonel. She knows what is best.”
“Aunt Catherine, what of Anne? Will she support what we plan? After all, she is supposed to marry Darcy. Is it fair to her to be betrothed to a murderer? Killing his mistress does not speak well for Darcy.”
“They will marry, and then Darcy can be sent somewhere, and we will control Pemberley and all of his other properties. After the solicitors handle the transfer all of his holdings to Anne, Darcy will no longer be a problem. And there would be no harm in Anne having her loving cousin at her side to console and guide her.”
Richard gave a half smile. “And supportive I will be.”
~~ ** ~~
Darcy had been searching for Elizabeth, asking each tenant if they or their loved ones had seen Miss Bennet. No one had seen her, which caused concern, as Elizabeth was well known to those of the neighborhood, even after such a short time of being at Hunsford. This did not surprise Darcy, as he was well aware of the kind and caring nature of the young lady. Those qualities had made an impression on Darcy’s heart.
What he could not understand was his cousin’s behavior. He knew Lady Catherine was insane enough to act as she had, as she made no pretense when it came to her desire for him to marry Anne. But Richard, never would he have believed Richard to behave as he had. Accusing Darcy of taking Elizabeth as his mistress was outrageous. Anyone who really knew Darcy would know that he would not ruin a young lady’s reputation, let alone take her to his bed, without the benefit of marriage. Of all people, Richard was well aware of Darcy’s determination to keep himself for the lady he would marry. Richard and his elder brother had teased Darcy mercilessly for years, whenever they planned to visit the brothels in Town, for Darcy would not join them.
Gerald Darcy, father and previous Master of Pemberley, had instructed his son on the treatment of ladies. And he had warned the consequences that could occur from relations with such women. Gerald had an uncle who had been diagnosed with the French disease, dying an extremely painful death, so he intended to ensure his son, as Gerald had, learned from the uncle’s mistakes.
Darcy arrived outside the cottage of the widow of the former apothecary near the outskirts of Hunsford. The lady, Mrs Howard, had always been kind and considerate, appreciating Darcy’s protection for her to have a home and food, when Lady Catherine had insisted the woman find somewhere else to live after Mr Howard died.
Reaching out his hand, Darcy knocked. Mrs Howard came to the door, smiling when she saw the young man before her. “Mr Darcy, what a pleasant surprise. How are you, this fine morning?”
“Rather bewildered, Mrs Howard. Have you met the young lady who has been staying with Mr and Mrs Collins?”
“Miss Bennet? Of course, I have. She is such a sweet girl, bringing a delicious meal for me, and even brought some wildflowers to brighten my day.”
The image brought a smile to Darcy’s lips. “Have you seen her this morning?”
Mrs Howard frowned. “I cannot say that I have. She usually knocks on the door if she comes this far from the parsonage, and usually comes by before noon. Is there a problem?”
“Miss Bennet is missing. No one has seen her since she left the parsonage this morning.”
“Goodness. I pray that she is well. But Mr Darcy, there is something else troubling you. Do you require someone to bend an ear for whatever ails you? After all you have done for me, after my Charlton passed, I could do nothing less than be a supportive. Please, Mr Darcy, come inside. I will put the kettle on for tea.”
Darcy was planning to leave Mrs Howard’s cottage, when there was a quick knock on the door. The elderly lady opened the door to discover her neighbor, Mr Robert Grant.
“Mrs Howard, I have come to warn you. Lady Catherine has sent for all the men to aid in searching for Mr Darcy. She is claiming he is ill and disappeared from the manor house. But I saw Mr Darcy a few hours ago, and he seemed perfectly fine when he asked if I had seen Miss Bennet. After I spoke with him, I saw the gentleman come to your home. Is he still here?”
Darcy stepped up behind Mrs Howard. “Are they searching homes?”
“Not yet, but they are making inquiries and several people must have seen you in the village earlier. You must find somewhere to hide, for I fear that Lady Catherine will do anything to have you locked away. I trust you, Mr Darcy. You have done right by all of us in Hunsford, and I will not stand by and see that heartless woman destroy your life.”
“I am grateful, Mr Grant. Where would you suggest I hide?” Darcy looked between the pair.
A smile grew on Mrs Howard’s lips. “Mr Grant, could you spare some clothing? It would be wise for Mr Darcy to have a different appearance for the time being.”
Mr Grant also smiled. “I will return shortly.”
~~ ** ~~
“Grant, say there, do you have a moment?” one of the stable hands from Rosings called out, as he approached Mr Grant’s home.
“Of course, John, what is the matter?”
