Chapter 17

            Darcy was pleased with the results of his discussion with Mr Bennet. The gentleman had thought to tease the younger man, but after all Darcy had done for their family, Thomas Bennet decided to be kind. Soon after they spoke, the family gathered to break their fast in the dower house.

            “Mr Darcy, it is a pleasure to have you with us so early in the morning.” Mrs Bennet stated, attempting to cover her smile with her napkin. “Will Mr Bingley be joining us soon?”

            “Unfortunately, Bingley has to contend with his sisters. They are supposedly visiting on their journey north to Scarborough. Though my friend is hopeful they will be gone by tomorrow, it would not surprise me if they were planning to remain until they can convince him to make the journey with them.”

            Jane looked down at her food, a worried look on her face. “Do Mr Bingley’s sisters dislike our community or just our family?”

            This question was shocking to her family. Jane Bennet had always been the peacekeeper, the member of the family who did everything to find good in others. She preferred to remain quiet when dealing with those who were disrespectful to her family.

            Darcy looked at the young lady, noting the scarlet tint to her cheeks. “Miss Bennet, it is not you or even you family. Miss Bingley has a desire to marry far above her status in society. She has been determined to become the next Mrs Darcy since she first heard of my friendship with her brother. Her attempts have included trying to compromise me, even though she has been told repeatedly that I will never marry her. If her brother is happy here, and I am visiting here, Miss Bingley will continue to force my friend to leave.”

            “Miss Bingley tried to compromise you?” Elizabeth could not imagine such a behavior. “Why would she wish to marry someone who did not care for her?”

            Maggie Bennet smiled. She knew her daughters wished to marry for love, and with their limited exposure to society, they were not aware of more mercenary people. “Lizzy, there are some who do not care for love. To them, marriage is a business. Wealth and status are what they consider to be important.”

            “I cannot imagine marrying someone only for wealth and status.” Elizabeth replied.

            “Which is one of the reasons you are so different from the women of the ton, Miss Elizabeth. I find you refreshing and true.” Darcy looked at the young lady who had captured his heart. How he wished to declare the courtship unnecessary and beg for Elizabeth to accept his hand.

            It was Elizabeth’s turn to blush. His compliments constantly amazed her, as his words were true.

            The sound of a carriage approaching caused everyone to glance about the room. Mr Bennet stood and made his way to the window, looking out to discover who could be coming.

            “Mr Bingley appears to have arrived.”

            Darcy was surprised, as his friend usually only used the carriage when the two men made their way to Longbourn together. Several moments later, Darcy was greeted with a most welcome sight.

            “Brother, Mr Bingley said we would find you here.” Georgiana stated as she hurried into her brother’s arms. “I know we should have waited, but he indulged me in my desire to come.”

            After releasing his hold on his sister, Darcy looked up to see his cousin standing beside Bingley. “Richard, you came. We were hoping you would join us at Netherfield.”

            Richard wore a grin. He could see a difference in his cousin’s demeanor and glancing to where Darcy had been sitting when they entered the room, it was not difficult for him to determine the reason for the change.  “I could not allow you and Bingley all the enjoyment. As soon as Georgiana heard I was coming, she begged to join me on the trip.”

            Darcy shook his cousin’s hand. “Please, allow me to introduce you to the Bennets of Longbourn. Mr and Mrs Bennet, Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth, Master Samuel, Master Phillip, this is my sister, Georgiana Darcy, and my cousin, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam. Georgiana, Richard, this is Mr Thomas Bennet, his wife Mrs Margaret Bennet, and their children in order, Miss Jane Bennet, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, Master Samuel Bennet, and Master Phillip Bennet. Their two younger children, Master Thomas and Miss Mary, are in the nursery.”

            “It is a pleasure to meet you all. Forgive us for intruding on your meal, but we could not wait to see Darcy.” Richard spoke after bows and curtsies were exchanged.

            “Have you had anything to eat?” Maggie inquired. “Our cook always prepares extra, especially with all the work we have happening at the manor house.”

            “We could not intrude. William, we will return to Netherfield.” Richard did not wish to take his cousin away from the young lady he now knew to be Miss Elizabeth, though he had to warn Darcy of their aunt’s intentions to cause problems.

