From above, the voice of Elizabeth could be heard as she called out to her family to wake. Mr Bennet had been in the process of dressing for the day when he heard his daughter’s frantic cries.
“Lizzy, what has happened?”
“Papa, fire in the parlor.” Elizabeth was nearly out of breath.
The gentleman hurried past his daughter and down the stairs. Not long after, Samuel had come into the hall from his rooms, as did Maggie and Phillip. Learning what was happening, Samuel told his younger brother to go to the nursery and take the younger two Bennets and their nanny outside. Jane came from her room last, then went to the kitchen to ensure the safety of their staff.
When the ladies and Samuel arrived downstairs, the fire was out. Darcy and Mr Bennet were inspecting the damage.
“Mr Darcy, I am so grateful for your assistance. If not for your quick thinking, the fire could have spread and endangered my family and our servants.” Elizabeth had tears in her eyes as she spoke.
“This is not the way I wished to meet your family, though I am glad I was able to be of service.” Darcy had pulled down the handkerchief he had tied around his face. The once clean cloth was now covered in soot.
“Mr Darcy, this is my father and mother, and my brother, Samuel. Papa, Mamma, Sam, this is Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley in Derbyshire.”
Mr Bennet offered his hand to the gentleman. “Many thanks to you. Though I am not certain why you are here, I am grateful for any assistance you rendered my family.”
“I am currently a guest of Mr Bingley at Netherfield Park. I met your daughter when I climbed Oakham Mount. She spied the fire from there, and I gave her a ride on my horse to arrive quicker. Miss Elizabeth’s only thought was to get to all of you, to see you safe. Had she run all the way, I believe she would have suffered a fall. Forgive me for insisting she ride with me, it was necessary to arrive as soon as possible.”
“I have no reason to think otherwise, sir. From the damage I can see, even another ten minutes would have had deadly consequences. This fire was not an accident. There was no fire in the fireplace, no candles lit in here. The servants were at the back of the house, and the family was upstairs.” Bennet looked at the other gentleman, both knew that the fire had not been an accident.
Maggie noticed the look between the men and decided to check on her younger children, who were outside. Suddenly, there was the sound of a rifle being shot. Fear grew inside the mistress of Longbourn. “Tom and Mary are outside with Phillip.”
Elizabeth could not say how she made her way outside. One moment she was in the hall outside the parlor, the next she was near the stables, with the rest of her family. She could hear her mother cry out as she stumbled to her knees beside her youngest three children.
Phillip had seen something moving in the bushes and had moved quickly to push his siblings to the ground. In the process, the bullet struck the middle Bennet son in the left arm, spinning the young man as he fell.
“Mamma, I am fine. Just my arm, I will survive.” Phillip attempted to soothe his mother.
“We must tend your wound and have Mrs Hill bring her bag of remedies.” Maggie replied. Looking to her husband, she asked him if it was safe to return inside the manor house.
“Perhaps we should have you take the children to the dower house. I will have men go with you to protect you. Obviously, someone has tried to harm our family.”
“Sir, if you would allow, my friend would most assuredly wish to offer for you to come to Netherfield while we sort out what has happened this morning.”
Bennet shook his head. “We have not been introduced to Mr Bingley, it would be rude to intrude on his home in such a manner.”
“Do not fear, Mr Bennet. I am aware of your family’s difficulties with the neighbors. Bingley is one of the most amiable young men I know. He would not hesitate to accept you visiting, especially seeing the reason.”
“I would feel better if my family was here, on my land.” Bennet replied, glancing to his wife. “Maggie, take the Hills and Cook with you to the dower house. It will be close enough and large enough for everyone. We should plan to remain there until the repairs are made to the manor house. Lizzy, will you assist your mother? Jane, you as well.”
“Should we send for the physician?” Darcy inquired, looking at Phillip as he spoke.
“There is none in the area, only an apothecary. He will not come to Longbourn.” Mr Bennet’s disgust was clear. “Mrs Hill has more knowledge of medicines and treatments than Mr Jones, so we rely heavily on her as not only our housekeeper, but our medical expert.”
“If you wish, I could send to London for my family’s physician.” The offer was generous.
