[WIP - Regency/R]
'The screams she thought were her own persisted, only that this time they did not come from her lips, but from the outside, from the gallery, echoing horrendously through the corridors of Rosings manor.'
Elizabeth sat up in bed with a start, her breath quick and shallow, her body bathed in cold sweat. Her first impression was that the screams were her own, the result of a horrible nightmare, but as her agitation eased, she realized that the sounds did not come from her throat but that were desperate cries of someone outside the room.
The screams continued, despairing and hysterical, now accompanied by expressions of concern of those who had reached the gallery to see what had caused of the alarm. Not able to contain her curiosity, Elizabeth, disregarding precaution and propriety, covered herself with a robe and rushed outside to meet whoever was responsible of such commotion.
The source of the scandalous noise was no other than a chambermaid. Her hands were pressed against her face and her body trembled with unrepressed sobs. Other servants had reached the scene and Elizabeth, still shocked by the unusualness of the situation, stood frozen as different doors along the corridor opened and showed the astonished faces of those who, like her, were awakened by the maid's cries.
Colonel Fitzwilliam was the first member of the family to come out, half dressed in his trousers and a nightshirt, securing his pants with one hand, holding his sabre with the other one. He reached Lady Catherine's door with the hastiness of a well trained soldier and on facing the maid, demanded to know the reasons for such noise.
"The mistress!" cried the girl, "she is dead!"
His shock was such that he froze for a few seconds before disappearing inside his aunt's chambers.
Barely a minute had passed before a small crowd was gathered in front of Lady Catherine's rooms. No one could understand what was happening and the maid was in such a wretched state that she was incapable of articulating speech. Their initial thought was that Lady Catherine had had a stroke, that the maid happened to find her dead during her nightly inspection of the mistress' room, but as the young girl recovered herself from the shock, the truth was revealed.
"I came to stir the fire … I always do it twice during the night … and I saw her!" the girl sobbed, "… there was so much blood … she was covered with blood!"
The maid was crying in earnest and, on Charlotte approaching her to offer her comfort, she fell in the arms of the parson's wife. In between sobs and hiccups, the girl described the horrid scene to the astonished listeners. Lady Catherine had been … murdered?
It was at that precise moment that Mr. Darcy appeared in the corridor, still attired in the same shirt and trousers he had been wearing when she had seen him earlier, Elizabeth noticed, with his hair dishevelled and his clothes wrinkled as if he had slept in them. He paused only to confirm from the maid's lips what he had overheard as he approached her and then went directly into his aunt's chambers to join his cousin.
Miss de Bourgh, whose room was farther down the corridor, was the last to arrive. She came running, with her robe flapping behind her.
"What has happened?" she cried. "What is all this noise?"
An intense silence followed her inquiry. Almost immediately, they all looked away so their expressions would not betray the pity they felt for Miss de Bourgh's situation. No one had the courage to inform her about what had just occurred, so Ann stood there, looking at them, sensing that there was something very wrong but nonetheless waiting for someone to tell her that there was no reason for concern. At length, Mr. Collins, with the eloquence of a man experienced in the affairs of the church, approached to inform her of the sad news and express his condolences.
"No!" Ann sobbed, "it cannot be! It cannot be!"
Elizabeth extended a compassionate hand and offered her comfort. But to no avail. Miss de Bourgh was hysterical.
"No! Mother!" Ann attempted to go to her mother's chambers.
Both Charlotte and Elizabeth held Ann's arms to prevent her from entering Lady Catherine's room and witness the horrible scene that the maid had described earlier. The young girl continued to struggle until she finally freed herself and ran into her mother's bedroom. It was fortunate that Colonel Fitzwilliam was coming out at that precise moment and gathered Miss de Bourgh in his arms before she go any further. He secured her firmly around the waist and carried her out of the room while she battled him to free herself from his hold.
"Ann," he spoke soothingly, "you must not go in."
"No, Richard! I must see her! What happened to my mother?"
"She … " Fitzwilliam was disarmed for seeing her in such anguish, "she died."
Ann begged him to allow her to see her mother, this time hitting the Colonel on the chest with her fists every time he blocked her way. Neither his caresses nor his words were able to comfort her. She continued to cry and to hit until her strength was gone and she fainted in her cousin's arms.
Fitzwilliam picked her up and carried her down the corridor towards her chambers. "Miss Bennet, Mrs. Collins, pray stay with her until she wakes up. She will need someone by her side."
"I haven't seen so much blood since I served with Wellesley in Talavera." Fitzwilliam examined Lady Catherine's lifeless body through narrowed eyes. "She must have been stabbed at least ten times. The murderer really must have hated her."
Darcy pressed his fist to his mouth and turned away from the horrible vision. He could not beheld the sight of blood with the easiness his cousin could. "We must sail to the mainland to fetch the Bailiff. The crime should be reported to the authorities as soon as may be."
"In this weather?" the colonel covered the body with a blanket. "We cannot leave the island until the storm passes. 'Tis too dangerous."
"That might take a day or two. Something should be done till then."
"I will not risk drowning in the sea for her, Darcy, even less now that she is dead, nor I will send anyone to find his death either. No, it will have to wait until navigation is safe."
"Good heavens!" Darcy walked towards the window. The rusty smell of blood was making him ill. "What kind of person would do such thing? Who could hate her so much as to kill her so viciously?"
Fitzwilliam glanced at the bed and then at his cousin. Darcy was not someone to fret over unpleasant sights but, in this case, the colonel understood the reason of his discomposure. Had it not been for his military experience, which had presented him with all sort of sordid images and mutilations, he would have been in a similar state at the moment.
