Chapter 25

            “You would harm children? What sort of man are you to threaten the lives of children? Two of them are still in the nursery. Yet you will murder them simply because of the color of their skin? Do you realize how evil you sound, all the while you claim that I am evil?” Mr Bennet turned to the other men. “My wife’s father was a British citizen, the second son of a country squire. Her mother was a freed slave stolen from her family in Africa and forced to work the plantations in the islands. Maggie, my wife, came to England with my aunt, whose husband was the brother of Maggie’s father. We fell in love over poetry, music, discussing many topics. She helped me raise my two eldest daughters, as their mother died after giving birth to my second eldest. Without Maggie, my world would have been an empty shell. My dear wife gave me four more blessings, three sons and another daughter.”

            “They are not worthy to be proper English gentlemen.” Lady Catherine decided to put her opinion into the conversation. “Rather than accepting the heir who is appropriate for the position, you would thrust your bastard children on society and expect us to accept them.”

            “Just who are you and what does this matter have to do with you?” Mr Bennet glared at the woman.

            “I am Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Louis de Bourgh, daughter of the third earl of Matlock, sister to the current earl of Matlock. You will sign the documents that we have brought with us, relinquishing all rights to this estate, making Mr Collins the new master of Longbourn. Once you have signed the documents, we will allow you an hour to pack your personal belongings. Nothing that belongs to the estate, mind you, only your personal items.”

            “What makes you believe you have the right to come here, demand I take my family and leave, giving up my birthright, all because a man complains that it is unfair? Why should I give up everything to accommodate this fool? You have no right to make such demands, you are not royalty.”

            “I am the daughter of a peer. My brother is the current earl of Matlock. Our family has had a long standing in the House of Lords. When I inform him of how you have treated me, he will see that you are stripped of your estate. You would be wise to do as I tell you or you will likely be transported for attempting to steal the estate from a true citizen of England. You have no right to deny Mr Collins’ inheritance of the estate. Just you wait until my brother has looked into the matter and proves that you are illegally holding control over the estate. Mr Collins is the rightful owner. If you take your offspring and leave, we will not pursue charges against you.”

            “You have been told false information. My cousin is the grandson of my grandfather’s sister. My grandfather was the master of Longbourn. He had a son, my father, who inherited. Then I was born and became the heir. My sons are my heirs.”

            “Those half breeds are not able to inherit, as they are slaves. Slaves cannot own property.” Collins shouted at his cousin.

            “They are not slaves, nor are they half breeds. My sons are three quarters British citizens, and a quarter freed slave. They were all born in England, at our home. There is nothing preventing them from inheriting. Their mother’s mother was a slave who was freed by my wife’s father. They married and had two children who are legitimate carrying the name O’Brien.”

            “Lies. Everything you have said are lies. They are mongrels, slaves with no rights. Take them and leave or pay the price.” Collins raised his hand, cocking the pistol he held.

            “I am not lying. You know the truth. Your father and his father were envious of my family inheriting. I can remember my grandfather telling me of the bitter arguments that your family held against us. If my sons had never been born, then you would have been my heir. But I will not disown my sons for you to have Longbourn.” Mr Bennet stated.

            “If they are dead, you have no say in my inheriting. It is my estate, as my father and grandfather told me. Grandfather claimed that you were not born a Bennet, that you were a foundling that your father took in so he could make you the heir. My father should have been the master of Longbourn.”

            “Have you ever seen the painting of my father and mother? There is a portrait of them with me as a babe. Those who knew my father have all said that I resemble him closely. Shall I send for Sir William Lucas? His father and mine were close friends, as are Sir William and me. Or I can send to Meryton for Mr Phillips, who is our solicitor. He knew my parents.”

            “NO! You are attempting to confuse me. Stop trying to muddle my thoughts.”

            “Mr Collins, lower your gun.” A male voice well known to Lady Catherine came from behind the lady and her curate.

            Turning around, Lady Catherine’s mouth opened and closed multiple times. “What are you doing here? The men were to take you to Rosings. How did you escape from them? They sent word that they had you in the carriage.”

            “I have been here all day. Georgiana is with the Bennet ladies, We learned about Collins hiring men to attack the Bennet family. Needless to say, I would never have thought you were supporting the man. Are you saying that men went to Netherfield to abduct me?”

            “How did you know of our plans?” Lady Catherine glared at her nephew.