“Thank you, Mr Darcy, but I will wait for Mrs Hill’s opinion before making a decision. Hopefully, the injury is minor and will not require a physician.”
Darcy nodded his head. “The offer stands, if Mrs Hill feels we should send for the physician.”
“I appreciate all you have done for our family so far, as well as your generous offer.” Mr Bennet stated, as he moved towards his family. The family’s carriage was prepared and brought around for the Bennets to enter.
“Mr Bennet, if you are agreeable, I am willing to assist in checking the parlor to see how much damage there is to the structure. Unfortunately, I have had to contend with fires on my estate.” Darcy offered.
The master of Longbourn thought for a moment before answering. “I would be grateful for your assistance. It would allow me the time to take my family to the dower house and get them settled before inspecting the damage.”
Darcy requested a stable boy being sent to Netherfield to inform Bingley where he was, so his friend would not worry over his absence. If Darcy was correct, Bingley would likely join him after seeing his sisters and brother in law off.
As she prepared to enter the carriage, Elizabeth turned her head towards Darcy. “Thank you for all you have done for my family, Mr Darcy. We would have had a much different outcome if not for you.”
“I am grateful to have been able to come to your aid. If your brother requires a physician, I will send to London immediately. Please keep me informed.”
Nodding her head and fighting back the tears that were threatening to fall, Elizabeth entered the carriage and the family was off to the dower house. The house was not far from the manor house, within walking distance, but with Phillip’s arm injured, it was simpler to take everyone by carriage. Mrs Hill had joined the family, leaving Mr Bennet and Samuel to walk the short distance.
“Papa, perhaps I should remain with Mr Darcy.”
“Sam, I would prefer you be at the dower house. When I return to the manor house, it would be best if you were there to watch over our family. Someone is attempting to harm our family, and I need you to take care of your mother and siblings.”
“You do not think these were accidents? A hunter whose shot went astray? The fire being from an ember we thought to be extinguished?”
“No, I do not. Someone caused the fire and shot your brother. If not for Phillip, the bullet could have struck Tom or Mary. We do not have the best relations with the neighbors, but I would have a difficult time believing them so cruel towards our family.”
“Then who? What possible reason is there for someone to harm us? We keep to ourselves, leaving our neighbors be, even sending servants to do our shopping for us. Why would anyone wish to harm us?”
“As I said, I have a difficult time believing our neighbors to be involved. It is my belief that someone from outside our community to be involved in the attacks against us. The fire was done at a time when most of our family were asleep or upstairs preparing for the day. If not for Lizzy and Mr Darcy, it would have been a dangerous situation to evacuate all of us to safety. Where the gentleman was with your sister at the time, I do not suspect him of being the culprit. Whoever was involved, they waited outside and prepared to kill anyone who came out of the house.”
Samuel had never understood such hatred that would lead someone to harm others in such a way. “Who would do such a thing?”
“I have a suspicion, but I will need to learn more information before I can accuse the person.”
“Please, Papa, tell me who you suspect.”
Mr Bennet kept his eyes trained towards the dower house. “When you were born, you broke the entail on the estate. The person who would have inherited if I had no sons was my distant cousin, Alfred Collins. He and his son were displeased when I remarried, and they believed it was wrong that I married your mother.”
“Because of Mamma’s skin color?”
“Yes. Alfred claimed that anyone who was not white could not inherit an estate in England. He tried to have a solicitor file saying that you and your brothers were not legitimate heirs and had no rights to Longbourn. The court ruled against Collins and his son. As I was married to your mother and you are my son by blood, you were legally my heir. Same with your brothers and Mary. Your mother’s skin color does not matter in the fact that you are my children, the same as Jane and Lizzy, and you all have rights to inherit from me. I heard a few years ago that Alfred had died, but I am not certain what became of his son.”
“Why do people hate what they do not know? I have lived with disapproval all my life, but to have someone who does not even know us wish we were dead is difficult. None of us have ever harmed another, even those who have tormented us for our skin color, so it hurts to know others who would cause us pain.”
“Know that you are my son, my heir, and one of the finest young men I have ever known. It is a privilege to be your father. Not everyone is taught to see people for who they are inside, their heart and soul. Anything that is different from the norm is not accepted. If more people were openminded, the world would be a much different place to live.”