"Who? It could have been anyone, Darcy." The Colonel joined him at the window. "Everyone in this island, from the lowest under gardener to any of us have been, in some degree, seduced by the idea of killing her."
Darcy startled and looked at his cousin, somehow shocked by his revelation.
The Colonel smirked at the expression of incredulity on Darcy's face. "Well, maybe not everyone. Miss Lucas I would exclude from this list. Her disposition is too sweet. I cannot believe her capable of killing a fly, less to commit a crime such as this one." But Darcy did not share his cousin's humour for the situation. "Have you spoken to Ann?"
Fitzwilliam nodded quietly. "I have. She is in such a dreadful state. She fainted when I told her what happened. I took her to her bedroom and asked Mrs. Collins and Miss Bennet to accompany her until she is recovered from the shock."
"What are we supposed to do, Fitzwilliam?" Darcy paced the room, visibly altered by the recent turn of events. "We cannot stay here and wait until the storm passes. Lady Catherine was murdered."
"Well, I know a lot of people who would find delight in celebrating her demise."
Darcy glared at his cousin. "Show some respect, Fitzwilliam, it is your aunt who is lying dead on that bed."
"You are right, forgive me. I fear I have developed a certain cynicism after the war. It is the only way I have found to overcome the horrors I saw there."
"I understand," Darcy smiled faintly. "Think no more of it."
"We can begin by gathering everyone in the sitting room and explain the situation. No one can leave the island until the authorities are informed and the bailiff is here to decide what to do."
Darcy assented to Fitzwilliam's suggestion. As they walked out of the room, the Colonel looked up and down at his cousin, a little amused by his state of attire.
"Darcy, did you sleep in your clothes?"
The other man let out a sad chuckle, stress and tiredness evident in his features. "I did not have much sleep tonight. I was too restless to go to bed and I ended falling asleep on the armchair after three glasses of brandy."
"I faced a similar predicament tonight but I least I managed to get undressed before collapsing on bed."
"I am sure the ladies found you a charming sight when you appeared half dressed in the corridor," replied Darcy in better spirits.
Colonel Fitzwilliam looked down at himself. He was barefoot, with his nightshirt rolled beneath his braces, the sabre that he had brandished so courageously on his entrance now forgotten on the table. "I think their minds were occupied with more unpleasant subjects to notice my attire. Come, Darcy, let us reunite the others to tell them the news."
"I believe you all know why you were gathered here." Col. Fitzwilliam began, "Lady Catherine passed on tonight."
Elizabeth listened to the Colonel's explanation with scepticism and distrust. As he said, she had imagined the reason why they were all gathered in the sitting room when they were first convoked but never she had thought that such reunion would only serve to install in her mind the seed of suspicion. Something about the demeanour of the cousins and, in particular, of Mr. Darcy disturbed her. Col. Fitzwilliam spoke well, he told them of all the precautions that were to be taken so the murder would not be left unpunished but, on referring to his aunt, his speech transmitted more concern for the unresolved crime than the shock and grief that usually follows the death of a relative. As for Mr. Darcy, he did not open his mouth the whole time and his disposition appeared remarkably unaffected for someone whose aunt had just been killed.
Yet, such a notion did not surprise her. After all she that witnessed during the past days, she could have not imagined another outcome. With less pliancy of temper than the others and, perhaps, more information at hand as to allow her better discernment, with her perception enhanced by an innate tendency to precipitate her judgement, Elizabeth had already found the murderer. While everyone in that house was a suspect, including herself, according to the Colonel, no one had more reasons to kill Lady Catherine than her own nephew, Mr. Darcy. To her, it was more than clear. The threats of which he was being subjected, the blackmail, the cruelty he was capable of bestowing on those around him plus his nocturnal ramblings through dark corridors at wee hours were, in her mind, proof enough to condemn him. Still, Elizabeth knew that such reflections would have to wait for the presence of the bailiff to be disclosed. She could not trust the Colonel's impartiality in this case. Though she wanted to believe in his innocence, Col. Fitzwilliam could very well be in conspiracy with his cousin or worse, he may try to guard the family's honour by keeping Darcy free of charge, hence convincing her of the wisdom of not formulating any formal accusations before the arrival of the authorities.
There was not much to do then but to wait. The storm outside showed no signs of coming to an end and they were all confined to the house. Together with the dawn, came the despair. Like in her dream, instead of providing shelter, Rosings had become her prison, for now Elizabeth was housebound with a murderer and his victim.
In spite of the tragedy that occurred the previous night and the little appetite that the family and its guests had, breakfast was served with the usual punctuality. The gentlemen of the house did not attend; they were in conference with the staff explaining to them the latest events and establishing the terms in which house would function until the new mistress was ready to take charge and telling them of the restrictions they were to suffer until the Constable could be brought to the island.
When they were done with the morning formalities, the guests moved to the sitting room where a large hearth had been lit up to warm and dry the room. No one was certain how long the storm would last, the wind had been howling and the rain falling for an entire day with no evidence of stopping so, giving the island's current state of isolation and the impossibility of going to the village for supplies (even though it was said that Rosings was stocked to survive a month), it was determined that the house's resources of coal and wood would be regulated until it was safe enough to exit the manor.
"I am so sorry, Lizzy," Charlotte told her friend with regret, "that you are suffering all this because of me. Had I known that your stay at Rosings would be so unpleasant, so ..." she shook her head, unable to find the appropriate word to describe the horrors that they were now experiencing, "I would have never have asked you nor Maria to come."
"Oh, Charlotte," Elizabeth tried to put her mind at ease. "You cannot blame yourself! You were not aware of Lady Catherine's evils when you invited me and you certainly are not at fault for what happened last night!"
