Rated Mature for sex and violence. No sexual violence. Posting will be once a week, at some time on Saturdays. However, I am starting a week later than I thought I would, so this week you get one today and another on Saturday.
Canon timing has been changed to align with real events. You'll figure it out.
The history party starts next week.
Now, let me tell you a story.
Syon Hill, London
April 9, 1788
The commotion in front of the house brought the Countess of Holderness to the front steps.
The scene outside was nothing that she could have imagined. Three little lordlings, all Gentlemen of the Bedchamber, stood with their heads bowed and their hats removed. Each of them took a quick glance at her when she walked out onto the steps, but none of them would hold her eye. None of them greeted her. Their horses, held at bay by the Earl's servants, snorted and stamped in disapproval of being made to stand in the cold and rain. Beyond all this stood a cart. Bryant, her faithful servant, stood by it. The edge of a tarp was in one hand and he stared down at the sight inside. His face had lost all color.
The Countess was gripped by fear.
Bryant noticed that the Countess was watching, but he stood his ground until he regained his composure. It took a bit of time, for here in the cart lay Conyers Darcy. Bryant knew it to be his master, even though the face was destroyed.
The 5th Earl of Holderness, clearly now the last of his line, lay dead.
Finally, Bryant knew he could avoid his duty no longer. He replaced the tarp, straightened his spine, and strode over to the Countess. One look from him and all the servants standing close to Her Ladyship drew away. Bryant quietly told her that her only surviving child was no more.
The Countess did not speak until she was sure her voice would not shake. "Bryant, please see that the Earl is removed to the ice house and then come and tell me what you know."
The Countess paced outside the entrance to the underground room. There was something clearly not right about the tale of Conyers' death. Not only had none of those young men been able to hold her eye, but it was a miserable morning. The King would never have gone hunting on a day such as today.
In less time than the Countess expected, the door opened and her old friend climbed the steps.
"Countess, you were right to question how your son died." Knowing that the Countess would insist on seeing everything for herself, Qureshi grimaced. It was a horrible scene that awaited her. "Countess, Mary…" His voice was very gentle. "I wish I could talk you out of this. It is not something that you need to see."
Steely eyes met his. Yes, My Lady. You are strong enough. "Very well, I will show you."
They descended into the ice house.
Qureshi pulled back the sheet that covered the now naked body of Conyers Darcy. The Countess let out a small cry and he put a steadying hand on her elbow. As soon as she had control, the physician released her.
"Are you ready?"
The Countess nodded.
As he knew his friend would want, Qureshi started to speak in a purely factual manner.
Warning: Skip to the last two paragraphs of this section if you don't want to read the results of Qureshi's examination of the body. It is not pretty.
"On first look, it simply appears that he has been trampled by horses. However, the damage is almost all to his upper body. Indeed, most of it is to his head, neck and shoulders. And there are so many wounds. So much damage. Conyers would have to have been run over many times. But there are some wounds on other parts of his body, wounds that are easier to see. Look at this particular mark."
Qureshi drew his finger along a wound, stopping at an oddly torn place in the skin. "This tear was most likely caused by a horseshoe with a loose nail. Now look over here." He pointed out another area with the same kind of tear in the same place. "And look here and here and here. There are many marks that seem to have come from the same shoe."
"My son was trampled repeatedly by the same horse?" Her voice was calm. Qureshi was proud that his life had been blessed by the care of this great lady.
"Perhaps more than one horse, but certainly the single shoe of one horse made many marks."
Before the Countess could fully allow the meaning of this to sink in, Qureshi continued. "I could not account for such a thing unless a mad horse pummeled your son or all the trampling was intentionally done. So, I looked more closely. Come, look here." Once again, Qureshi used his finger to draw along the dead boy's torn skin. Mary Darcy looked closely at the places that Qureshi was showing her.
"Bruising? All around his neck?"
"Yes." Then, Qureshi used both hands and closed them around young Conyers's throat as if he were choking him. The placement of his hands nearly matched all the bruising just pointed out. "And here is a deep cut that looks like it was made by a square object. It is just where a large ring could have been on the killer's finger. Now, note again the marks and tears from the horseshoes. You can see them, yes. However, there is not the bruising that at least some of them should have."
Then he stepped back and folded his hands in front. "Countess, Conyers was strangled to death. He was already dead when he was repeated trampled. Someone has tried to fool you about how he died. I am sure of it."
Mary did not retch until she was outside the ice house.