            “Mr Collins was not subtle when he was recruiting men. One of the men he spoke with is a groom for the Bennets. The young man realized what was happening and he listened carefully to all Collins was saying. Then the groom returned to Longbourn and informed us of Collins’ plan. We had the groom meet with Collins again, claiming to be willing to join the men who had been hired. How did Collins come to know you?”

            “Collins is the curate at Hunsford. He came to me, speaking of how he had been cheated out of his estate. These people have used voodoo to sway the minds of others. Clearly you have been under their spell, as it has made you forget what you owe to your family. Anne has been waiting for you to set the date for your wedding. We will take you to Rosing, as the men were supposed to do.”

            “There is no curse or spell on me, and I will not be going with you to Rosings. Anne knows that I have no intentions to marry her. All our family know the truth. My mother never agreed with your ideas to arrange a marriage. Mother wished for her children to have the same as she had, a love match. Father told me before he died that there was no agreement for me to wed Anne. I do not love your daughter.”

            “The curse these Bennets have placed on you has made you addled. We will hire the best physician available to tend you. While you are being treated, I will oversee Pemberley and protect the family’s interest.” Lady Catherine’s voice was filled with false concern.

            “I cannot marry Anne, as I am engaged to Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”

            Collins turned to look at the tall gentleman. “I will not allow you to be taken in by such a harlot. If you had stayed away from her, she would have been mine. Then I could have had Longbourn. It is all your fault that we had to come to this.”

            Turning his pistol so that it pointed towards Darcy, Collins prepared to fire. As the weapon discharged its bullet, Lady Catherine screamed. She moved faster than anyone would have thought possible, placing herself in front of her nephew just in time to protect him from the bullet striking him.

            As the slug impacted Lady Catherine’s body, the woman was thrown forward, into Darcy’s arms, before slumping to the ground.

            Mr Collins’ eyes grew round as saucers. What had he done? His patroness was on the ground, blood blossoming on her back near where the bullet had struck. Pulling a knife from his boot, the deranged man leapt forward, his eyes wildly focused at the man he blamed for Lady Catherine’s injury.

            It all happened quickly. A shot rang out which struck Collins in the chest. He collapsed beside Lady Catherine, as he reached out to touch her hand.

            “Lady Catherine, forgive me. Forgive me for shooting you. I was aiming for the whelp who was defying you.” The man sobbed.

            There would be no response to his words. Though her eyes were open, there was no life left to see Collins dying beside her. Soon, Collins joined his patroness in the hereafter.

            Seeing their employers die before them, the other men placed their weapons on the ground and complied with the orders they were given. Darcy, Bingley, Bennet, and at least twenty others came forward to encircle those men who had been hired to attack the Bennet family. They had sent a message to Sir William, as he was the magistrate.

            As they were dealing with the hired men, a carriage came to halt in front of the manor house of Longbourn. The carriage door opened, and Colonel Fitzwilliam stepped down, followed by Lord and Lady Matlock.

            Richard made his way over to where his cousin stood. “William, what happened here?”

            “I wish you had arrived an hour ago, as you and your father might have been able to speak with Lady Catherine and prevented this from happening.” Darcy looked at the ground near the base of a tree, where two bodies had been placed. Richard followed his cousin’s gaze.

            “What is Aunt Catherine doing here?”

            “She was the one financing Collins. He was the curate at Hunsford. Once she knew I was here, she determined I was under a curse to keep me from marrying Anne. They had men enter Netherfield to kidnap Georgiana and me. Fortunately, we were here, with Georgiana safe in the dower house with Elizabeth and her family.”

            “Where are the men they hired?” Richard asked.

            “Some are over there, in the stables, secured with ropes. Fortunately, the fire they set was quickly dowsed by one of Longbourn’s men. Sir William Lucas was seeing to them, before he went to Meryton to recruit assistance. The others are being brought here after they abducted my valet. Perkins was brought here after he rescued. He informed me that he had reached for a box on a high shelf fall, sending down a pile of dust. He had just washed his face and hair, then changed his clothing, when the men entered the bedchamber. As his face was hidden by the towel he was using to dry his hair, and the men did not know how I looked, they thought Perkins was me. He will give his statement to Sir William, upon his return from Meryton.”

            Lord Matlock had seen the body of his elder sister on the ground and knelt down beside it. “Catherine, why did you come here? What did you do to bring you to such an end? Could you not see you were being foolish? How could you expect our nephew to do your bidding? William never would have listened to you. He informed you he would not marry Anne. I have told you the same, so has Anne. You were the only one who could not accept William’s decision.”

