Author's Notes: Happy Spring, you wonderful readers!
Thank you so much for your INCREDIBLE response to the first big reveal! I always intended for William to not be Collins' child, but the extent of our villian's evil definitely came together while writing. I am so thrilled that you guys didn't catch it. With the reveal, we are now in the final leg of the story, though I can't give you a hard estimate on how many chapters are left. These characters have had more story to tell than I ever thought to tell - like one perspective you'll read in chapter that we have hardly heard from.
Chapter 27 was the most response my writing has ever received. Thank you all so much for your encouragement with this labor of love. Knowing I have eager readers wanting the next chapter of this story...is the greatest encouragement a writer can have. Your words are truly humbling. When I finish, I will give you all your proper thanks for coming on this journey with me.
Enough rambling from me...without further ado, we move into the afternoon at Netherfield estate.
In her present state of mourning, and the still greater need to shield her relationship to the Bennet family from certain members of the Netherfield party, Elizabeth knew it was best to remain in the confines of her rooms for much of the afternoon. Despite the rational turn of her mind, the confinement rankled. She was worried for Mary – who had accompanied the Bow Street Runner, Gantry, and her present host, Mr. Charles Bingley – to Netherfield. Mary had ventured with the party to the family estate in order to retrieve a pair of old slippers from Longborn's attic…and Elizabeth would not be easy until her younger sister was safely returned to Netherfield, her task completed. She had quite admired her sisters' determination to be the one to go to Longborn – her quiet, scholarly nursery-mate had grown into an intelligent, willful, and incredibly practical young woman. Of course, it should be Mary to enter Longborn, rather than herself – Mary was familiar to the current staff, Mary knew the house…Elizabeth would be seen as a thief before anyone had a chance to recognize her.
Still, her energetic nature could scarcely bare to remain idle in the best of times, and with the stakes of the actions of all so high? Their behaviors and choices thoroughly past her control? To be still and patient was positively torturous. For years, Elizabeth had operated alone, carried the burden of her beloved father's murder in silent pain. And now she was surrounded by family and by friends, all of whom wanted to help share the load. It felt odd…anxious to know that another would carry the mantle for even this short while. Yet, in a way she was comforted by the notion as well. Well, if she must remain above stairs, and she could not be of use in helping either of the ongoing investigations, she knew she would need to find occupation somehow while she waited for news from others.
She glanced toward the writing desk, thinking she ought to write Lady Matlock, telling her of her decision to permanently retire from the life of Adelaide Bernard, as she had accepted her nephew's offer of marriage…. or rather, he had accepted hers, she thought with a small smile. That great Lady had been extremely good to Adelaide Bernard and had promised to show continued kindness to Elizabeth Bennet or Darcy, should the young woman decided to live by either name. The actress had been astonished to hear that her patrons would possibly condescend to accept her as a family member, even for all their affability while she presented herself as an actress of unknown origins. They were members of the peerage, and though she had lived as strictly and respectably as she could – Adelaide Bernard was considered untouchable for marriage by respectable families for any number of reasons. She had expressed her disbelief to Darcy as they had walked amongst the groves of Netherfield that morning.
He had laughed a little nervously. "My aunt did not pretend that she wished for me to form an alliance with an actress – even one she likes so well as you, dear Elizabeth. I hope you will forgive it of me, but as Gantry's investigations progressed, I realized that I would need the power of my connections in order to be of true assistance to you and your family. I had to go to my Aunt for help, knowing that suggestions from her lips are edicts in my Uncle's ear. Then she asked directly for all our history, and I had no choice but to tell her Ladyship all. Her manner made it plain that any dissembling on my part would not be tolerated."
"All?" She had squeaked, looking up at him, alarmed.
"As much as could be kept in confidence, was, I assure you." Darcy said with a steady certainty. He reached into his greatcoat. "I received this letter from her Ladyship yesterday. It was addressed to me, but there was a separate note inside for you. Will you do us both the honor of reading it now?"
She grasped the note from him quickly. "I thank you, yes." Slender fingers unfolded the note with a tremble. Darcy assured her he had been given Lady Matlock's blessing to the match. But she could not believe it until she saw it herself.
My Dear Miss Bernard,
I address you today by the name you have been introduced to me with not in an attempt to extend a discourtesy to you, dear girl – but in order to acknowledge that Bernard is the name you have chosen to be called, and that if I as Lady Matlock should be addressed as the name of my father I would be offended by such familiarity. Bernard, or by any other name, your friendship would be as sweet to me. Should you wish me to call you by another name – Bennet, Bernard, or perhaps, Darcy, simply sign you next letter to me with the proper embellishments. You've proven to be a clever thing in the short months I've known you, and now Darcy has assured me your wit and your kind, friendly, nature are only the beginnings of your wonderful characteristics – for you are courageous and resolute as well. He did not disclose the whole of your sorry past with me, but I know enough to understand you are a gentleman's daughter estranged from her family estate through circumstances outside your control.
Let me speak plainly Miss Bernard. I have enjoyed your company, and I am inclined to help you with your present family troubles. While I may feel that family dinners will benefit from your contributions to the conversation, I cannot but be frustrated that my nephew should choose to take an actress for his wife. However, I am only his aunt by way of marriage to his mother's brother, and my nephew has proven himself a capable young man and fully competent and dedicated master of his inheritance. I would have liked a Duke's daughter for him, Miss Bernard, but he is his own man, one who has been in the marriage market for several years, thoroughly unimpressed with England's finest debutants.