Darcy House, London
August 15, 1808
Fitzwilliam Darcy sat staring at his calendar book, but his mind was on his sister. Thank the Heavens my father taught me so well. Indeed, Darcy senior had imparted all he could to his young son. Among the earliest of lessons was the necessity of surprise. You must arrive unexpectedly. A man who tours his estate by schedule will always find his steward busy, his tenants working and appearing happy, his house clean, and all his servants behaving as they should. The reality of matters will be hidden from his eyes until things have gotten completely out of hand.
This particular advice had made so much sense to young Darcy that he had applied it everywhere in his life, especially with regards to his sister. If Darcy had not made that unexpected trip to Ramsgate, poor Georgina would have …
He could not bear to think on it anymore. His sister was now safe and Darcy had to focus on his other responsibilities. He had others dependent on him; one of whom, to his shame, he had almost completely ignored. Darcy's lack of properly vetting Georgina's companion had almost led to ruin. He had let this other girl down, too. Well, that would not continue.
His eyes went back to his calendar book where the twentieth birthday of his future ward was recorded. It was coming up soon, only a few months away. The Darcys had assumed total guardianship of her funds and properties when the Duke of Bridgewater died, but unless she was seeking permission for marriage, the girl would not fall under his authority until she was twenty.
He pushed back from the desk and sighed. The whole situation was frustrating. Darcy had little information and was not to be given more until he had the girl in his care. Yet, he was supposed to keep the adult Countess from harm. He was to help her take her place in society. He had control of her inheritance until she married. Heavens, he even had control over who she married. And, honestly, he knew next to nothing about her. He had never even laid eyes on her.
Well, Your Ladyship, we shall have to change that. I must find out if you are clever or a fool, strong or feeble, mannered or a country bumpkin. And how have you been brought up? How else can I possibly to my duty by you? And what do you know about all this? Have they even told you who you are?
According to what Darcy had learned earlier today, no one in the neighborhood had the slightest clue about the girl's origins. She had been raised as a Bennet. All the better for Darcy to find out what he was truly dealing with. Her present guardian would surely know Darcy's name, but how he would behave when Darcy arrived was unknown. Perhaps this will be better even than a surprise visit. If no one else knows who I am, they will not alter their behaviors because I have arrived. I will see truly how she lives and who she is. Now, I must figure out a reason to stay there for an extended time.
It was too bad that Bridgewater was now dead. It seemed that all along he had had more to do with the girl than the Darcys. Well, at least she had some exposure to her proper sphere. Darcy knew that she had spent considerable time at Ashridge, Bridgewater's Hertfordshire estate. That man had been diligent in his responsibilities, unlike Darcy. Or even my father? Enough! You cannot undo the past. You can only go forward.
Then it occurred to him that, given Bridgewater's nature, Darcy could not actually be sure that Elizabeth had any exposure at all to the Ton.
His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door.
"Mr. Bingley is here to see you, sir."
"Thank you, Peters. Please send him in."
"Darcy! I have come to a decision. You were right as always! Before I buy an estate, I shall lease one! I will learn how to be a master without risking my own land! What do you think? Of course, you agree. It was your idea after all. Oh, you must help me find a place! And you must stay with me while I get started." Bingley's excited voice went suddenly still and he frowned. "I mean, that is to say, you will help me. Will you not?"
The anxious face of Charles Bingley relaxed as soon as he saw the broad smile of his friend.
"Splendid idea, Bingley. If you lease one soon enough, we shall be in time for the early shooting. Perhaps you should look in counties that are near Town. That way you can also take care of your business here whenever the need arises. I will set my man to looking for available estates. You should to the same. I am sure Jones can find something in Hertfordshire. Hopefully very near the town of Meryton.
Darcy felt no guilt at this planned manipulation. He would make sure that the estate leased by Bingley was everything it should be. If something suitable was not available, then Darcy would have to form another plan for spending time in Hertfordshire.
October 15, 1808
As soon as the snort of disgust left Henry Bennet's mouth, he knew he had made a mistake. A glance at his valet's now pale face proved it.
Ordinarily, Henry would now say something comforting to the man. Bogard was something of a simpleton and saw the world only as it related to his skills. Disgust from Henry, just as he finished dressing, would be interpreted by Bogard as a rebuke. The poor valet would spend the next days as a frightened pet rabbit, ready to jump and flee its angry master. Bogard's hands would shake so badly that it would be impossible for him to tie a cravat.