“I am grateful that Mr Darcy does not seem to hold with the views of most people. He did not seem to care about our family’s skin color. All he wished to do was assist us.” Samuel looked at his father to judge his reaction.
“If he is truly accepting, I look forward to knowing the gentleman better. In just the short time I have known him, Mr Darcy appears to be a good man to have around.” Mr Bennet did not voice his feelings about how the gentleman watched his beloved daughter. He had a notion that he was witnessing the start of a relationship.
Mr Bennet returned to his home to find Darcy testing the strength of the walls that had been damaged.
“What think you of the stability?” he inquired.
“I believe that they are not as damaged as they first appear. The main damage was here, near the center of the room. No where near the fireplace and there are no candles in the burned area. You are suspecting that someone set this blaze, are you not?”
“Yes, especially after the shooting. It was not an accident. Whoever started the fire must be responsible for the shooting as well.”
“Have you any suspects in mind?”
“Yes, I do. We can discuss that later. Why do we not make our way to my study.”
Once the men were in the study, Mr Bennet stepped to the sideboard to pour two glasses of brandy. “I know it is early in the day, but we could both use a drink after all that has happened today.” Darcy nodded his head and accepted the drink. After a few moments, Mr Bennet began to speak again. “Mrs Hill has tended my son’s wound. It was more a graze, most likely because he was moving to protect his brother and sister.”
“That is a blessing. I have shown your butler the area of most concern in the room. In my opinion, there was something poured on the outer wall and the center of the floor. If I am not mistaken, there is the remnants of a fire syringe here in the hottest area of the blaze.”
“We have several fire syringes. My first wife’s brother is an importer in London. He acquired them a few years ago and I found them more efficient than flint.”
“Who is your brother in law? I purchased some in London a few years ago.” Darcy was curious.
“Edward Gardiner. He owns Gardiner’s Imports near near his home on Gracechurch Street.”
“This is truly a small world, as I have done business with Mr Gardiner. His wife is from Lambton, which is near my estate in Derbyshire. The Gardiners are remarkable people whom I consider to be my friends.”
The news was truly shocking to Mr Bennet. He would have assumed the gentleman before him would not consider lowering himself to associate with someone of trade. “Mr Darcy, as I do not know much about you, other than you aided in saving the lives of my family and servants, I find I have many questions for you.”
“You are welcome to ask anything you wish of me, Mr Bennet.” Darcy smiled. “Though I know more about you than would be usual in such a short span of time, I would like to know you and your family better. As a matter of fact, I had spoken with your daughter, Miss Elizabeth, just this morning to see if you would accept myself calling at your house today. I had just reached my horse at the bottom of Oakham Mount when Miss Elizabeth came running down the hill. Seeing the panic in her expression, I offered to bring her here on my horse.”
“My Lizzy on a horse, you have performed a miracle, Mr Darcy. Lizzy hates to ride on horses, as she was thrown from one when she was a young girl. Her arm was broken and she had to remain in bed for a week, so my girl was determined to never climb on a horse again.” Mr Bennet eyed the younger man.
“Many would consider Miss Elizabeth to have been compromised by her being with me, unchaperoned, riding on the horse where I had to hold her body to me to keep her from falling off. As her father, if you believe she was compromised, I am willing to do my duty to Miss Elizabeth.” Darcy knew in his heart that there was something about the young lady that drew him to her. He was certain that being married to her would not be a hardship.
“Mr Darcy, I do not know you well, but if any talk about my daughter being compromised comes out, I will discuss the matter with you. At this moment, I am not prepared to give up my daughter because you came to our aid. You have proven your worth in how you have behaved today. For that, I am truly in your debt.”
A part of Darcy’s heart was disappointed. Hearing Mr Bennet decline the offer made the younger man sad in a way he had not expected.
“Know that I will honor what I said about marrying Miss Elizabeth.”
Bennet nodded his head. “Mr Darcy, did you see anything when you and Lizzy came to the house this morning? Did you see anyone before you arrived at the manor house?”
“To be honest, I was concerned with your daughter’s safety as we hurried. Not being familiar with the area, I was relying on her guidance to arrive in time to be of assistance to your family.”