"I knew of her unkindness, but I never thought she could be capable of so much malice nor that she would end her days so violently." Charlotte pressed her handkerchief to her nose. "Oh, I wish I had never married Mr. Collins!"
Charlotte began to cry in earnest and Elizabeth observed her with sympathy but not without puzzlement. Her friend was not someone to allow herself to be overwhelmed by the circumstances, Charlotte usually faced matters with a calmness of thought and an equanimity that would be uncommon in other people but this time she looked more troubled than Elizabeth would have ever imagined her to be. But then, considering what had happened, Elizabeth thought Charlotte's discomposure to be justified, for the murder of her patroness not three doors away from her room had been a shocking event that had put at stake the permanence of the Collinses in the Hunsford Parsonage.
"Do not distress yourself, Charlotte," Elizabeth offered kindly, "I am most certain that Miss de Bourgh will keep Mr. Collins' living. She is exceedingly fond of you."
Charlotte shook her head. "Perhaps she will but I am the one who is not certain of remaining in this place for much longer. Truly Lizzy, if it would be in my power to decide, I would quit Rosings this very moment to never come back."
The vehemence with which Charlotte had said those words shocked Elizabeth, even when she supposed them to be the consequence of a long, stressful night. Charlotte's distress was acquiring enormous proportions. She looked at Maria in an attempt to find an ally that would help her convince Charlotte that everything would be better soon, that there was no reason for concern, but the young girl had flushed so crimson and was securing her sister's hand so tightly that she was dissuaded from counting on her as source of balance for her sister. Since Lady Catherine's dead body was found, Maria Lucas had been a bundle of nerves.
Soon they were joined by the gentlemen and their entrance had a profound effect in ladies' behaviour. Elizabeth was barely able to conceal the discomfiture she felt for being in Mr. Darcy's company and for the sudden uneasiness she could now sense in Charlotte and Maria upon the gentleman's appearance, she could guess that she was not the only one in the house that suspected that he might be the murderer. If it would be wise to share those preoccupations with her friends, she was not sure yet.
"Pray, Col. Fitzwilliam," Elizabeth began, "How is Miss de Bourgh doing?"
"She is much better, thank you. Mrs. Jenkinson informed us thus this morning."
"I would like to pay my respects to her, if you think it would not be an inconvenience."
"It is not, I assure you. I am certain that she will very grateful to receive your comfort at this moment."
Elizabeth nodded at the gentleman and rose from her seat.
"I will go with, you, Lizzy," Charlotte quickly stood, "I would like to pay my respects, too."
"So do I," Maria bolted to her feet. And the three left the room.
"It seems that the ladies have deserted us, uh Darcy?" said the Colonel, surprised by their hastiness. "Would you like to play billiards?"
Darcy, who was standing in front of the window, staring out with his hands clasped behind his back, did not reply, merely glanced over his shoulder and resumed his previous attitude.
"Well, Mr. Collins," Fitzwilliam shrugged at his cousin's foul mood. "We are the only ones left. I suppose you do not play billiards, do you?"
"I am afraid I do not, sir."
"Chess?" "That I play, though I must warn you, I may not be a worthy opponent."
The Colonel's eyes were still on his cousin's back. "Do not worry, Collins, any player will do."
Miss de Bourgh received her visitors in her private sitting room. Albeit her eyes were red from crying, the perfect composure with which she addressed them and easiness of manners told them that she was much recovered from the shock suffered on the previous night.
The meeting had raised Miss de Bourgh's spirits enough as to consider herself fit enough to leave her chambers and join the others in the sitting room. There she was met with great enthusiasm by the Colonel, who could not conceal his delight for seeing her so improved. Still, there was a sort of tension in the room that Elizabeth attributed to what had occurred on the previous night. With the exception of Miss de Bourgh and Col. Fitzwilliam, who chatted animatedly, there was a clear separation between the ladies and the gentlemen in the room. The fair sex, conforming a solid, uncommunicative group, seemed almost intimidated by the others' presence, while the gentlemen appeared puzzled by their detachment. Slightly apart from the rest, quiet like a piece of furniture, Mrs. Jenkinson did not partake in the conversation.
Elizabeth did not waste this opportunity to study the cousins now that the constant threat that Lady Catherine's presence inflicted on them was gone forever. Both the colonel and Ann were at ease, and it became more evident to the common observer that their sentiments for each other went beyond those of familial affection. The one who had not recovered his composure entirely yet was Mr. Darcy, his demeanour was serious, his countenance reflective, remaining apart almost the entire afternoon, always scrutinizing the horizon in spite of the poor visibility they had of the exterior. The sky was grey because of the tempest, the rain had not yielded and the wind continued to lash the house with the same force since the storm unleashed its fury upon the island.
There was not much they could do to entertain themselves, general amusements were left aside in respect of Lady Catherine's memory so the residents of the manor had to find other ways to help them pass the time. Books, conversation and an occasional song that Elizabeth played on the piano at her friend's request were their amusements. But as darkness fell upon the house once again, the activities of the day came to an end. They parted after supper, Charlotte and Maria choosing to retire to their chambers, Darcy and the Colonel heading for the study to converse in private while Elizabeth and Ann remained in the sitting room, practicing on the piano a song from Miss de Bourgh's collections of sheets. Mr. Collins excused himself from their company a moment later, claiming that he needed to consult one of the religious books he had seen in the chapel and was followed by Mrs. Jenkinson after requesting her mistress' permission to retire.
"I wish they would have allowed me to see my mother one last time," sighed Ann as her fingers danced over the keyboard.
"Your cousins were doing what they thought was best for you," replied Elizabeth.