Henry knew he should stop the cycle right now, before it became near impossible. However, he also knew he would not. Bogard's terror was giving Henry a perverse kind of pleasure. There was someone in the world more upset than he was.
"Thank you, Bogard. That will be all."
Bennet watched the slumped shoulders of the valet as he retreated from the room. Henry did feel some pangs of conscience. But as soon as Bogard disappeared, so did Henry's concerns for the man. Henry Bennet had his own problems.
In the back of his mind, he had been aware that Elizabeth's true twentieth birthday was approaching. But, especially since Bridgewater's death, the truth of the matter had become more and more remote. Total silence from the other guardian only amplified the illusion. When Elizabeth and Jane celebrated their 'joint' twentieth birthday, Henry had been able to pretend that it was true.
Then, someone had leased Netherfield. Although Henry had no real reason to believe it had anything to do with Elizabeth, his foreboding had been great. There was a brief period of respite when Henry learned that the new tenant's name was Bingley. Perhaps the silent guardian had truly forgotten all about Elizabeth. With this hope in his heart, Henry had been among the first to call on Mr. Bingley.
Alas, all hopes were dashed. Henry would have no further reprieve. The man he feared was coming to stay with Bingley and would in fact be at tonight's assembly. In a rare feat of attempting to meet the future head-on, Henry had decided to attend.
The Master of Longbourn stared at the reflection in the mirror. Master, indeed. Henry knew that he was a disappointment to his ancestors. Under his watch, Longbourn's profits had fallen by half. Tenants, who had spent generations on the land, now left if they were able. Gone was the Bennet management that had kept tenant, servant and master prosperous for hundreds of years. Instead they have me. I cannot even father a son to carry on the line. And now the high and mighty guardian was here. That man would take away the only thing that made Henry's life bearable. He was sure of it. That man had come to take Elizabeth away.
Meryton Assembly Rooms, Hertfordshire
October 15, 1808
He knew who she was the moment he laid eyes on her. Darcy blood was strong and it clearly flowed through her veins. We must have a portrait done.
His eyes ran over the grouping near her. Those must be Bennet's daughters. They were all blond, fairly short, and much resembled each other. The taller, dark-haired Elizabeth could not be more out of place. Yet there had been watchers in Hertfordshire all these years. She was obviously accepted as one of the Bennet family despite her appearance giving daily proof to the contrary.
"Forgive me, Bingley. My mind was occupied."
Bingley responded with a good natured laugh. His eyes followed Darcy's to the group of beauties across the room. They were all pretty, but one was just angelic. Bingley could well understand his friend's loss of attention. However, they were gentlemen and the gregarious Sir William Lucas was before them. Bingley performed the introductions and Darcy nodded to the knight.
After making them known to his own family, Sir William led Bingley's party over to another of the principal families in the area, the Bennets.
Nodding through the introductions, Darcy immediately began to study the group.
Henry Bennet was wary, almost hostile. Perhaps to be expected. He knows I will judge him harshly if I find him lacking. Shrill conversation from Mrs. Bennet drew Darcy's glare. What a creature. How could Elizabeth have been left in her care? The youngest girls also drew his notice. They were immature and ill behaved, but he could tell that they promised to be beauties. When they are a bit older. They should still be in the schoolroom! Darcy's eyes flew back to Bennet. An amused, challenging grin from that man did nothing to quiet Darcy's mounting disdain.
Deciding to ignore the man for now, Darcy continued his perusal of the group. The eldest Miss Bennet was quite possibly the most beautiful woman that Darcy had ever seen. It was a disinterested, purely objective observation.
The remaining daughter was pretty, but had not the great beauty of the others. This one looked miserable, as though she wished to be anywhere except a dance. Darcy's gaze softened. He recognized this timidity, this appearance of feeling inadequate. Indeed it was a muted version of what Darcy's own beloved sister suffered from every day now.
Finally Darcy's eyes moved to his ward. He almost gasped as he was caught by wide, sparkling, green eyes that were full of mischief and laughter.
'Mr. Darcy, I presume you are now finished with your study of the Bennet family. Pray tell, sir, what is your judgment?"
She had been watching him! Surely his disdain had been hidden. Or had it? Probably not, especially when he had looked at Henry Bennet. So what could Elizabeth's remark mean?
This impish ward was calling him out! It had to be so. Good. She has spirit. The urge to cross swords with her was strong. But this was not the time or place. Nor was it quite the footing on which he wished to start their relationship.