“I am certain that, if it is my cousin’s son, he is still in the area. He will not give up so easily in achieving his goal.” Mr Bennet took a sip from his glass. “When you are not saving damsels in distress, what do you do with your time, Mr Darcy?”
Taking a moment to gather his thoughts, Darcy was perplexed. He had never in his nine and twenty years found himself so involved with someone so unrelated from him.
“Mr Bennet, I devote most of my time at my estate. I inherited my family’s lands of Pemberley, in Derbyshire. It is one of the largest estates in Derbyshire, if not in England. I also inherited three other estates and a townhouse in London. My father left responsibility of my much younger sister in my guardianship, along with my cousin, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam. Unfortunately, my cousin in away, fighting on the continent, as part of the dragoons battling Bonaparte. This leaves me as sole guardian for Georgiana.”
“How great an age difference between the two of you?”
“Georgiana is twelve years my junior. Having never married, and being a gentleman, I have had a difficult time caring for my sister, as I am not certain what she requires. My ability to know the latest fashions or the ton’s latest gossip is not on high on my priority list. Though I feel terrible that I have neglected my sister in this aspect, I have made every attempt to see to her needs. Currently, she is visiting with our aunt and uncle in town. Lord and Lady Matlock.”
“Matlock? Lord Henry Fitzwilliam is your relation?” Bennet was surprised.
“Yes, he was my mother’s elder brother.” Darcy was confused. “Do you know my uncle?”
“When I was at Cambridge, I met Henry Fitzwilliam. He spent a good deal of his time with another young man, though I can only remember the other man’s given name. Gerald, if memory serves me correctly.”
“Gerald Darcy? That was my father.”
“Tall young man, dark hair. Though born to a wealthy family, the gentleman always treated those of us beneath him in rank with compassion. Your father never acted as if he was better than the rest of us, as many of the upper circle believed. Your uncle tended to be less compassionate than your father. Henry Fitzwilliam was known for his believing in class above all else.”
“My uncle has his moments, though he has changed over the years. Between my father’s influence and his friendship with Lord William Murray. I thank you for your words with regards to my father. Losing him was one of the most difficult things to happen in my life. Though I loved my mother, I was two and ten years old when she died, so my memories of Mother are different.”
“You have my sympathies at the loss of your parents. When did your father pass?”
“Five years past. He had a riding accident.”
“What do you like to do to pass your time at your estate?”
“Besides riding on my estate, I enjoy spending time in Pemberley’s library. My housekeeper swears that if I have my bed chambers moved into the library, I will be lost to the world forever.”
“A man after my own heart. As you can see, I have a passion for the written word.” Bennet motioned his hands around the room at the shelves of books.
“Mr Bennet, you would be shocked by the size of the library at Pemberley, as it is one of the largest private libraries in England.”
“Then I am at a wonder that you are able to do anything on your estate. Do your servants bring your meals to the library or do they leave a trail of breadcrumbs to entice you to leave for food?”
Darcy chuckled. “They tried to leave breadcrumbs, but that only encouraged the mice. So, they had to accept bringing the meals to me in the library. My housekeeper does not appreciate cats in the house, but she hates rodents more.”
“If you do not mind my asking, how did you become so openminded about accepting people, no matter their skin color?”
“My father’s younger brother was a captain of the ship Merriweather. You may have heard of it when the ship came under attack by pirates. Mr Cooper was a deck hand on the ship. When the invaders boarded the schooner, Mr Cooper moved quickly to protect my uncle. As he had saved my uncle’s life, it was decided that Cooper, his wife and children came to England to live. My father felt they deserved a home and living for what Mr Cooper did for his brother, so they have one of the tenant homes and land to farm at Pemberley. The Coopers have lived there since I was a small child. One year, when I was near three and ten, there was a flood which caused much damage to all the fields and most of the buildings on the estate. Mr Cooper and his three sons worked day and night to help everyone, while his wife and daughter helped at the manor house, serving food and drink to all at Pemberley. It is rare, but they are accepted as part of Pemberley.”
“How I wish my family were accepted. It breaks my heart to know that my children will never have the lives they should, being gently born. You should be proud of yourself for your treatment of others.” Darcy felt his cheeks warming. “There is nothing of which to be proud. It is doing what is right, not allowing others to prejudice me into treating people wrongly.”