“Seems the nephew of her highness has gone and gotten lost, and they say he is sickly. You see him about?”
Mr Grant looked at the man curiously. “Which nephew is missing? I thought she had two nephews staying at Rosings.”
The young man nodded his head. “It be Mr Darcy. The colonel, he be assisting his aunt in forming search parties. If you see Mr Darcy, send word to the manor. And could you inform your neighbors? Let ‘em know to be careful, Mr Darcy might be out of his mind.”
Receiving a nod in reply, John left. Mr Grant waited until John was out of sight, then made his way to Mrs Howard’s home. Inside the house, Mr Grant opened the bag he had brought with him. “These were my father’s clothes. He was taller than me, more like you. And these are his glasses. In the bottom of the bag is a wig. My grandfather was an actor. He performed all over England, and some places on the Continent. From what I was told when I was a young man, Grandfather was renowned for being able to change his appearance. As this is what we are attempting to do with you, Mr Darcy, it seems only fitting.”
An hour later, Darcy’s appearance had been altered considerably, hiding his identity. The trio had determined that Mrs Howard would claim Darcy to be her brother, come to visit her. They chose the name Ian Donovan, Donovan being Mrs Howard’s maiden name, and would answer any questions with a tale of Donovan having returned to England after living in Ireland for many years, though they hoped they would not be forced to lie.
The wig that Mr Grant had chosen was gray, straight, and a little longer than Darcy’s own hair, which was nearly black and very curly. With the wig and the glasses, along with the clothing and work boots, it was difficult easily recognize Darcy.
“Please, keep me informed if you learn of Miss Bennet being found. I fear something dreadful has happened to her.” Darcy said to Mr Grant.
“Of course, Sir. And I will keep you both in my prayers. Mrs Howard, it is best that Mr…I mean your brother, remains inside as much as possible. Though it is unlikely he would be recognized, we do not wish to take a chance.”
Mrs Howard nodded her head. “I will do all in my power to keep him inside. And thank you for your assistance.”
~~ ** ~~
Mr Bennet and his eldest daughter arrived at the Hunsford Parsonage, after spending the day on the road from their home. Surprised not to find his cousin impatiently waiting their arrival, Mr Bennet stepped to the door and rapped his knuckles on the wood. He could hear movement from inside the building, though no one had responded to his knocking. After once again knocking, and no one responding, Mr Bennet moved to a nearby window, placing his hand above his brow as he attempted to look inside. The movement he had heard came from a figure which was attempting to crawl across the floor. From where he was, the figured appeared to be that of a female.
Moving back to the door, and receiving no response to his louder knocking, Mr Bennet took hold of the door knob, and, finding it unlocked, turned it and pushed the door inward. Jane followed her father as he entered the house, quickly moving towards the room to their right. Mr Bennet knelt at the side of the lady, speaking to her. “Are you well? Is there something I can do for you?”
A weak voice responded. “Mr Bennet? Why are you here?”
“Charlotte? Forgive me, Mrs Collins?” Mr Bennet assisted her to a sitting position. Pulling a handkerchief from his coat pocket, he held it to Charlotte’s forehead, where there was a gash which was bleeding freely. “What has happened? Where is your husband and my Lizzy?”
“Mr Collins was to go to Rosings. He was furious, shouting of Lizzy leaving immediately. When I suggested we learn Lizzy’s side of the matter, Mr Collins struck me. I do not remember anything since then.”
“Where is the man? I wish to have words with him. How dare he injure you, then leave you alone, with no one to tend to your needs? Of what is my daughter being accused? I wish to speak with her.”
“I do not know where anyone is, though I would guess that Mr Collins is likely at Rosings, with Lady Catherine. But Lizzy, please Mr Bennet, I fear for her safety. My husband and Lady Catherine are furious with her. Mr Collins might harm Lizzy.”
“Charlotte, is there somewhere I can take you, to keep you safe? I wish to find my daughter and confront my cousin and his patroness, but I do not feel you will be safe if left alone. If your husband returns, he may bring further harm to you.”
“There is a dear widow near the village. Mrs Howard. She would allow me to take shelter with her, I am certain. This is not the first time my husband has raised a hand to me. Mrs Howard came upon me once before, when I required assistance.” Charlotte could not raise her eyes to witness the emotions warring upon Mr Bennet’s brow.
“I will assist you, Charlotte.” Jane said, as she stepped closer to her friend. “Papa, you can see us to Charlotte’s friend, then find Lizzy. When we leave, we must take you to your parents’ home.”
Mrs Collins looked up, terrified. “Oh, no, I could never leave here. It would only make matters worse. My father would never stand against my husband. I am married for life, I must accept my lot, for choosing such a husband.”