            Richard and Darcy stepped close behind the earl, the son placing his hand on the father’s shoulder.

            “Uncle, part of me is furious with Lady Catherine for her actions which led to events here today. The other part of me is in shock as she saved my life when Collins tried to shoot me. Lady Catherine moved between the bullet and myself, protecting me.”

            “Who killed her?”

            “Collins was attempting to kill me, and Lady Catherine could not allow him. When Collins pulled a knife and came at me, Mr Bennet shot him.” Darcy replied to his uncle’s question.

            “We were planning to speak with a physician next week, to determine what we should do with Catherine. As much as I hate seeing this happen, I am grateful it is over.”

Chapter 26

            The remainder of the day was a blur in activity. Sir William arrived, bringing with him many of their neighbors who had been cruel to the Bennet family over the years. Never had anyone seen the normally jovial man be so angry.

            “As the magistrate, I must decide what to do with these men. These are men who live in our county, who allowed hatred to rule their actions. They were willing to murder the Bennets; father, mother, and six children, two of which are still in the nursery. Murder! Why, you might ask. Because the mother and several of the children are mixed blood. Their skin color is darker, though not by much. That is the only reason. A stranger came into our community and convinced these men that the Bennet children had no right to inherit their father’s estate. The stranger is now dead, after he killed his patroness. He was also responsible for the fire that was set in the Bennet home and shot one of the sons. Why would you hate someone so much, for something so inconsequential?”

            Sir William walked over to the men, who were shackled and sitting on the ground. “You were willing to murder a family, including children, for a few coins. Destroy them, eliminate them, for being different than you. The Bennet family has never hidden their difference, they embrace the loving family they have enjoyed for all these years. Do you care about your own family? How would you feel if your neighbors planned to murder you because you were different? I have tolerated enough, and today, it stops.”

            Looking at his son, who was standing near Mr Bennet. “Do you see anything different about my son? No one has ever said anything about his dark hair or how he darkens quickly when out in the sun. All my children do. It is because my mother was the daughter of a slave and a plantation owner in the Americas. My mother had extremely light skin color, thereby passed as a white person. That is why I have stood beside Mr Bennet all these years. My parents loved one another, even with my father knowing since before the wedding of Mother’s family. He did not care. As he had been traveling when he met my mother, they married before returning to Meryton. No one here knew of her past or her family. They accepted her for how she appeared. All my children know of their family history. Now I have finished with hiding my heritage. If you cannot accept me and my family, it is your problem. If you are too petty to accept the truth, that you allowed me and my family to participate in the community, simply because you believed me to like you.”

            Sir William walked over to Elizabeth. “You have shouldered a weight that was highly unmerited. Ever since I have known you, you have fought against how your family has been treated. I cannot tell you how proud I am to be your godfather. Your birth mother is smiling down on you, dear girl, and your Mamma is coming towards us. You are so special, God gave you two mothers to assist you along the way.”

            Elizabeth wiped tears from her cheeks. “Sir William, I am grateful for you and your family accepting us with no questions.”

            “Unlike this group of fools. Now, what should we do with them? We cannot just release them without consequence for their actions.” Sir William looked to his dearest friend. “Mr Bennet, what would you wish done to these men?”

            The master of Longbourn looked at his family. His sons were growing up so quickly and would soon start taking on more duties on the estate. Especially Samuel, as he would need to know everything about the land of his ancestors. The next day would see the first of his children marry and beginning a new life. It would not be long before they were all grown and married. Then there would be grandchildren. Mr Bennet shook his head to remove thoughts of grandchildren. Seeing Lizzy married would be difficult enough, but the thought of her being old enough to carry her own child inside her was too much to handle.

            “Sam, Phillip, Lizzy, Jane. This decision should be one made by our family. Maggie, join us as well. We have all been treated poorly by many who live in Hertfordshire. You, my dearest, and you children have endured more than I have, though seeing the pain you have suffered over the years has brought me pain as well. What do you think would be a fitting punishment for these men?”

            Samuel stepped closer to the men, all of whom refused to make eye contact with the young man. The rest of the Bennets remained in place, allowing the heir to the estate assess the situation.

            Finally, one of the men looked up at Sam, breaking down in sobs. “Please, have mercy. I did not want to come and had no plan to shoot anyone. I was gonna shoot at the ground. My boy is ill. We need medicine.”  