"I know, but still ..." Ann shook her head.
"You will overcome the grief soon. In a few weeks you will become the mistress of the island and that will keep your mind occupied."
Ann bit her lower lip as a small smile appeared on her face. "I must confess I had not imagined that I would be assuming such position at such young age. My mother's administration was so efficient that I did not think it necessary to learn more about Rosings affairs before what was stipulated in my father's will. But this has changed all, I believe."
"Yes. I was to become fully in charge Rosings at the age of five and twenty. Until I reached that age, my mother had the entire control of my life and the estate."
The revelation somehow shocked Elizabeth, for she had not imagined that Lady Catherine's premature death would have such an impact on Miss de Bourgh's life. "And you are now ..."
"Three and twenty. Though I should not be concerned about becoming the mistress of Rosings a bit sooner. My mother had an excellent steward and I am sure that my cousins will be of great help when I start running the estate."
Elizabeth did not know what to do with this information. Could her Ladyship's demise be in any way connected to this circumstance? Perhaps that was why she was so insistent that her daughter would marry Mr Darcy as soon as may be. In little more than a year, Miss de Bourgh would be free to marry where she chose and Lady Catherine's expectations about a union that would join Pemberley's and Rosings' fortunes would have been for naught. If the gentleman was aware of this situation, and Elizabeth was almost certain that he was, it was another reason to believe him anxious to get rid of his aunt.
"It is getting late," said Miss de Bourgh. "I must retire."
Elizabeth nodded. "May I borrow a book from your library? Reading always helps me to find sleep."
"Of course, good night."
Miss de Bourgh left and Elizabeth remained alone with her thoughts. Everything had turned so confusing that she did not know what to believe anymore. While, in her mind, Mr. Darcy was still the principal suspect, the one in possession of more substantial reasons to commit such a crime, there were other people who would obtain great benefit from Lady Catherine's death. Col. Fitzwilliam, for example, was one of them, though Elizabeth thought improbable given the officer's amiable temper, but also were those who, in one way, would end their tormented existence with the arrival of a new mistress.
With this preoccupation in mind, Elizabeth headed towards the library to find a book that would help her keep these unpleasant thoughts off her mind. What she did not know was that what awaited for her there would make her understanding about the murder completely changed.
Elizabeth found herself in the cold solitude of Rosings library, scanning the shelves for a good book that would help her find some sleep. The room was dim, illuminated by the sole candle she brought with her and the only sounds she heard were those of that came from the windows that had been enduring the constant batter of wind and rain against the glass panes. Rosings manor was scary, but this room, so humid and dark, excited her most dreadful fantasies. Therefore she made haste in accomplishing the task and decided for herself the most appropriate book -a romantic novel- that would, hopefully, help her find sleep in her second horrendous night at Rosings.
As she picked the novel, she heard the door of the adjoining room opening and then closing again. It was a small study that connected to the library by a door that was usually left unlocked. Tonight it was ajar and by some design of fate, the room provided little privacy for the conversations that occurred in that study could be clearly heard from where she was. She tiptoed to the door and through the thin aperture, she saw Mr. Darcy and Col. Fitzwilliam entering the room. Their voices were easily discernible.
"Fancy a glass of port, Darcy?"
"I did not ask you to come for a drink, Fitzwilliam."
The colonel smirked. "Then why did you, if I may ask? You appear to be concerned by something."
"My concern is that you do not appear concerned about the tragedy that had occurred in the house. Our aunt has been murdered and you act as if nothing has happened."
Fitzwilliam sipped his port. "If you want to accuse me of being happy for Catherine's demise, then I am guilty as charged. Yes, I celebrate that her tyrannical existence is over, that we finally got rid of the old bat, but if you, by chance, are implying that I am somehow connected with her death then you do not know me. I am not a murderer."
"I know of the benefits that you are to obtain with her passing on, Richard, as I am aware of the love that had so conveniently blossomed between you and Ann these past months. I think that is encouragement enough to want to eliminate the obstacles that she had positioned between you and your search of a rich heiress."
"That is a serious accusation, indeed, Darcy." the Colonel's demeanour turned from ease to one of visible tension, "I did not know you were one to precipitate your judgement without being certain of the facts. You seem too eager to determinate that I am the killer. Maybe it is because, by accusing me, you can be declared free of guilt yourself?"
"I know not what you are saying."
"You, like myself, will obtain benefits with her death, too. Perhaps not monetarily, but you will earn fortunes in tranquillity. Do not think me unaware of Lady Catherine's insistence on producing a marriage between you and Ann. And knowing my aunt the way I do, I am most certain that she was using every evil knowledge she had of you to force you into a proposal."
"And that would have been the end of your hopes, would it not?" snapped Darcy. "With Ann married to me, your expectations about becoming the master of Rosings would have been ruined. That is why you planned this, to have Ann free to marry you before it was too late!"
The colonel strode towards his cousin and Elizabeth thought they might start a fight right then and there. But they didn't, they stood before each other, barely a few feet apart, ready to jump on each other, both unyielding, holding the other's stare in full support of their assertions. It was the colonel who first looked away.
"For Heaven's sake, Darcy," said he, running his hand through his hair, "even dead, she is making us miserable. I cannot believe we are accusing each other of her demise."
"As you said earlier today, it could have been anyone. When the Bailiff arrives, we both will be facing a similar questioning, I assure you."
"But I did not kill her, Darcy, you must believe me."
Darcy sighed and shook his head. "I know not what to think any more."
Fitzwilliam went to the table and served himself and his cousin a glass of brandy. "Do you really believe me so mercenary as to want to marry Ann just for her fortune?"
