The morning after the Netherfield Ball was bright and chilly, merely the tiniest layer of frost dusting the ground and sparkling in the morning sun. On such a day, one would usually find Miss Elizabeth Bennet rambling the woodland trails that littered her father's estate and the surrounding countryside. This morning, however, the only person up and about was Mr. Bennet. Having been used to keeping early hours for many years, he found that not even a night of frivolity and social fatigue could keep him abed past six o'clock. And so it was the Mr. Bennet found himself cloistered up in his study with merely his estate business and a few Greek poets to keep him company, reveling in the morning peace.
It was another two hours before his peace was disturbed by quiet footsteps on the stairs. He smiled – that would be Lizzy on her way out for a morning walk, no doubt. Checking the clock on the mantle, he nodded. She'd be back in good time before the rest of the house awoke and wanted breakfast. He returned happily to his Epicharmus.
Half an hour later, soft footsteps and a slightly louder rap on his door startled Mr. Bennet from his comedy. Jane, perhaps?
"Come in," he called.
Elizabeth's dark head of hair appeared in his doorway.
"Good morning, Papa," she greeted him cheerfully. "I wondered if I might borrow a book?"
Mr. Bennet raised his eyebrows but nodded. "Of course, Lizzy. That was a very quick walk for your daily constitutional. Too chilly for you this morning?"
Elizabeth entered the room fully, shaking her head. "No, I wasn't feeling up to a walk this morning. I thought to enjoy a good comedy before breakfast to prepare myself to take Mr. Collins' antics in the best of spirits. Have you any recommendations?"
Mr. Bennet pointed her in the direction of a comedy he didn't think she had read yet, the English translation of course. Much as he loved encouraging Elizabeth's sharp mind, he did not think many men would be interested in marrying a woman who knew Greek. (And to think that Mrs. Bennet thought he cared nothing for his girls' prospects!)
"Thank you. I'll see you at breakfast, papa," she said, offering him a quick kiss and a smile before dashing out of the room, closing the door carefully behind her.
Mr. Bennet smiled fondly in her absence. Maybe he should reconsider teaching her Greek – if she couldn't find a husband who would tolerate it, he would be happy to have her company in his fading years. Lord only knew she was the only one in this house that didn't drive him mad at one point or another.
He returned to his book, resolving to keep the Greek in mind. It might be a good challenge for her in the long winter months.
An hour later, one of the maids appeared at the door to announce breakfast, and Mr. Bennet reluctantly parted from his book with a sigh. He pushed himself to his feet, wondering when it was that his limbs had become so achy in the cooler weather, and straightened his shoulders in preparation for what was sure to be a hectic breakfast with much discussion of the Ball. Ribbons, lace, and dancing! Good God, would it never subside?!
Mr. Bennet settled himself at the head of the table and reached for the toast, hearing a clamoring upon the stairs which signaled the arrival of his many-feathered and be-ribboned flock. He took a sip of the strong coffee and braced himself. And so another day begins…
"Oh, Mr. Bennet!" Mrs. Bennet exclaimed even as she entered the breakfast room. "What a success our girls were! I'm sure it is all anyone is talking about!"
"Good morning to you, Mrs. Bennet," he greeted her wryly. "Sleep well?"
"Oh, lord, but what does it matter how I am sleeping? Much better to ask Jane, for I'm sure she hasn't slept a wink for thoughts of her beloved Bingley!"
"I slept very well, thank you, mama," Jane demurred with a soft blush, approaching her father to greet him with a kiss. "Good morning, Papa. Is Lizzy down?"
"Good morning, Jane. I believe she's in the drawing room, although I'm sure she'll be in momentarily."
Jane smiled and settled herself, helping herself to what was left of the food after Mrs. Bennet, Mary, Kitty, and Mr. Collins had taken their shares.
"Is Lydia with her?" Kitty asked around a mouthful of roll. "She usually lies abed much later than I do, but I expected she must have gone for a walk to Meryton with Lizzy as her pelisse was gone."