            “As my wife said, there is plenty of food for you to join us. No offense to Mr Bingley, but Longbourn’s cook is the best in Hertfordshire. She prides herself in ensuring no one ever leaves our home on an empty stomach.” Mr Bennet motioned towards the empty chairs at the table.

            “To be honest, I hoped to remain here, as I do not wish to speak with my sisters. When Miss Darcy and the colonel arrived, I was grateful to have an excuse to be away from Netherfield.” Mr Bingley said.

            “Then, by all means, sit and enjoy some of the delicious food. If you would like, I am certain we could send word to Mrs Nichols and have her tell your sisters you have left for London.” Mr Bennet teased.

            Bingley began laughing. “If only it was that simple to dissuade my sisters.”

            Darcy thought for a moment. “Perhaps it could be. Mr Bennet, do you have any rooms we could use for a night or two? If you would not object, we could make it appear that we have left Netherfield. We could claim an emergency that has taken us to Pemberley. I can send an express to my housekeeper to inform her of our plot, in case Miss Bingley insists on making the journey there. Mrs Reynolds could misdirect them to believe we have had to travel to my estate in Scotland. Bingley, your sister does not know where my estate is in Scotland, does she?”

            “No, I cannot remember her ever mentioning it by name or where it is located.” Bingley’s grin was growing. He could imagine his sister chasing after them.

            Mr Bennet chuckled. “I believe the guest rooms at the manor house would suit the situation. There are enough rooms for the four of you. Your carriage could be hidden in the barn behind the stables. Are you certain you can achieve your plot before Mr Bingley’s relations arrive?”

            Bingley laughed openly. “My sisters rarely wake before ten each morning, then the travel here will keep them from arriving at Netherfield before two in the afternoon. Most likely, it will be later, as Caroline will wish to remain at Netherfield to convince me to leave with them. The later they arrive, the greater her ploy to stay overnight would work, at least in her mind. If she believes we are on our way to Darcy’s estate, Caroline will leave immediately, no matter how late it might be. What if we were to let it slip that Darcy is on his way to Scotland with a young lady traveling with him? It would make my sister believe Darcy is heading for Gretna Green with Miss Elizabeth.”

            Laughter broke out amongst those at the table. Darcy followed Mr Bennet to a study where there was a desk equipped with writing supplies. He wrote a letter to his Pemberley housekeeper, another to his valet to pack his belongings and bring them to Longbourn. Bingley planned to take the message to Netherfield and speak to his housekeeper. He was certain that she would enjoy misdirecting Caroline Bingley, as Caroline had been harsh to all the staff at the estate.

            Richard and Georgiana’s belongings were still on the carriage with their servants. They decided to remain at Longbourn with Darcy, and would join him in going to the manor house after the breakfast was finished.

            Upon Bingley’s return, his smile had only grown. “Mrs Nichols is all too pleased to be of assistance with our plan. She was speaking with the staff when I left. Darcy, your valet will be here shortly, as will mine. I believe we have a few hours before my sisters and Hurst arrive. Mrs Nichols dispatched a footman to take the express to Meryton to be posted.”

            “You are enjoying this plot more than I would have expected.” Darcy joked with his friend.

            “It is the first time I have ever been involved in such a deceitful ploy, and Caroline deserves to be lied to about our whereabouts. All my life, I have wished for her to have the misery she bestows on others repaid to her. Now, did I hear correctly? You are courting Miss Elizabeth?”

            Darcy’s grin matched Bingley’s. “I am indeed. Miss Elizabeth has given me the great honor of my being allowed to court her.”

            “How I wish I could court her sister.”

            Richard frowned. “Why can you not? Is her father not a gentleman, a landed member of society?”

            “Yes, but my sister will never accept Miss Bennet.”

            “Mr Bingley, if you do not mind my saying so, you should do what is best for you, not for your sister. From what I know of Miss Bingley, she will not be satisfied until she marries someone as wealthy as my brother, or someone of the peerage. You should choose someone who makes you happy.” Georgiana began to color from her shyness.

            Darcy was proud of his young sister. “My sister speaks the truth, Bingley. Besides, Miss Bennet is a gentlewoman. She is higher in rank in society than Miss Bingley.”

            The words his friend said made an impact on Bingley. “Perhaps I should speak with Miss Bennet.”

Chapter 18

            Mr William Collins was desperately attempting to discover a way to rid himself of his cousin’s children. The fire he started should have managed eliminating the entire family, including the mongrel sons who Collins felt unworthy to inherit the Bennet estate.