Mr Bennet patted his closest friend’s daughter on the back. “Do not fear, Charlotte. For a husband to treat his wife in such a manner is outrageous, but for the man to be a parson as well, it is beyond the pale. I am certain the bishop will be displeased with the behavior of my cousin.”
The trio made their way outside, and quickly entered the Bennet carriage. Soon they were off in the direction that Charlotte had given, to shelter and support for the abused woman. And then, Mr Bennet would find his beloved daughter, making sure that she was safe.
~~ ** ~~
“Mrs Collins, good heavens, come in, come in.”
“Mrs Howard, please forgive me for coming here. I had another unfortunate accident, and required somewhere to refresh myself.”
“Unfortunate accident? You mean you had the misfortune to cross path with your husband’s temper. Of course you can stay here. I pray, this time, you will leave that horrible man and report his abuse to the bishop.” Mrs Howard was so concerned with Charlotte, she had forgotten the other person seeking refuge in her home. She looked at the man and young lady accompanying Mrs Collins. “And who might these people be?”
“These are my dear friends from Hertfordshire, Mr Bennet and his eldest daughter, Miss Jane Bennet. They have come to retrieve Miss Elizabeth.” Charlotte motioned towards her friends. “Mr Bennet, Jane, this is Mrs Howard. She is one of the kindest people I have had the pleasure to meet.”
A noise came from one of the other rooms, and a man began to enter the sitting room. His sudden awareness of who had arrived at Mrs Howard’s cottage startled him, and he forgot himself. “Mr Bennet, Miss Bennet, I am surprised to find you here.”
Both of the Bennets looked at the man, confused as to who he was. Mr Bennet took a step forward, his eyes searching for something familiar. Suddenly, realization struck. “Mr Darcy? Good God, what are you doing here, and appearing in such a manner?”
Darcy looked down at his clothing, as the truth of the situation returned to him. But he also knew he could trust Mr Bennet. After all, he was Elizabeth’s father. “Forgive me, Sir, but it has been a difficult day. Perhaps it would be best to take a seat, and I can enlighten you of what all has happened.”
Mr Bennet sat down in a nearby chair, with Darcy taking one which faced the elder gentleman. Mrs Howard had ushered Charlotte and Jane from the room, taking them to the kitchen.
“Very well, Mr Darcy, can you tell me what is happening here? And can you tell me where my daughter is to be found?”
“I wish I knew where Miss Elizabeth was. This morning, I was informed that she was missing, and it was believed some sort of harm may have happened to her. Her spencer was found on one of the paths of the park, with what appeared to be blood. Her bonnet had been found earlier, with one of the ribbons torn. And, in an attempt to make it appear that foul play had happened by my hand, one of my handkerchiefs, with my initials stitched in the corner, was found with Miss Elizabeth’s spencer. I swear to you, on my mother’s grave, I have not caused your daughter harm. In truth, I am deeply in love with Miss Elizabeth. Having to remain hidden has been extremely difficult.”
“And just why are you hidden away, dressed in such clothing, and made to look like someone other than yourself?”
“My aunt is attempting to force me to marry her daughter, and my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, is jealous of me, and wishes to marry our cousin, Anne, himself. They have accused me of seducing Miss Elizabeth, and that I plan to take your daughter as my mistress. Please know, there is no truth in any of this. It is my intention to ask your daughter for a courtship, with my wish that she will one day make me the happiest of men by becoming my wife.”
The words were shocking to the elder man. “But all of Meryton knows of your words of my Lizzy being tolerable, but not handsome enough for you to even dance with.”
Darcy looked down at his hands. “My words were said without thought, as I was wishing my friend to leave me in peace. I regretted saying them as soon as I noticed which of the young ladies Bingley was suggesting. There have been many nights that I have wished to turn back the clock and return to that moment. Rest assured, there would have been a different outcome that night.”
“And what do you think has happened to my daughter? Do you believe my daughter has been murdered?” Mr Bennet’s voice hitched with emotion.
“It is my belief that she is nearby, though injured. Someone has made her disappear, though I am not sure who is involved or where she could be.” Darcy elaborated on what his aunt and the colonel had done and said, and Mr Collins’ behavior with the discovery of the spencer and handkerchief. Mr Bennet was appalled at the cruel nature of those residing at Rosings Park.
“Then it is time I confront my cousin and your aunt. You should remain here. When I return, I will do so in a manner which will draw no attention to Mrs Howard.”
“If you require assistance, speak with Mr Grant. He has been very helpful to me.”