I know you had the good sense to refuse him once and save us all the headache of navigating the scandal of your match. However, as you have proven to be rather sensible indeed, I am also sure you have seen what a good man my nephew is, and how steady his love has proven since his last proposal. Having realized as much, declining a second proposal may feel the more foolish decision now. I do not doubt he will offer for you again, and what I know of you would suit Darcy, I believe.
I am told that that there is perhaps a chance that you could be returned to your fathers' household and restored to the sphere in which you grew up. My nephew assures me that he does not care which route you take, that so long as you remain free by either name, he will do the same. I am not so foolish as to think I must not make peace with this match, and I will make my husband see the same. So let me say this – if you do what you can to the minimize the scandal of your family…if you (regrettably – you could be a star in a few years!) leave the stage and your identity of Adelaide Bernard behind, I will be Elizabeth Bennet's alley amongst the ton. We may well be able to weather the storm, and have your happily ever after, but only if you and Darcy work with me and heed my advice most carefully. If you move into an imprudent match harming the chances of those still unmarried in either family…you will find no support from my house. If I had to cut you, I would do so without hesitation, but it would bring me no pleasure. We have gotten on well these past few months, and I have been happy to be of service to you in your time of need. Should you choose to join our family, I beg of you – join all of us, and seek my help in arranging your wedding day. There is no great scandal in Darcy marrying a gentleman's daughter he met while staying at a friend's estate – but an actress may pollute the shades of Pemberley for generations to come.
It was not, Elizabeth mused, truly a blessing from the countess. Lady Matlock showed herself to be resigned to the reality of her nephew's independence, and more eager to preserve the Fitzwilliam connection to the wealthy, ancient, Darcy line than to sever it over one unequal marriage. Still, she had been grateful for the compliments the great lady did bestow – Elizabeth had truly enjoyed Lady Matlock's company and was beyond grateful for all her patroness had done in assisting Adelaide Bernard in settling Forelli's estate and renegotiating her contracts with Drury Lane in the wake of her mourning period.
She could not deny that her disparagement of Elizabeth's position as an actress hurt, but she only espoused the opinions of society at large, and any offense Elizabeth might wish to take at such sentiments seemed rather fruitless. To be free of Collins, Elizabeth had been prepared to live on the very edges of society and had used her natural talents and the opportunities life in London had given her to make the most of it. To free her sisters from the power of Collins, Elizabeth had been ready to remove them from their status as gentleman's daughters and bring her into her house and under her protection, to make their own way on the fringes of society as well. She knew she could not provide them the life of the sphere in which they had grown up, but she could free them from a life at the mercy of their fathers' killer. But now…by accepting Darcy's love and the offer of his name, she would not only be able to remove the Bennet sisters from the reign of terror at Longbourn, but she would also materially improve all the Bennet orphans' condition in life.
Elizabeth mended her pen, mulling over the best way to respond to her benefactress and soon-to-be relation. Could it be true – she wondered – that after all the tragedy of her early life, things might work out so happily? It was hard to trust in her good fortune, when she had known little else but heart break. Darcy's love, and her love for Darcy, it could not bring back Papa nor dear Forelli, it would not erase all the black memories associated with Longborn, but it did have the promise of future happiness and security, for herself and all her dear family. It was a gift, Jane had reminded her, to be loved. Spurning such a gift simply wouldn't do. And if, by taking the Darcy name, her own power in the world would increase, her likelihood in achieving justice for her father would do so as well.
Two years ago, when Darcy had made his first insulting address, Elizabeth had felt that her loving anyone was a distraction from the revenge it was her duty to carry out. It had taken her arrival in Meryton, her reunion with her dear sisters to reveal the truth to her. She saw with such an arresting clarity…love was not a distraction; it was the answer. Love for her sister had caused Elizabeth to flee Longborn, for Collins had promised that Jane would receive any punishment he felt Elizabeth deserved. Love for her father, for all her sisters, had caused her to seek a way to restore them to herself through occupation. If not love, then what was it that called on Forelli's conscious when he offered thirteen-year-old Lizzy Bennet a home when she had arrived at his doorstep? And all her present hope for the future for her family? It could be attributed to nothing more than Darcy's unwavering love – a devotion so steady that he had seen Elizabeth's face in the countenance of her sisters and had not been able to rest until he uncovered it all. She had resisted love, had questioned love, had cursed it…but now that she had finally, fully embraced love in her life…suddenly it seemed every trial and tribulation could be faced, that no obstacle would be insurmountable. She was a possessed of a confidence she'd never known before. Collins' presence in their lives would one day be nothing more than an unpleasant memory.
A laugh bubbled up in Elizabeth's throat as she dipped her head to attend to her correspondence. "It helps," she supposed, "that I had the very good sense to fall in love with one of the wealthiest bachelors in the country."
"Tell me at once, Darcy. What has happened? You are in an inordinately good mood for a man who just witnessed such a disturbing confession."