Darcy accepted the goblet and gave his drink a long gulp. "I know what I see, Richard. For years, Ann has followed you like a lost puppy without you giving much consequence to her existence, but now that she is about to inherit Rosings, your interest in her has grown noticeably."
The colonel smirked. "I concede you that point. Perhaps I wouldn't love her so much if she weren't so rich, but be certain that killing my aunt in order to marry her had never crossed my mind. Why would I do that? For years, you have been successfully avoiding Lady Catherine's insinuations about marrying Ann. I was merely counting on your ability to escape the obligation a little longer, until Ann became of age to inherit."
Darcy looked down. "I would like to believe that that was the case."
"You would like to believe? Pray tell, what does that mean?"
"As you said before, every body is a suspect."
"And that includes me."
Darcy did not respond.
"We have known each other since we were children! Do you believe me capable of that?" cried, the colonel, incredulous at his cousin's insinuations.
Again, Darcy's silence were a confirmation of his assertions. Indignant, the Colonel strode towards his cousin with an infuriated look in his eyes. "Swear to me that you never flirted with the idea of killing her, Darcy, swear to me!" When his cousin did not reply, Fitzwilliam laughed. "I thought that was the case. Believe me, if I am to be accused of this murder, I will see that you will suffer the same fate."
With that last affirmation, the colonel stormed out of the room.
Elizabeth was astonished as she never had been. She was rooted to the spot, unable to tear her eyes from Mr. Darcy's figure, who stood proud and unmoved by his cousin's rapture. The gentleman then sighed and turned towards her direction and, against everything Elizabeth could imagine possible, he caught Elizabeth's eyes spying on him behind the door.
Without an instant to lose, Elizabeth ran away. Blinded by her fear and her own hastiness to escape, she hit a table and knocked over a vase that crashed noisily on the floor. And like in her nightmare, she felt his presence behind her, the heavy footsteps approaching her and she felt her arms being grabbed by strong hands and spun around.
"What are you doing here?"
In an instant, Elizabeth saw her entire life passing before her eyes. A heavy hand grabbed her arm and spun her around. Her panic escalated to immeasurable proportions and she struggled against Darcy's hold, but in vain. The gentleman would not let go of her.
Her eyes were tightly shut, as if expecting to feel the strike that would end her days at any moment. Her breath became so shallow that air was faltering.
"Miss Bennet!" he insisted on seeing her sudden pallor, "Are you unwell?"
The initial shock gave away to an increasing lethargy as everything around her began to fade. Darcy's voice now sounded distant and her body felt weightless. There was no coldness or warmth around her, only the darkness of a heavy sleep from which she could not wake up. A while later, how long she could not tell, she was awakened by the strong smell of brandy being applied directly to her nose. Her eyes flickered open and as her vision became clearer, the face of Mr. Darcy appeared before her.
"Thank Goodness," he cried, visibly relieved, "are you feeling better?"
Albeit dizzy, Elizabeth attempted to sit up.
"No, no," Darcy stopped her. "Do not get up. You look very ill."
"Where am I?"
"In the study," he brushed a curl from her face. "You fainted. I carried you to the sofa."
Feeling much better, Elizabeth sat on the sofa. Before her, Darcy was crouched, scrutinizing her face, concern evident in his features. "You look much recovered. Can I get you something to drink? A glass of water?"
Howbeit puzzled, she refused it with a slight shake of her head, for she had never expected such tenderness from a man she suspected to be a murderer.
"What were you doing in the library at such late hour? It is dark and this house is not safe."
"I merely came for a book," replied she, surprised by the steadiness of her own voice. "I cannot stay here ..."
As she rose, Darcy extended his hand to help her up, but Elizabeth backed off from his touch.
"Pray," said he, puzzled by her reaction, "There is nothing to fear."
She shrugged her body to the side, attempting to stand up and pass as far away from Darcy's body as she could as she rose from the couch. The gentleman did not remain oblivious to that gesture.
"You are not well, let me assist you."
This time she could not control her fear and cried a 'do not touch me!' as he held her by the elbow. Darcy's face darkened as he realized that he was the one who was scaring her.
"Miss Bennet," he asked in earnest, "are you afraid of me?"
His grip was firm on her. With her eyes full of fear, she struggled to release herself. But he did not let go and insisted in knowing the reasons for her behaviour. She would not explain, or could not, and fruitlessly attempted to pull away from him.
"Please do not hurt me, please!"
Darcy instantly opened his hand and let go of her.
She was walking backwards and he advancing over her. A table put an end to her retreat and she found herself cornered, with Darcy towering over her. Her heart was caught at her throat, her bosom heaved in agitation.
Truly, Elizabeth feared for her life. The faint scent of liquor that came from his breath told her that he might not be fully in his senses. She knew she would have to stay calm and endeavour to distract him until she could run away and find some help. Producing strength where there was only fear, she assumed a more confident posture, and sounding as imposing as she could, she addressed him thus,
"Excuse me, sir, I am a lady. Your behaviour is not according to the one of a gentleman of your rank. Remove yourself from my way and permit me to return to my chambers."
That said, she attempted to leave but his arm, now extended by the side of her head with his palm pressed firmly against the wall, blocked her way. "No, Miss Bennet, you will have to pardon me this time. I will not let you go until you tell me why this sudden fear of my person. I have done nothing to hurt you, have I?"
She swallowed. "No, sir. It is your present conduct that scares me. It is not proper for us to remain alone in this room. Allow me to return to my chamber now and I assure you that no one shall ever know of this meeting."
Darcy lowered his arm and looked directly into her eyes. "I will not let you go until you tell me of the reasons why you were spying on me."