            Shooting one of the sons after the fire was extinguished was disappointing. Not having been taught to fire a pistol, Collins had difficulty handling the weapon. Lady Catherine de Bourgh had given him the pistol, as it had been her husband’s. He had been grateful for Lady Catherine’s assistance. Thinking that the grand lady cared for him as a mother would, Collins mistakenly believed her suggestions were righteous.  The great Lady Catherine would never suggest something that was not proper.

            When he returned to Hertfordshire, it did not take long before he realized that his cousin had hired more men to protect his family. The curate made his way around the perimeter of the estate, keeping to the shadows. How was he to accomplish his task? Perhaps he could take one of the elder daughters, one who was born from Thomas Bennet’s first and only true marriage. If Collins could compromise one of them, he would be able to marry one. Then, he believed, he would be able to take control of the estate when Bennet met with an unexpected death. Nothing else mattered, Collins believed he was correct. After all, his father and Lady Catherine had agreed with his view of the situation.

            Watching the estate for nearly a sen’night, the deranged man noticed that the dark haired daughter walked out most every morning, heading in the same direction each day. Learning that she met with a gentleman disgusted Collins, as he thought the daughter was having inappropriate relations with the man.

            One day, after the pair was coming down from Oakham Mount, their conversation was overheard.

            “Mr Darcy, my father has invited you and Mr Bingley to dine with us this evening.”

            “It would be my honor to accept for both of us. If we keep dining at Longbourn, my valet will have to let out my clothes. Your family has one of the best cooks in England.”

            “She will be pleased to hear your compliments. Mamma has informed me that when I marry, the first thing to ensure true happiness is to be certain to have a fabulous cook. If your cook is displeased, everyone in the home will suffer.”

            “I cannot agree more. When our cook at Darcy House retired, we had to search for a new one. Father had several that he gave a trial to determine which was the best. It was a fortnight I will never forget and do not wish to repeat. As my father taught me, always take care of those who serve you. Without them, you will be in a ghastly situation. Can you imagine my cooking talents? Boiling water for tea is difficult for me.”

            “Tell me of your home. Is it as grand as most of the homes I have seen in London?”

            “Though Darcy House, and Pemberley, are grand, my family preferred comfort over glitz. My aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, has the worst taste when it comes to decorating her home. The furniture is painful to use. The attempt to show everyone that she is wealthy comes at a high price. She has very few visitors, including our family, as her home is unlivable.”

            Mr Collins was appalled with the words spoken against his patroness. How could anyone make such claims, especially being Lady Catherine’s own nephew? Besides, Mr Darcy was to marry Miss Anne de Bourgh. How dare he make such statements against his future mother in law? It took all he had to keep from stepping out of the shadows and speaking his mind to the ungrateful man.

            Now, knowing that this female was using her wiles to corrupt the future son in law of Lady Catherine, Collins was determined to destroy the entire family. He deemed them to be evil and thought himself doing God’s work in saving his patroness’ favorite nephew.

            In the days that past, Collins had written to Lady Catherine and was waiting for her response before he determined his actions.

            It had been several days before a letter arrived from the grand lady of Rosings.

Mr Collins,

            My nephew has been charmed by a fortune hunting trollop and must be rescued from her before it is too late.

            I will be sending you the funds to hire men to abduct my nephew and bring him to Rosings immediately. Do whatever you wish with the heathens who are residing at the estate of which you are the rightful heir. I will see that you are protected for ridding this world of such demons.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh

            Collins opened the purse containing coins that her ladyship had sent. A wicked smile crept on to his lips. He would begin hiring men to carry out Lady Catherine’s orders. There would be need of men who would remove Mr Darcy from the area, while the others would be used to rid the world of the plague that was the Bennet family.

            While he was speaking with men to recruit them, Collins spread the falsehood of being robbed of his inheritance by those he thought no better than animals. How could such abominations be allowed to own property, property that should belong to God fearing Christians such as himself? He was not surprised to find many men in agreement with his view.

            Finding people who shared his opinion on the matter was simple enough, as few people could tolerate Thomas Bennet’s decision to marry a woman of mixed race. Some of the intolerance was from the ladies of the county who had wished to marry the gentleman after his beloved Fanny had died. When they learned of his decision to marry a woman whose mother had been a slave, rather than choosing from the many daughters and sisters of the area, there were many unmarried women who were furious. Even years later, after becoming married themselves, these women held their resentment of Maggie Bennet close.