From across the billiard table, Fitzwilliam grinned at his older cousin. His good fortune from the morning had followed him into the afternoon, and he was putting the Colonel's game to shame. The pair had made their way thither after sitting in as witnesses to the Reverend Collins' accounting of the accident which had left him bedridden at Netherfield for the better part of a fortnight. Both men had felt their heads far too full of the present for reading, nor were they fit company for their hostess and her sister who presently occupied the drawing room. With a house as full as Netherfield, the gaming table was one of the gentlemen's only indoor retreats.
"You'll have to congratulate me, Richard." He said with levity, sinking yet another pocket, "Miss Elizabeth Bennet has made me the happiest of men this morning by offering me her hand in marriage."
The Colonel, who had been absentmindedly polishing his cue stick, threw back his head and laughed. "Indeed, I do congratulate you cousin. Any woman with the tenacity to make a proposal of marriage to the most fastidious man in the kingdom has a special mettle to her." Shaking the smile from his lips with a rueful shrug he added, more seriously, "I have taken your reproof to heart, and I will not attempt to remind you of my reservations regarding the match. I trust that Georgina's future and happiness will be carefully considered with every decision you and your future bride make during this engagement period."
Darcy extended his hand to the Colonel with a grateful smile, and the older man shook it with a grin. He was ready to face the censure and derision of the Ton for marrying an actress, so their disapproval regarding a dowerless gentleman's daughter hardly signified. Yet, for all his determination to marry Elizabeth, he still wished for his cousin's approbation above any others', for his cousin knew him better than most. It was gratifying to know that Richard would support the match, so long as Darcy remained the careful, prudent, responsible Master of Pemberley. He was determined to show the Matlocks, the Bennets, and the entire Ton exactly that. He would not skulk off to Scotland with his beloved, marrying in a shroud of secrecy and scandal. Elizabeth – with her deeply loving heart, her kind nature, her humor, grace, self-confidence and the steely resolve in the face of struggle…she would prove to be a brilliant mistress of all the Darcy holdings. He was proud to marry such a singular woman. The world might have their own opinions of his bride, but everyone would know exactly how highly Mrs. Darcy was regarded by her husband.
It was at that moment the Constable flew into the room – several letters in one hand and gold pocket watch twirling in the other. "Mr. Darcy – Colonel, I had hoped to find you here! I have need of you both!" The wiry man exclaimed, dark eyes shining, forgetting to bow in his excitement.
"Certainly, we are happy to be of assistance, Gantry." The Colonel said with a laugh. "What can we do for you?"
The Londoner swiveled toward to the Colonel, pressing one of the pages into the mans hand. "I would have you call upon Colonel Foster, the commander of the Militia stationed here in Meryton. Thanks to the efforts of Miss Mary, we had learned the names of the officers involved in Reverend Collins attack."
The jovial gentleman's countenance darkened. "Officers of his majesty's army are involved in the brutal assault of the poor Reverend?"
"I am afraid so, Colonel." The Runner answered somberly. "I have the names of three men of the regiment who were witnessed on the grounds of Longborn estate this very morning – one of whom was seen being given funds by Mr. Collins. The other two remained further back in the wood, where Miss Bennet was able to overhear their conversation and the learn the identities of all three."
The Colonel nodded decisively, putting the list into his waist coat. "Is the Colonel to take these men into custody?"
"No." Gantry answered with firmness. "For now, I simply want the lads kept under careful watch. I have an express here," he let his pocket watch slide from his hand and rummaged through the stack of letters held in the other, "requesting three of Bow Street's best tails to come to Meryton to follow the men. I will need you to post that first, before calling on Foster. This assault was a planned attack on a man of God, financed by the most prominent landowner in the area. Miss Bennet tells me that the gentleman spoke of owing Mr. Collins significant debts of honor, and that she believed Mr. Collins pressed them into assaulting Mr. Collins by promising to discharge these debts. While all the officers must certainly be held accountable for their most grievance actions…we must remember that he who orchestrated such an awful plot is the man truly responsible for this dark day. I would have Colonel Foster's cooperation in helping us expose the wickedness residing at Longborn estate, and I am sure that Colonel Foster would much prefer to keep the involvement of his officers as quiet as possible."
"Reverend Collins' confession this afternoon can only add more gravity to the matter." Darcy added darkly. "The man claimed he has been gathering proof that the man presenting himself as Collins Sr is a fraud who began living as his father after a tragic fire at the mill where he worked. We have not seen any of Reverend Collins evidence to know what weight it may carry. We will need time to investigate these claims. If we move against Collins or his coconspirators too quickly in the matter of the Reverend's assault, it could endanger our efforts in uncovering the crimes of the man's past."
"These are exactly my thoughts, Mr. Darcy. We are moving closer every moment to seeing justice on behalf of Reverend Collins and his Bennet cousins, and I would not have our haste to see the matter settled jeopardize losing any of the pounds of flesh this villain owes."
"Very well." Said the Colonel, bowing to the others assembled. "I will not waste any more daylight, if we are to hire these tails from London, I would have them in Meryton by luncheon tomorrow."
After the Colonel quit the room, Gantry turned his bright eyes toward his benefactor. "There is more I must tell you. While Miss Bennet's adventures in attempting to enter Longborn undetected have been of excessive value to us, Mr. Bingley's call to Longborn this morning has created an unexpected complication."