            “If you had come to our home, requested work or even asked for assistance, we would have done what we could to see your child was cared for and had the medicine needed. Joining this group of murderers could have brought about your death. At the very least, you could be transported for the rest of your days. What would become of your son then? If he were truly ill, there is a chance he would have died. How would you live with that? Your foolishness could have led to your son’s death.”

            Sam continued to look at the men. “How many of you have children?”

            Several of the men murmured in the affirmative. The eldest Bennet son was angry. For his entire life, he had lived with people hating him without even knowing him. They hated his family, especially his mother.

            “Each of you who have children, how would you feel if someone hated those children due to their skin color? Or if they had dark hair or brown eyes? What if your children spoke with an accent such as if they were from Spain, or Austria, or India? Would those be grounds to murder them?”

            The men shook their heads. Samuel was building up steam. “That was the only reason these evil people wished for us to die. We look different. If you look at my brother, Phillip, you could hardly guess he was the grandson of a freed slave. Look at him.” He motioned towards where Phillip was standing next to his sisters.

            “My sisters, Lizzy and Jane, are the eldest. Their mother died just after Lizzy was born. Do you know why they are hated?”

            More murmurs were heard.

            “My sisters are hated because they were raised by my mother. A more loving person you will never find. Mamma is kind to everyone, no matter who they are. When a tenant’s child is ill, Mamma goes to their home and assisted in caring for the child. The elderly all love my mother and my sisters. My father is highly respected by our tenants, as he has increased the crop yields since he has been the master. But that did not matter to any of you. All you wanted was the coin offered to murder us.”

            The first man was still sobbing. “You dun nuffin to deserve what them planned. I beg for your mercy. Transportation is fair for what we dun.”

            Samuel stopped pacing around the men. Again, he looked from one to another, deciding what should happen. “Sir William, if memory serves me, the widow Thornton is in need of laborers. Her house needs repairing, wood cut, and other projects.”

            “Indeed. Also, Old Mr Jackson is laid up with a bad back. He could use some assistance.” Sir William could understand where the young man was going with his questions.

            “My opinion is that these men be put to work assisting Widow Thornton, Mr Jackson, and any other of those in need. If they fail to do the work assigned, then they can be transported. When the work is done, and done properly, the families of the men will be cared for and not starve. The men will also assist in repairs at Longbourn. Then they will be allowed to return to their homes. If there are any further problems with these men, use what they have done here as prior criminal activities.” Sam turned to look at his family. Each of them smiled at the fine young man he was becoming. From his father to his younger brother, Sam watched them nod their heads in approval.  Turning to Sir William, the young man found approval from the magistrate.

            Sir William stepped closer to the men. “You are being given an opportunity to change your lives. This young man, one of the people who you planned to murder, is giving you a chance to make your lives better. If you would prefer to be taken to London and held for the next ship to transport you, we can make the arrangement. The decision is now in your hands. Are you willing to take the punishment chosen for you by the heir of Longbourn?”

            Shocked and dismayed, the men each agreed to accept Samuel Bennet’s suggested punishment. The men would be housed in two cottages on Sir William’s estate, and his son, John, would aid in seeing the men were taken to the locations requiring work done.

            By the end of the day, the dinner party had turned into an informal affair, with the Gardiners arriving from London an hour prior. Exhaustion was quickly claiming everyone in attendance.

            “I believe I should take my family home for some rest. Tomorrow will be a long day, and it will come sooner than we think.” Mr Bennet announced as he stood. “We will see all of you on the morrow.”

            The Bennets and Gardiners waited for their carriages to be brought to the front of Netherfield Park’s manor house.  Mr Bennet assisted his wife and eldest daughter before entering the carriage himself. Samuel and Phillip followed their father.

            Darcy and Elizabeth stood together, holding hands as they gazed at one another. “I will see you in the morning. You will find me at the alter, waiting impatiently for you to join me.”

            Elizabeth gave a soft chuckle. “Thank you for telling me where you will be. Otherwise, I might have thought to look for you at Oakham Mount.”

            “How I wish we could wed there, where I first met the most beautiful, intelligent, and loving lady.”

            “You met someone else at Oakham Mount? Do you make a habit of meeting young ladies at such a location? Should I be jealous of others making you smile at my favorite place?” Elizabeth teased.

            Darcy lifted her hand to his lips. Gently, lingering, Darcy kissed the back of her hand. “The only lady I have ever met there is the lady I am marrying in just a few hours. I love you, Elizabeth Bennet. Sleep well, as you will require all the rest possible for tomorrow.”

            Blushing, Elizabeth accepted her betrothed’s hand as he assisted her to enter the carriage.