Her pulse quickened and the fear he had seen before returned to her eyes. "I was not."
"Yes, madam, you were. You were hiding behind the door."
She did not reply, only held his stare with eyes full of fear.
"I imagined that was the case. Surely you also overheard the tête- à-tête with my cousin, and given your frightened looks, you are inclined to believe that his affirmations about my character were true."
"I am sorry, sir, but I know not what you are saying."
"No? I think you do, Miss Bennet. You think I have motives to kill my aunt."
Elizabeth's knees suddenly went weak. "No, sir. I do not."
But her face betrayed her. "Oh, madam, you do."
What moved her to nod at that moment, she couldn't tell, but with that simple move, she confirmed his suspicions. And against everything she had expected, Darcy did not kill her nor did he strike her as she had thought he might once he knew her mind, but instantly released her, and stepped back, looking at her with an expression that mingled concern and incredulity.
"Pray tell, what act of mine has driven you to form so abominable opinion of me?"
Elizabeth's throat had suddenly gone dry and she swallowed with difficulty. She did not know what to reply. Since Lady Catherine's dead body was found, she was firm in her conviction that Darcy was the killer. But now, seeing things in a prudential light, and after observing the gentleman's reaction, she realized that she had precipitated her judgement and the conclusions to which she had arrived may not be entirely correct.
"I am sorry, sir. It is not in my right nor in my ability to determine who the murderer is, less to elaborate such accusation."
"But you have already done that, madam, and the severity of the blame which had been so liberally bestowed on me entitles me to know where the foundation of your suspicions reside." When she did not reply, he insisted, "What proof do you have to accuse me? The argument you overheard between me and my cousin, perhaps? Or our meeting in the corridor late in the night? Are those proofs substantial enough as to proclaim someone a murderer?"
"Nay, sir, I cannot presume you guilty based on those convictions. I, too, was walking the corridor that night. But when, much later, I saw you were still wearing the same clothes, I thought it suspicious," said she, a bit ashamed for her hasty conclusion.
Darcy nodded quietly and reflected for a moment before he spoke. "Miss Bennet, you grew up in a farm, did you not?"
Her reply came in the form of a quick nod.
"Have you ever killed a hen or seen a servant slaughtering one?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Answer my question."
"Yes, sir," she replied, puzzled by his questioning. "In my younger years, I used to assist with the farm duties. I have slaughtered a few chickens myself."
"And I suppose you never stained your clothes with blood as you did it."
"You are wrong. My clothes were stained every time. That was why I always wore an apron for the occasion."
He nodded. "Did you see blood in my clothes last night? Or later, when you saw me in the corridor, when the body was discovered, were my clothes blotted with blood?"
"Miss Bennet, had you seen the body and the amount of blood that was shed, you would have realized that I could not have committed that crime without drenching my clothes with my aunt's blood. The fact that you saw me wearing the same attire, on which there was not a single drop of blood, is a confirmation of my innocence and not my guilt, as you so wrongly presumed." He walked around her like a wildcat circling his prey. "So, madam, I wonder why, with no other proofs than those you stated, both unsubstantial, in my opinion, you are ready to declare me my aunt's murderer."
Albeit there was more logic in his reasoning that Elizabeth was ready to admit, she considered that her further understanding of this case was enough to justify her hastiness to condemn him. "My preconception was not only based in what I saw that night nor in your cousin's speculations about your possible guiltiness, as you presume, but on what I heard from your own aunt's lips. She was blackmailing you. I overheard the conversation you had with her on the night of her death and I know of the threats of which you were being subjected, of the evils that would befall you and your family had you persisted in your idea of not marrying Miss de Bourgh."
Darcy observed her for a moment, his countenance reflective, as if Elizabeth were now in understanding of information that she should not possess. Still, he replied with the conviction of a man that spoke with the truth. "Yes, Miss Bennet, that might have been reason enough for anybody, but not for me. I am not a criminal. I did not kill my aunt."
"Then why did you conceal it from your cousin?" cried Elizabeth in the same eagerness. "You knew that information to be incriminating, that is why you did not reveal it during your argument with Colonel Fitzwilliam. You were afraid that he would use it against you, that he would accuse you with the same unjustness with which you accused him. Why should I not think the same way?"
After a moment of reflection, he replied. "I have my reasons, but you may be right in your point, madam, and I, like you, based my affirmations in a misapprehension."
"Perhaps," she stated, still cautious, "we both had been too hasty in our judgement. But as your cousin stated, your aunt's evils are still haunting us, even after her death."
Darcy smiled faintly and walked towards the fire place. He threw a few pine cones in it and poked the dying fire until the flames were reborn. He stared pensively at it for a moment and sighed deeply, as if his life depended on it. Elizabeth thought that he looked exhausted.
"Miss Bennet," he finally said, "I know it is late and that you are surely tired, but I think that your initial suspicion and the facts that had driven us to have this discussion demand further explanation to be fully understood. Would you do me the honour of listening to it?"
In any other moment, Elizabeth would have found his invitation completely inappropriate, she would have left the room immediately, but something inside of her was telling her that she should stay and listen to what he had to say to expand his defence. Perhaps it was his new, sensible and more humble demeanour what moved her to stay or maybe her own curiosity to learn more about this affair that had been the means of her present restlessness. Whatever the reason, she was more than eager to stay.
"Yes, sir, I will."
"Thank you," he smiled, "pray, take a seat by the hearth. It is cold in here."
As she walked to the armchair, Darcy threw a few more logs into the fire, which was now roaring intently. Elizabeth was glad for a little warmth and braced herself to take the chill from her body. He stood by the hearth, with one arm resting on the mantle, looking intently at the fire.