A heavy feeling set in Darcy's chest at the anxiety that had crept into the investigator's voice. "Complications?" He echoed, features tightening.
"I am afraid so." Gantry said. "Mr. Collins was far less receptive to a call from Mr. Bingley than either of us had anticipated. After hearing Miss Bennet's testimony regarding of her seeing Collins in a heated discussion with a member of the militia, I can only surmise that he quit that scene in order to attend us in the parlor and was already highly agitated. Our call went as poorly as one can go, I wager. Mr. Collins was highly insulting, making remarks about Bingley's connections to trade, and accusing him of keep Reverend Collins at Netherfield in order to…" The young man faltered, blushed slightly and continued, "He's excused Bingley of making a cuckold of him." He said flatly.
Darcy groaned, his hand lifting to the brow that was suddenly aching. "I did my best to mediate the conversation, " Gantry continued, "but Mr. Collins made it clear that as he learned I had been brought to the area as a hired hand, I no longer held the status to address him."
"And how did the situation resolve itself?" Darcy asked from behind his hands.
"You would have been pleased with how Mr. Bingley acquit himself, I think. He defended his honor and that of Mrs. Collins' quite staunchly and took Mr. Collins to account for his own behavior – especially that regarding his son. He flatly accused Mr. Collins of his plan to expose the Reverend to the elements. He received a punch to the nose for his efforts. I believe that if Collins was in better health, he would have broken Bingley's nose, but the man is not well."
"Collins struck Charles!?" Darcy exclaimed in anger. "A man who had come to his home offering apologies! His behavior becomes worse with every interaction. Whoever he is, the man has not a single honorable feeling left. If he has a soul, perhaps he sold it in his gambit to steal the Longborn inheritance."
"Mr. Bingley felt all your outrage Mr. Darcy, what the punch lacked in physical merit, it more than made up for in the impact of the blow to your friend's pride. I am afraid that he could not stand to accept such an insult. He told Mr. Collins they would settle the score between them with that gentleman's preferred method…. violence. We are to meet at dawn tomorrow on the boundary of the estates."
The normally stoic Derbyshire gentleman muttered a swear at the news. His mind was racing. There was no hope that a man like Collins would present himself honorably in a duel, pistols in the air. If anything, he would use the invitation as an excuse to shoot his friend straight in the heart. Clearly, Collins was a desperate man – he had killed to gain Longborn, perhaps more than once, and he had undoubtedly attempted to kill the one person who had a rightful claim to the estate…as well as the only one who had suspicions that the man was not who he said he was. He had been desperate enough to silence Reverend Collins that he had brought three men into his service, only now it seemed that perhaps they were blackmailing the ringleader for their silence. Pressure was mounting on pressure…yes, Collins was desperate, a desperate, angry, thief and murderer, with a volatile temper and a severely inflated sense of his own importance and manhood. He would meet Bingley on the field…and he would be sure to stain it with Charles' blood.
In the drafty halls of Netherfield, a somewhat damp and dirtied young woman stood with her small, freshly scrubbed hands covering her mouth to suppress her gasp. Mary truly hadn't intended to eavesdrop on gentlemen's conversations for the second time in a single day, but they had left the door to the billiard room slightly ajar….and she had heard Constable Gantry speaking of her and well…. Mary flushed slightly, admonishing herself. "You listened with intent both times, foolish girl. Do not try to dissemble to your own conscious. I can not repine what I have heard, but I must acknowledge the unbecoming behavior to myself."
Mrs. Nicholls had led Mary to the kitchens through the servants corridors upon her return to the estate. She clearly did not believe Mr. Bingley's assertion that Mary had slipped and fell while walking the estate but considering all the unusual goings on at Netherfield in the past fortnight, she felt it best not question. The less she knew of these troubles, the better. The housekeeper was grateful that Miss Bennet had the sense to hang about the kitchen for the better part of an hour before attempting to make her way back to her chambers. The girl warmed herself by the kitchen fires while a scullery maid helped to shake as much of the mud and dirt from her boots and skirts as they could. After she was sufficiently warmed, and cleaned enough to make her way into the house, she had headed out and simply happened to pass the Billiard Room at the perfect moment….now her head swam with all the information she had gained.
Mr. Bingley – that kind, generous, gentleman, could not, indeed – should not, face her guardian in a duel. She could not trust Collins to behave honorably in a duel and what's more – had Mr. Darcy not just stated that he might not be Collins at all? That William accused his father of being an imposter!? Goodness, she wished she hadn't been caked in mud and soaked to the bone when they had returned to the house. She had clearly missed a very important recital from her cousin Collins, could she trust his words would be repeated unequivocally to her? Jane was full of maternal protection that she would wish to shield Mary from the worst, and gentlemen seemed to believe that maidens ought to be shielded from everything, as if ignorance was a useful defense against the evils of the world.
Collins had never liked many people, but especially not younger men. Even when his mood was inclined toward friendliness, his wife was far too young and pretty for the possessive old man to welcome many visitors in his home. In fact, Jane had only managed to convince her husband to call on Mr. Bingley from the first by tempting him with the thought that they might be able to remove Mary – the most disliked of all his remaining wards – from his household by catching the boy for a husband. For her own part, Mary had welcomed the variety in their small, confined society, but had no intentions of marrying him or any other eligible gentleman. If she did leave Longborn, it would only be after both Kitty and Lydia were safely married, and Collins was dead. She would neither leave Jane alone with only the company of her husband, nor allow her younger sisters to be exposed to Collins' foul temper, when she could protect them. She had always assumed that by the time both those things had occurred, she would already have long been considered an old maid.