"A thousand pardons if it appeared I was sitting in judgment, Miss Elizabeth. My mind has wandered many places tonight. Forgive me.
Of course Darcy was doing nothing but sitting in judgment. Still, he was sorry that it appeared to be so. He had not lied to his ward. He had long ago perfected keeping his thoughts to himself. That he should have let down his guard in such an important situation was intolerable. It would not happen again.
His face grew grim, his eyes forbidding. He turned his back and strode away from the Bennets. In a few moments, he found a place next to a pillar and settled in to do what he had come here for: to observe.
Elizabeth stood staring at the retreating back of Mr. Darcy. What an odd, unpleasant man. If he thought his few words of apology would erase what she had seen, he was sorely mistaken. He had clearly been looking at each member of her family and judging them quite harshly. There was no mistaking his disdain. Yet he had spoken to her very civilly. In fact his voice had been quite gentle. As if he was truly concerned for my good opinion. Or was it for my feelings? Yes. He seemed to be sorry that he might have insulted me. He was almost… protective. Then she recalled his look as he gazed at Mary. That was… That was protective, too. Tender even.
"Well, I never! What a proud, disagreeable man."
Mrs. Bennet's angry and insulted voice brought Elizabeth's attention back to her family.
"Mama, he will hear you."
"And what if he does? That man just flatly refused to stand up with you. What concern should we have for his good opinion? I never!"
Clearly Elizabeth had missed something. She could very well guess what it was. While she was distracted by Mr. Darcy, her mother must have strongly suggested, nay nearly ordered, that Mr. Darcy dance with her. It was precisely the type of thing that Mrs. Bennet would do. Well, if Elizabeth had missed her mother's machinations, it would not be surprising if Mr. Darcy had done so, too.
So she could not take this particular complaint of her mother's very seriously. As she gently tried to calm Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth caught her father's eyes for a moment. He was very nearly laughing. She rolled her eyes to signal complete understanding. His expression faltered for a moment and then he took on a serious, almost sad, look.
It took Elizabeth completely by surprise. She had expected her father's usual grin at her mother's foolishness. Goodness. Is this whole evening to be odd?
Elizabeth, in keeping with her nature, soon shrugged off such thoughts. The room seemed alive with pleasure, even more so than usual. This general increase in conviviality was undoubtedly due to the novelty of having the Netherfield party here. But Elizabeth would not concentrate on that. No. That would only lead to thinking about Mr. Darcy again. She would have time to think about that handsome, disdainful, confusing man later. For now she meant to enjoy herself.
And so she did. At least she did until she was obliged, by the scarcity of gentlemen, to sit down for two dances. It was then that she was once again thrown into confusion when she overheard a conversation between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley.
"Come, Darcy, I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance."
For a moment, Elizabeth had to withhold a laugh. It seemed that the happy Mr. Bingley was not in the least intimidated by his tall, sour friend. Alas, Mr. Darcy's reply was no laughing matter.
``I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable."
An assembly such as this? You think well of the neighborhood, do you not Mr. Darcy?
But Mr. Bingley was having none of that. `I would not be so fastidious as you are,'' cried Bingley, ``for a kingdom! Upon my honour I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life, as I have this evening; and there are several of them, you see, uncommonly pretty.''
Elizabeth began to think that she was going to like this Mr. Bingley.
``You are dancing with a very handsome girl,'' said Mr. Darcy, looking at Jane Bennet.
Well at least you recognize Jane's beauty. But who could think otherwise?
``Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.''
Oh no, Mr. Bingley! Could not leave me out of this conversation?
``Which do you mean?'' and turning round, Mr. Darcy looked for a moment at Elizabeth.
Being a brave soul, Elizabeth decided to meet his gaze directly. Once again she was caught by the look of gentle protectiveness that she found in his eyes.
Mr. Darcy turned back to his friend. "Bingley, we have already been introduced and of course she is tolerable. However, I am in no humour to dance. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.''
Once again, Elizabeth did not know what to think. The man obviously disdained the local society in general and most of her family in particular. He was gruff and ill-humoured with Mr. Bingley, but Mr. Bingley did not seem to mind at all. And Mary and I seem to have some kind of exemption from his general disdain. What is that all about? And what did he mean with of course I am tolerable? Of course?
For a long time thereafter, Darcy was able to keep to himself. The only person who dared approach him was Miss Bingley. However, she was not much of an interruption. He was long experienced in ignoring her attempts to draw his attention. Luckily the locals were eager for her company and thus she had little time to hang off of his arm.