"As you know, Miss Bennet," he began, "my aunt was in possession of information that would have been prejudicial to my family had it been of public understanding. You must be wondering what evils those must have been, to concede her so great power over me."
"I heard something about an elopement, that is all I know, sir."
He nodded quietly. "There is more than that. When my father died, my sister Georgiana, who is more than ten years my junior, was left under the guardianship of myself and my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. She usually resides in London, in an establishment that had been formed for her but, about a year ago, she was taken from school to Ramsgate under the care of Mrs. Younge, the woman that supervised her education at the time. To our misfortune, this lady, in whose character we had been most unhappily deceived, was in connection with an old friend of the family, a man of vicious propensity, who also went thither, with the chief purpose of recommending himself to my sister."
"And he succeeded, I presume, according to your aunts sayings."
"Yes," he sighed, his voice hued with sadness. "He did."
"How old was she at the time?"
"Fifteen, which must be her excuse, I suppose. Georgiana's affectionate heart retained a strong impression of his kindness to her as a child and this man ..." he hesitated, "can be as engaging as he is deceiving. With Mrs. Young aid, he persuaded her to be in love with him and made her consent to an elopement which, by some miraculous design of fate, I was able to prevent."
Elizabeth while condoling with him, could not help but think that Miss Darcy's behaviour was not entirely flawless. "Poor child."
"I cannot deny Georgiana's fault in this affair, she should have realized sooner the impropriety of her actions, though, I am happy to say, she recognized her mistake and acknowledged to me of that intelligence by her own design. I visited her unexpectedly in her house in Ramsgate and in her innocence, she told me of this gentleman with whom she had fallen in love and their plans to be married on the following day. I immediately put an end to the affair and took her away to London, with me. On the way to Town, and now without this man's -forgive me, madam, I cannot refer to him as a gentleman- and Mrs. Younge's influence, Georgiana was able to disclose the entire truth to me. She told me about the correspondence they exchanged, of their encounters and while her virtue had not been compromised, in regard of her feelings, I asked this man to come to London with the intention of recovering the letters she had written to him and preserve her from public exposure. I knew he would use them against her when the appropriate time came."
"But instead of giving those to you, he gave them to your aunt." she interjected.
"Not all of them. I acquired from him seven letters in the amount of one thousand pounds with the conviction that I was buying all the letters my sister wrote to him. But he deceived me. I should have known better." Darcy shook his head. "I should have known ..."
Elizabeth's heart was full of sympathy for him. "You couldn't know it, unless your sister told you exactly the number of letters she wrote to him ..."
"I asked her, but she couldn't remember. She was so distressed at the time, so ashamed of her actions that I preferred not to press the matter any further and hoped that that would be the end of my acquaintance with him. But I was wrong. He kept the letters that beheld the most intimate knowledge, the ones that exposed my sister's most personal feelings and sold them to my aunt, whose malicious nature he knew well." Darcy glanced at the fire before returning his eyes to her. "That is why you saw me in the corridor that night. I went to my aunt's dressing room to see if I could find those letters and finally put an end to our agony."
Elizabeth was astonished. "You went to your aunt's room?"
"I knew that, even if I consented to her wishes and married my cousin, Lady Catherine was going to hold those against me for the rest of her life. I know it is not an excuse to invade my aunt's private chambers, it is against any principle of mine to act so inappropriately, but I had no other choice. I was only trying to protect my sister's honour."
"Did you not fear being discovered?"
"No. I don't know if you have noticed this during your stay at Rosings, but my aunt is-was," he corrected himself quickly, "very fond of sherry."
Elizabeth smirked at that comment, but Darcy remained serious. "Yes, sir, I have seen her drinking a little too much on occasions."
"She usually never drank in excess in front of the guests, but it is was known that she would partake in half a bottle of sherry, even more at times, when she retired to her private chambers, therefore she had a very heavy sleep."
"And you presumed that she would not wake up while you inspected her dressing room."
Darcy began to pace in front of the hearth, appearing more and more troubled with every step. "That was exactly my thought. I searched everywhere, but the letters were not there. The house was so quiet that I decided to venture further into her chambers and try my luck ..." He stopped, and pressed his closed fist to his mouth in an attempt to repress the sickness that those recollections produced in him.
Elizabeth was on pins and needles to learn more. "And ..."
The gentleman swallowed the acid bile that had climbed up his throat and composed himself enough to speak. "And I saw her. She was dead, laying in a pool of her own blood."
"Heaven on earth!" gasped Elizabeth.
Darcy paused for a moment and recovering himself, stated, "I was in utter shock. I did not know what to do. I thought of waking up my cousin to tell him what I had seen, but I would not be able to explain my presence in my aunt's chambers without making him suspicious. When I left her room, I happened upon you."
She was perplexed. "You looked so distressed, so ill, now I know why."
He nodded quietly. "It was not a pretty sight, I grant you. I went directly to my room and waited there until I heard the maid's screams. Those were the longest hours of my life. No, madam," Darcy said after a intense pause, "I did not kill my aunt but, by God I was tempted to do it."
Elizabeth felt a chill running up her spine for this last statement resumed all what he went through, the stress and the suffering to that had been inflicted on him. Darcy had become the victim of his own fortune, hostage of his own power, but still he confronted those adversities and fought against those who were threatening what he considered sacred.
And to think she had once considered vain and disagreeable! Certainly, there was no improper pride in him. She had been so wrong in her presumption. When she recalled how unfairly she had accused him, how unjustly she had condemned him, she could not but chastise herself for her stupidity. His loyalty towards those he cared for became another reason to admire him and his suffering was now the object of her compassion.