Of course, that was before Netherfield had been let, and William had come visiting at Longborn, and a chain of events had begun which were unraveling all the secrets of past and rewriting every plan Mary had ever made for her future. Now she had every hope that they need not wait for a natural death for Collins to lose the power her held over the Bennet orphans. The accusations against him were heavy, indeed, but orchestrating the assault of Longborn's heir alone could be enough to see him removed from their lives, even without Elizabeth's testimony.
And her sister…the lost little girl who had hidden in plain sight…if Mary was not mistaken, Elizabeth was well on her way to becoming Mrs. Darcy. The Derbyshire man had answered Jane's questions openly, honestly, almost as if it was relief to speak freely of the violence of his affections for their sister. He was an honorable man, who Mary now understood to feel things more deeply than most. He had shown his goodness many times throughout their stay in Netherfield, and she was pleased to seem that her sister had attracted a man who would be a true helpmeet to her. She had freely admitted to her affections for him, in front of the entire room of her confessional – once the matters of Reverend Collins assault were resolved and their guardian removed from his position of power – surely, they would decide to wed.
There was no arrangement yet, for Elizabeth had proclaimed the evening before that far too many obstacles stood in the way of their making a match. However, it had been plain to Mary that Mr. Darcy was simply determined to address or remove each obstacle which would divide them until Elizabeth was satisfied. This meant that he was now an intimate in the Bennet family's affairs, even if no one was saying so openly. Having seen so many instances of Mr. Darcy's good character over the past fortnight, she could not help but feel comforted that she would one day call the man family. It pained her to admit, but it also helped that Mr. Darcy was a wealthy man. Should the marriage take place, the Bennet girls would always have the guarantee of a comfortable home – which was all any of the sisters truly wanted.
Mary shook her head from her musings – this was hardly the place to fantasize about what life could be for the Miss Bennets of Longborn with Darcy as a guardian instead of Collins. A bath was being readied for her, and she would have plenty of time for more pleasant musings then. Right now, she needed to consider the immediate. She started to make her way back towards her room again, hardly noticing where her feet led her. Mr. Gantry had claimed Mr. Bingley had called out Collins. Collins hated most young men but had taken an intense dislike to Mr. Bingley from the start – which had spiraled into something crazed once William had been assaulted and brought to Netherfield. Collins would be out to win – perhaps out to kill. Mr. Bingley was not safe…facing Collins would not be a score to settle amongst gentlemen – it would be the revenge of a monster.
The petite woman squared her shoulders. It was noble of Mr. Bingley to protect the honor of her family, but this duel simply could not be allowed to take place. How much burden were these good, kind gentlemen expected to take upon their shoulders for the Bennet girls troubles? If Jane and Elizabeth knew the truth, Mary was sure they would agree wholeheartedly. The risk to Mr. Bingley was far too great, no matter the insult, and he should not suffer on their account. No, it was the Bennet girls turn now to protect Charles Bingley, to return some small degree of the great kindness Mr. Bingley had paid to them in caring for their family. He had not only banned Collins Netherfield, now he addressed the brute for insulting her sister and cousin. They would not let him walk into injury, nor did Mary wish a good Christian man like Charles Bingley to become a killer on their account.
Mary sighed. Her bath would have to wait a few minutes more. Taking stock of her surroundings, she made a quick turn and headed in the direction of Elizabeth's chambers. If Miss Bingley or Mrs. Hurst questioned why the mourning actress was walking the halls in her company, Mary decided she would tell them the actress had asked her a question of spiritual important, and they were heading to the library. That would be sure to bore their hostesses from their company. She came upon her sister writing a letter, but Elizabeth claimed she was nearly done and – after hearing Mary's plan to shield their purpose from inquiring minds, agreed to look for Jane together.
Dinner that evening was a tense affair, despite the good news of Reverend Collins' continuing recovery. Miss Bingley presided over the quiet table with a pinched expression, trying in vain to draw her companions out from their somber attitudes. Her brother, the supposed host of the evening, was nearly silent…in fact, Caroline was unsure if she had ever seen him sit so long in so serious an attitude before in their entire life. The only guests with conversation where those Caroline had least interest in speaking with…Dr. Barringer, nursing the invalid parson her brother had drug in from the rain, and the rather cheeky Constable Gantry, who had been hired to learn how he had come to be caught in the storm. From the looks the party bore, it seemed that Reverend Collins recovery was a horrible tragedy, rather than the outcome they had fervently been praying for.
There was something else going on. Caroline perhaps hadn't expanded her mind with extensive reading, she thought with a sneer, but she was no simpleton. She was the Mistress of Netherfield, yet no one thought it fit to confide in her whatever drama was unfolding beneath her very roof. The Bingley reputation was tenuous as the family was only recently parted from their business and had not yet purchased an estate. Their time in Hertfordshire was supposed to lend them credibility as gentry amongst the Bon Ton. How could she ensure the respectability and status of her family if a scandal was brewing in her household? She had never seen her brother so quiet and reflective – and even though she took little pleasure in company of the current party assembled at Netherfield, she had never found their company this dull and tedious before. The courses crawled by – little appreciated or remarked upon by her listless and distracted guests.