            Most in the county had never met Maggie or the children she had bestowed on her husband. When Thomas brought his new wife to his home, he took her to Meryton to introduce her to the shopkeepers. Only the general store owner had been kind and welcomed the new Mrs Bennet. No other shopkeeper would accept her in their shops, nor would they tolerate anyone making purchases for Maggie.

            This led to Mr Collins being able to spread his lies through the county, garnering sympathy from most in the area.

                                                            ~~ ** ~~

            Caroline Bingley was furious. “Where is my brother? Why is he not here to greet us?”

            Mrs Nichols kept the smile that was desperate to steal away on the housekeeper’s face.  “Forgive me, Miss Bingley, but he must have been lost in all the activity that has happened of late. It was all very last moment, as the men left early yesterday morning. They wished for an early start, as they had to stop at Longbourn to collect the young lady.”

            Her eyes were bulging as Caroline exploded in fury. “Stop at Longbourn to collect a young lady? What young lady? Where did they go? Surely they did not take one of those Bennet chits with them anywhere.”

            Pretending to have slipped up, Mrs Nichols kept up her pretense. “Oh, forgive me. I was not supposed to tell anyone. Please forget I said anything. I do not wish Mr Darcy to be angry with me.”

            Caroline’s face and red hair clashed horribly. “Mr Darcy?  Mr Darcy left with a young lady? Where were they going?”

            “I really should not say, as it is not my place to expose the gentleman’s activities. Please forget I said anything.” Mrs Nichols lifted her hand to her face, is feign attempt cover her mouth.

            “I must know if Mr Darcy is in trouble. As he is my brother’s dearest friend, I insist on doing everything I can to aid him.” Caroline tried desperately to contain her fury. “Please, Mrs Nichols, you must tell me what is happening.”

            “The men told me they were planning to leave for the north. Their sudden decision concerned me, especially after overhearing Mr Darcy speaking of a compromise and being forced to marry. I cannot imagine anyone who would be so wicked as to compromise a gentleman. When your brother came to me, announcing that he and Mr Darcy would be leaving for the north, I was surprised.”

            “Where in the north? Were they going to Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s estate in Derbyshire?” demanded the furious Caroline Bingley.

            “No…I do not believe that was the name. If memory serves, it was further north, as Mr Darcy stated he would need to send word as he had not been to the estate in many years. The name of the estate was an odd one. I believe it was Scottish. It would not surprise me to know they are on their way to Gretna Green.”

            An attack of apoplexy would have been a blessing to Caroline Bingley at that moment. “Put my trunks back on the carriage. We must be off immediately.”

            “Caroline, what is happening? Why are you so upset?” Louisa Hurst asked as she hurried towards her sister. “Where is Charles?”

            “They are on their way to Scotland with that harlot Bennet female. Charles is going with Mr Darcy. We must stop them. There is not a moment to lose.”

            Once the carriage was off, leaving a trail of dust flying behind them, Mrs Nichols finally allowed herself to laugh. When the butler came to her side, he began laughing as well.

            “How did you keep composed while speaking to that harpy?”

            “Oh, it was not easy. I had to pinch myself numerous times, and I am certain I will find a bruise when I change my gown later.”

            “Do you believe Miss Bingley will allow them to stop anywhere between here and the Scottish border?”

            Mrs Nichols laughed harder. “If it would get her there faster, I believe Miss Bingley would be riding side saddled on the lead horse, whipping him every mile along the way.”

            A footman and two maids had come to see what was happening. “We covered the furniture as you suggested. Should we move to the next room?” Susan asked.

            “No, there is no more need. Miss Bingley is long gone from here. The master and his friends will be returning tomorrow, I am certain.” Mrs Nichols was chuckling. “I will send a message to Mr Bingley.”

            “How I wish I could see the look on Miss Bingley’s face when she discovers the truth.” The butler said.

            “I would love to witness that as well.”

            Mrs Nichols was still chuckling as she returned to her office. Taking out a piece of parchment, she wrote:

Mr Bingley,

         Your sisters were here and are now on their way towards Scotland. I informed her as you had directed. Though they only left moments ago, I am certain their journey will be made in record keeping time.

Mrs Nichols