He studied the neighbors; each member of the Bennet family; and, most especially, he studied his ward. The longer he watched her, the more he had to restrain a smile. She was absolutely delightful; playful, happy, kind, graceful and there was such intelligence in those sparkling eyes. Moreover, there was a kind of unconscious sensuality in her every movement. Oh, it was obvious that she was supremely innocent. But the raw promise of pleasure was there.
Yes. Darcy the Man was indulging in the sheer decadence of drinking her in when Darcy the Guardian thundered back onto the scene. None of this would do. He had no business looking at her this way. More importantly, she absolutely could not be permitted to behave as she currently did. The Ton would eat her alive. Not only would every leech be after her money, every rake would find her person irresistible. And the women! Elizabeth's manners were pleasing, but they were very far from the cultivated, proper reserve of the ladies in the Ton. She would be ridiculed.
Taking Elizabeth Darcy in hand was going to be a monumental task.
He was so caught up in his thoughts that it was some time before he noticed that Henry Bennet was now standing near him. Once again Bennet was smirking. What was the man about? Darcy looked around. The two of them had relative privacy.
"You seem to find this evening amusing."
"Indeed I do, Mr. Darcy."
"You have not told her anything, have you?"
"Why should I? Need I remind you that she is still mine?"
"Until December second."
Bennet gave Darcy a look full of hatred, but it did not faze Darcy.
"Sir, she has been with you these twenty years. I can tell you are fond of her. Do you not think it right that she should hear the truth from you?"
"What I tell her or do not tell her is none of your concern for now."
"Be reasonable. Surely you want to make this transition for her as easy as possible."
Henry leaned in closer. His voice was nearly a growl when he spoke. "I have already told you. She is still mine! You have no business interfering!"
"And so, what will happen? Do you expect me to arrive on December second in my travelling coach and just bundle her in? With no warning? Have you no sense?"
It was perhaps not very wise for Darcy to speak so, but he was appalled. However, one look at Bennet told Darcy that he was wasting his time. The man was clearly not going to be reasonable. If anything, he was more furious than before and so red that Darcy feared for his health.
So sure was Darcy that he had the high ground here that he was completely shocked by Bennet's reply.
"Have I no sense? You, sir, are the one without sense. I hear nothing from any Darcy for over a decade and then you show up! And for what? To take her from a safe, enjoyable life and put her in danger?"
Put her in danger? What? Has this man somehow learned about Georgiana? He panicked for a moment before it occurred to him that there was no possible way for Henry Bennet to know anything about Ramsgate. Suddenly Darcy was grateful that he had accidently let down his guard earlier this evening. Doing so had reminded him to keep his face impassive. That had just served him well.
But now he wanted to question Bennet. What had the man meant? Was he implying that Darcy would be a less than careful guardian? Even with almost failing Georgiana, that notion was still laughable coming from Henry Bennet. A few minutes spent with the youngest Bennets showed Bennet to be a supremely irresponsible guardian.
But before Darcy could ask Bennet anything, the man turned on his heel and strode away. Darcy could only stare after him and wonder. Was Bennet just lashing out? Was there some reason to think Elizabeth in danger? Absurd. Surely Bennet was just resolved on not letting her go.
The frustration that he had felt two months ago, when he realized that he knew next to nothing about his ward, now mounted. More information was needed and the sooner the better. It was obvious from Bennet's attitude that little would be forthcoming from that man. Of course Darcy would try him again. However, he had little hope of success.
Meeting with the servants that Bridgewater had placed in Longbourn would happen soon, but what more could Darcy do this evening? Women were always founts of gossip and this ballroom was filled with them. But Darcy little talent for conversing with strange women and no talent at all for gleaning gossip from them.
Suddenly it came to him. As long as ladies were not present, he was always at ease in the company of country gentlemen. He had seen Hurst leave the room earlier and Darcy did not think he had come back. Surely there was a card room nearby. Darcy would join the men. There he might learn something.
Having long suffered the interest of the Ton, Darcy had paid little mind to the people in the room who stared at him. Still, had he not been so caught up in his own thoughts, it is likely that he would have noticed one man this night. That man had done little but look at Darcy.
Indeed that gentleman's perusal of Darcy was just as intense as Darcy's had been of his ward and the Bennets.
As he left to find the card room, this gentleman stared after him. If anyone had been paying attention at the moment, they would have seen a very unusual sight. Sir William Lucas' normally jovial face was covered with an intense frown.