When the separation of the sexes finally came, Caroline nearly leapt to her feet. She could hardly credit her brother's behavior, and beyond her irritation at his poor company, she had been struck by a sisterly feeling of concern. Curtseying to Mrs. Collins and her sister, Caroline made a vague comment of speaking to the housekeeper and quit the room. Louisa could speak of the wretched rain with the dull locals – Caroline needed to speak with her brother.
She entered the study with a practice smile. "Pardon my intrusion gentlemen, but I must speak to my brother regarding a most urgent household matter. Pray excuse us, I shall return him to you shortly."
The efficient mistress had pulled her brother from his study and into Netherfield's small library before Charles quite knew what had happened. "Good heavens, Caroline." He said with a snap, "Whatever is so important?"
Miss Bingley's pretty face pinched into a fierce scowl. "Indeed, Charles. Whatever is so important? What could possibly have happened since breakfast this morning to make your mood so dark and unsociable? I quite depend upon you to carry the conversation in such a …liberally mixed...table, and you scarcely have said ten words together throughout the course of the evening!"
Charles sighed heavily, running a hand through sandy locks. "My apologies sister, you're right of course…I was scarcely attending. I have been preoccupied with many matters. I shall have a drink with the gentleman and return to you as a much more attentive company."
She gave him a hard, searching look. "I see you are being deliberatively vague about the nature of your troubles. Well, no matter. If you will not choose to share your burdens with your family, you will do us the courtesy of saving your wool gathering for the privacy of your own rooms. It is excessively rude to make your sister worry for you without offering explanations for your distress."
Charles sputtered. "Rude! Caroline – please, it is hardly rude to keep private matters to oneself."
"Private matters indeed!" Miss Bingley retorted. "You are the head of this family Charles. All your decisions affect us all, we are raised by your triumphs and damaged by your failures…. none more so than me! I have never seen you so serious before, and you tell me I have no right to be concerned?" She took a calming breath, and said with some softness, "Charles…. Charlie…– please, what is going on?"
The appellation of his childhood nickname was Bingley's undoing. His sisters had not called him Charlie since before he had left home for Eton. A sob caught in Bingley's throat as her wrenched himself away from Caroline's unusually gentle expression. Caroline closed the distance between them, placing elegant hands gingerly on her brother's back. "Surely you realize I will not rest until you tell me now." She said in gentle tones.
Bingley turned back toward her, blue eyes shining tears that remain un-shone. "I visited Longborn today with Mr. Gantry. I had intended to apologize to Mr. Collins for the nature of our last visit at Netherfield, and to allow him to return here to visit his son. Our call was not successful. Mr. Collins did not accept my apologies but has insulted my honor so grievously that he must be addressed. I have called the cad out. We will meet tomorrow."
Caroline inhaled sharply. A tradesman having a duel with a member of the landed gentry while the gentleman's heir lay sick in the tradesman's house was just the sort of scandal the Bingley's needed to avoid. "Just your honor was insulted Charles? I am surprised you would allow the words of a middling country esquire of little importance bother you when you are esteemed by Mr. Darcy of Derbyshire. Surely you can call off this idiotic duel and simply give the odious man the cut direct."
Charles frowned at his sister disapprovingly and did not answer. Realization dawned across Miss Bingley's finely polished brow. "Ah, I see…" she said with an accusatory hiss, "it is not just your honor which has been called into question. You have called Mr. Collins out in defense of his wife! You would risk the reputation of your family, being arrested, or indeed, even killed – on behalf of a bored country wife who wished for the touch of a young lover!"
Charles felt his jaw slacked at his sisters vulgarity. "Caroline – how dare you!"
"How dare I, Charles? How dare I!?" Caroline's pitched rose with her ire. "Brother, how dare you! I do not know how you can face me and dare to reprimand me for speaking the truth. Mr. Collins' accusations against you were true, and that is why you felt so compelled to face him. You've taken the man's wife for a mistress."
The jaw which had slacked was positively fish gaped. His blue eyes moved frantically, trying to find some way to refute his sisters claims – but he knew that she spoke truly. Loving Jane Collins made him feel incredibly guilty, even knowing what kind of man her husband was, even knowing how little choice she had had in her partner in life. Some lessons in morality cannot be completely shook off, no matter how much one could rationalize their behavior. Bingley and Jane were adulterers and making an enemy of her husband had been a way to exercise that guilt from himself from the very start.
Still, for all Caroline's correctness, she did not know of what she spoke. Jane was a marvel – a brilliant, strong, woman who had endured hardships Caroline could have never possibly dreamed of. She was not some trope of a curious young wife who had married an old man. Jane had not come to him because of some unscratched itch…. they had fallen into an impossible love.
"Charles – I can read your face plainly. My maid said there were some murmurings of Mrs. Collins kissing you in the conservatory, but the servant who witnessed the incident was from the London staff, and those hired from Meryton would not hear slander against Mrs. Collins…so it did not take. I see that their loyalty was misplaced."