Mr. Bennet furrowed his brow. "Lizzy did not walk this morning, but perhaps she saw her."
"Saw who?" asked Lizzy, entering the breakfast room with a slightly distracted look about her. So distracted that she did notice the way that Mr. Collins sat up straighter and followed her with his eyes. Mr. Bennet, not so distracted, did notice, and wondered slyly when he would have the pleasure of the most ridiculous proposal to ever grace the halls of Longbourn.
"Your youngest sister seems to have disappeared," he advised her with a sly smile. "Have you come across her this morning?"
Lizzy shook her head. "No, I daresay it has been a very peaceful morning," she said to her father with a twinkle in her eye. He chuckled, but Jane gave her a chiding look which soon turned her contrite. "Which is to say that I have been alone in the drawing room all morning, seeing neither hide nor hair of any creature, much less Lydia. I thought she would still be abed?"
"So thought we all," Mr. Bennet agreed, musing. "What can she be up to?"
"Lord, Lizzy, I hope you have not got Lydia hoodwinked into your silly walks now," Mrs. Bennet fretted. "I should not like to see her wandering about the countryside by herself!"
"Healthful activity ought to be encouraged in all young ladies," Mary contributed, "for idle hands are the Devil's playthings."
"Lord, Mary, it isn't even ten o'clock!" Kitty sighed. "Can't it wait until after breakfast?"
"Well, I don't like Lydia being out on her own this early in the morning! And missing breakfast! She'll lose her figure! Hill! Hill! I need you at once!"
Mrs. Hill bustled into the room, gracefully hiding her exasperation. "Ma'am?"
"Mrs. Hill, send a few of the boys out to look for Miss Lydia. She went out for a walk this morning, we think, and I should like her home for breakfast."
"Of course, ma'am." Hilly offered a small curtsy and backed out of the room.
"Now, Mr. Bennet, did you notice how many times Mr. Bingley danced with our Jane last night?"
"I am sure I did not," he sighed.
The rest of the breakfast passed with relative normalcy – much speaking of dancing and ribbons and lace, some censure of Mrs. Long's nieces and the continual grievance of the Lucas' plain daughters' fates, some sermonizing from Mary, some huffing and complaining from Kitty, much fawning from Mr. Collins, and yet … surprisingly, there were no glances of shared enjoyment with his Lizzy. Mr. Bennet looked at her in wonder, noting the embarrassed flush in her cheeks and her downcast eyes, observing her flinch when her mother or sisters said something particularly inappropriate. What a change! Had something happened last night for which Lizzy had cause to be embarrassed of her family? Had he missed something?
Before he could muse too fully on the matter, however, Mr. Bennet was much diverted by Mr. Collins clearing his throat and requesting of Mrs. Bennet, none too subtly, the privilege of a private audience with Miss Elizabeth. Mr. Bennet felt he ought to be offended that it was not his permission which was asked, but he hardly had time to be offended before he was bustled out of the room with little ceremony. Elizabeth's expression shared a border between surprised and horrified, and Mr. Bennet couldn't help finding it a little bit amusing. It was certain that Lizzy would never accept the foolish man, and Mr. Bennet would never permit such a marriage anyways, so it would merely be another amusing story to entertain him on the dull days. Oh, and Mrs. Bennet would get into such a flap!
It was as he was debating whether or not Mrs. Bennet would need to call her salts that such an event occurred as to safely put the matter to rest – one of the young boys that ran errands in the kitchen came running into the hall through the front door, yelling Mrs. Hill's name.
"Mrs. Hill! Mrs. Hill! I found her, I found her!" he shouted. Mrs. Hill came running from the kitchen, clearly alarmed and not yet aware of the family lurking by the breakfast room door.
"Whatever do you mean, boy? Where is she?"
"Dead," he gasped, hands on his knees. "Miss Lydia is murdered!"