"The only loyalty that is misplaced." Charles said hotly, "Is any remaining fealty Mrs. Collins may feel toward her husband, who is a worst brute than you can possibly comprehend."
"Charles!" Caroline gasped, astonished at her sweet brother's venom.
"Understand this, Caroline," he said firmly, but kindly, taking her by the elbows. "I have fallen in love with Jane Collins." Seeing her open her mouth to protest, he continued in a harder tone. "I know our acquaintance is of a short duration. I know that I have an impossible object in front of me, as she is married to another man. I know that I should pray for repentance for giving into my most base impulses in expressing my love to another man's life. But I do not regret it Caroline, for all I know how tragic and wrong it is. I will not regret, nor forget, Jane Bennet. If you must judge us, I beg you to judge me alone – I knew how much Mrs. Collins suffered, how alone she has felt…. I should have been strong enough to deny the undeniable feeling between us. Instead I encouraged her affections most selfishly."
"She is very beautiful Charles." Came the begrudging reply. "But beauty such as hers is fading, and hardly worth risking one's life or liberty over. You must call off this duel at once, and then call off this affair. Mr. Collins' fever has broken. Mrs. Collins and her sister can return to Longborn having no need to nurse him every day, and once the man can safely be escorted to his family estate, we shall shut up Netherfield and return to Town for the season."
"You are wrong." Bingley said with a soft smile. "Jane's beauty is not the fading type. She will not be young forever, that much is true…but her loving heart will never be marred by the passing of time. Her goodness will not wither, not when all her suffering has only magnified her compassionate nature. Her strength will only grow as she gains wisdom from the adversities she faces in life. And such an angel….she is worth risking everything for Caroline. Everything."
Tears stung at Caroline's eyes. Her brother was an idiot – there was no denying that. But by God, he truly did love the woman – at least he believed in it with a conviction Caroline had never seen before in reality, nor heard of. Plenty of men said pretty words to please the ladies of their choice, but few men of their class felt things with a poet's heart. Was his heart so enmeshed because the situation was so impossible? Perhaps the tragedy of the situation had romanticized Charles attraction to Mrs. Collins to become something out of the common way. And yet…. he spoke of the woman's character, not the typical flowery nonsense of besotted young dandies.
"Oh Charlie." Caroline sighed tiredly, wrapping her brother in an embrace. "I am so sorry brother. You have a good heart, which is a rare thing, and you deserve an easy, uncomplicated love. You must see that we need to leave Netherfield at the earliest possibility. This affair will only bring the both of you heart break."
Charles leaned into his sister. "I know you are right, but I will not leave until this business with Reverend Collins is fully resolved, and Mrs. Collins and her sisters are safe. And I must defend her honor Caroline. There is no choice – for if I do not, I will send her home to her husband having given him leave to believe that her honor is tarnished."
"It is, Charles." Caroline interjected with tartness. "Neither of you are innocent of the accusations Mr. Collins levies against you."
Charles hung his sandy head. "You know you are correct. But Caroline…. I must defend her. Even though the accusations are true, I can not send her back to her husband having acknowledged that to him. I don't know what he might do to her in retaliation for the indiscretion."
"That is her consequence to bear, Charles."
"Some may feel that way, but I do not. We have participated equally in this affair, and I will do all I can to shield Jane from the worst of the consequences. Facing Collins is not without risk. I think few men have hated as strongly as Mr. Collins does me on this day – he will be seeking his vengeance. I do not make these choices lightly."
"You are determined then, to act?"
"I am decided."
"Very well." Caroline sighed with resignation. "I shall know how to act. We have tarried long enough. We must return to the Hertfordshire's most tedious company. I pray your lady-love and her bluestocking sister have already returned to their patient."
"Caroline," Charles spoke with warning in his voice and purpose in his gaze, "you will speak of this duel to no one, absolutely no one. As Mr. Gantry was with me when I challenged Collins, he of course is aware, and will stand witness. He is not pleased but is aware of the delicate nature of the situation. I would not have my decision to face this man tarnish the names of my friends or influence the nature of the investigations in Hertfordshire. I am prepared. I will be careful. But I will go, and should you speak up in an attempt to stop me tonight, you will find yourself swiftly sent to our aunts in Manchester with an allowance so pitiful you will begrudge your maid her wages."
"Charles! You wouldn't dare!"
"Indeed, I would dare Caroline. I am prepared to dare everything. Please, I beg of you – do not test my forbearance on this matter. I am determined upon my course." He cleared his throat and offered his arm to his sister in a gallant manner. "Come," he said with forced lightness, "it is high time we returned to our guests. The night is yet young. Perhaps you can turn the mood of the room with some music?"
"Perhaps, I could at that," Caroline replied, forcing a laugh into her voice. "At the very least, it would be a receptive audience to practice all the funeral dirges I know."
With bustling skirts and a much more natural, masculine laugh at Caroline's jib, brother and sister removed from the library in much better spirits than they had when they entered it. However, the young woman who had spent so much of the afternoon in the ebullient glow of being newly engaged was rocked by an onslaught of emotions from all that she just mistakenly overheard.
Elizabeth, still in the thick of her mourning and considered by the hostess to be in a house among virtual strangers, was taking her evening meals in her rooms and spending the night in "quiet reflection". The happiness she felt at accepting Darcy's love in her life had not entirely faded, but when Mary had told Jane and herself of all her adventures throughout the day, the Bennet girls had much to concern themselves with. It was very exciting that Mary had been able to learn the names of William's assailants and would even be able to recognize one by site – it was extremely concerning to learn of how poorly Bingley's visit to Longborn had truly went – that Mr. Bingley had called Mr. Collins out, highly vexing. Jane confessed that she seen Mr. Bingley that afternoon after his return from Longborn and spoken with him for a while and that he had made no mention of any ugliness at Longborn. She was angry that he had not yet disclosed anything of this duel to her – but in the way that only Jane could she had also acknowledged to coming upon Mr. Bingley while in a highly distressed state, and that he might have only been waiting for a better time discuss his intentions to duel Mr. Collins with the gentleman's own wife.
Elizabeth had not known Mr. Bingley as long as the others, and while she thought well enough of him from their few days acquaintance, she was incredibly affronted that he had felt it was his place to address the Master of Longborn and call that gentleman to account. She had felt a flood of indignation hit her, as if Mr. Bingley had taken something from her. Perhaps Collins had insulted Bingley in some unforgivable manner. What had he hurt Bingley with? Words? What were words?
Collins had taken everything from Elizabeth. Collins had forced her from her home, and forced her to live a life in fear, anger, and loneliness. Terror at being discovered made her keep all those who cared for her in her life in London at arm's length. Even dear Forelli, that darling man who had housed her, clothed her, educated her, loved her as his own child, launched her career, and made her his heir…. she had only ever told him her real name a month before he died…. six years of distance.
Collins had taken her father. Then Jane had told them Collins had taken William's real father as well. What right – Elizabeth had thought with fury – what possible right does this Mr. Bingley have to address Collins? Why should he be the one, standing tall, be the one to stand down the barrel of the monsters gun to reclaim his family's honor? That right was hers, she seethed, hers and all the Bennet sisters' – but hers, and Jane's. He was a good man who had done much to help them, and she grateful to him for allowing this reunion with her sisters. But revenge against this imposter Collins – the man who had stolen Longborn – the man who had stolen her life? That was Elizabeth's right to give.
Mary and Jane had not been angry at Bingley's interference, and beseeched Elizabeth to grant him more grace with their better understand of their hosts character. However, they were both extremely worried about how Collins would act in a duel. Gentlemen shoot in the air. Collins would not be satisfied by gestures such as that. None of the sisters could agree on how to act, and when they parted ways to attend dinner each had left dissatisfied.
After finishing her tray in the confines of her room, Elizabeth's agitation had necessitated that she stretch her legs. She allowed them to lead her to the library, where she picked over the limited selection of tombs for something that would either bore her into rest or interest her enough to distract her from present worries. It seemed that her strategy of boredom had proven successful, for she had sat for a moment intending only to skim through a few selections before returning to her chambers and was woken to the sound of her host and hostess arguing.
"Private matters indeed!" Snapped Miss Bingley's elegant drawl, and Elizabeth had startled into wakefulness. Groggy and confused, the moment it took for Lizzy to regain her bearings, Miss Bingley had launched into a very private speech she would be quite mortified for Elizabeth to hear. The chair she was sitting in faced away from the siblings and in a shadowed corner. Wrapped in black and thoroughly occupied in their conversation the two Bingleys had launched into a conversation Elizabeth could hardly credit she just heard.
Jane's immense distress at the idea of Charles dueling with her husband came into sharper relief. Jane was in love with their host, Jane had thrown caution to the wind and had an affair with Mr. Bingley, she'd been witnessed kissing the man– and Mr. Bingley would duel Mr. Collins in order to defend Jane's honor. Mr. Bingley was ardently in love with her sister.
Elizabeth knew she should be shocked, but in truth, she rejoiced at that idea of Jane claiming happiness for herself. Her sister had had her youth stolen from her and had the only choice a woman truly has in life…. the choice of her husband…taken from her. What had melted her was hearing Mr. Bingley's ardent love from Jane…tears had rolled freely down Elizabeth's face as Bingley had describe the lasting qualities of her sisters beauty. Then, he had impressed her with the firmness of his resolve to face her husband. That he held himself as responsible for the affair and would not let Jane face the repercussions of their conduct alone, highly commendable.
But it was his last words that struck her, his warming to his sister. "I am prepared to dare everything." Mr. Bingley had said, and that sentiment Elizabeth well understood. She had spent six years learning, growing, living, waiting, hoping, planning for the moment when she would dare everything and face her father's murderer, her sister's tormenter. For Jane's sake, Bingley willing risked his reputation, his liberty, and his life. For Jane's sake, Elizabeth could do no less. She had left because she was a coward – a little girl that was no match against an adult and seasoned murderer. But she had returned, a woman grown. Mr. Gantry might serve as witness on the morrow, but Elizabeth would serve as Bingley's second. She rose from her seat, a plan forming in her mind.
Author's Notes: I know you'll all want to kill me for leaving you on a cliffhanger, but just know, we have much more of the evening to get through before Collins/Bingley's duel in the morning. As always, thank you for reading - I look forward to your thoughts on this chapter and your suspicions of what's next. Thank you, thank you, thank you!