"This, madam," he said a moment later, "is a faithful narrative of what happened the night my aunt was killed. I hope you acquit me henceforth of cruelty towards her."
"I do, sir." She smiled. "I do."
Beyond a doubt, this had been the most enlightening and yet the most disturbing and heart wrenching night of Elizabeth's life. In only a matter of hours she had gone from fearing to admiring him; from hating the man and believing him a cold hearted murderer to condoling with his suffering. The lessons of life she received from him, the things she had learned had confronted her with the worst of her own character. She had been blind, prejudiced, partial, absurd. She, who had always boasted of superior discernment was nothing but a prejudiced girl with little understanding of the world. Until that moment, she had not known herself.
"And this gentleman, have you heard from him again?"
Darcy threw a few more logs in the fire. "To my misfortune, our paths crossed again last fall."
"Last fall?" she asked, puzzled. "But you were in Hertfordshire until ..."
... the 28th of November, when Darcy abruptly quit Netherfield two days after the ball. So unless their encounter happened immediately upon his arrival to town, it must have occurred while Darcy was still residing with Mr. Bingley. She did not recall anything in particular about his stay, except for the strong antipathy she felt for him at the time, fuelled by Mr. Wickham, who had no scruples in sinking Darcy's character before her eyes and who installed the seed of prejudice against the gentleman in the first place.
As Wickham's name came to her mind, something just clicked in her, as if the key piece of a puzzle had been placed correctly, allowing her better discernment. Suddenly, everything seemed so clear. Darcy's expression during that meeting in Meryton, when Denny introduced Wickham to Elizabeth and her sisters, was not shame as she had initially thought but anger for seeing again the man that almost ruined his sister's reputation. That was the reason why Wickham had not attended the Netherfield ball, he was afraid of Darcy! It was so obvious! His abuse against Darcy, his ungenerous words towards his sister, had been only lies, vile lies! Until now, Elizabeth had never attempted to confirm the veracity of his affirmations and believed his accusations as true without giving the matter a second thought. But now that she had a better understanding of Mr. Darcy's character, she was able to realize the impropriety of those revelations to a stranger and the inconsistency of Wickham's professions with his affirmations. It had to be Wickham!
Darcy stood by the hearth observing the gradual change of Elizabeth's countenance, from puzzlement to thoughtful meditation to utter realization. Her eyes met his, wide with bewilderment and her mouth moved, but no words would come out from it. He instantly knew what she was thinking.
"Yes, Miss Bennet," said he before she asked. "You have guessed right. That man is Mr. Wickham."
Elizabeth was in shock, in utter shock. "He ... I ... he said so many things about you, he has spoken so ill of you ..."
"I do not know with what falsehood he has imposed on you but on that matter I can only advise you not to believe one word he says. His character is most deceitful."
However, Elizabeth could not be so forgiving of her past mistakes for she had had her share in those conversations. If Wickham had been a prolific talker, she had permitted and even encouraged those inappropriate confessions. "He said you deprived him from the living your father promised to him, that you ..." She was too shocked to elaborate further.
Darcy left the poker aside and sat in the armchair opposite to hers. He reclined back with a loud sigh. "That is not true. Soon after my father died, Wickham wrote to inform me that he had resolved against taking orders and asked for pecuniary compensation in lieu of the preferment by which he could not be benefited. I knew he ought not to be a clergyman so I readily acceded to his request. He resigned any assistance in the church, accepting in return the amount of three thousand pounds, which, together with the inheritance of one thousand pounds he had received upon my father's death, left him in a fairly good position."
Elizabeth listened quietly, incredulous that she had been so stupid as to believe Wickham's tale.
"He told me about his intention to study the law," Darcy proceeded, "though I knew it was a mere pretence. His life from then on was all idleness and dissipation. For some time, I did not hear from him. How he lived, I knew not, but about three years later, when he ran out of money, he came to see me again. Having reconsidered his past decision, Wickham claimed the living he had previously resigned. It appears that he found the law to be an unsuitable study for him and resolved to take orders, demanding me to present him to the living in question. I refused, of course, and he swore revenge. The next time I heard of him was in Ramsgate."
"But ..." she was still in awe, "why did you not expose him while in Meryton? He said infamous things against you."
"Be certain that I would have acted in consequence had I heard him abusing my character, but his sayings never reached my ears. Perhaps I should have warned your father about this intelligence while I was still there. I understand Mr. Wickham was frequently received at Longbourn."
"He dined with us several times, yes" said she, a bit mortified.
"You seem to have taken eager interest in that gentleman's concerns in the past." Darcy stated quietly, almost tentatively.
To this comment, Elizabeth blushed and stared at her hands, ashamed of having encouraged that connection but, most of all, afraid that Darcy would perceive the partiality she once felt for Wickham. "I must confess that I allowed myself to condole with his misfortunes without giving the matter deeper thought."
"His misfortunes," Darcy replied with sarcasm. "His misfortunes have been great indeed."
"As you said, he can be very deceiving. He duped us both."
Darcy nodded and again they fell silent, both reflective on the recent turn of events. Only the sounds of the cracking wood persisted and the occasional vibration of the window panes that were still suffering the effects of the storm.
"You must be desirous to leave this island as soon as may be," Darcy reflected, "This visit has become a most unpleasant experience."
"Indeed, sir," said she, "though it is not merely that what urges to return home. My sister Jane's spirits has been low lately and I long to see her."
"Is anything the matter?"
The gentleman's participation in the separation of Jane and Mr. Bingley was still an unresolved issue between them, one that Elizabeth was eager to clarify for she still held him responsible for her sister's present grief. But she was also aware that she had failed in sketching Darcy's character in the past and that she could not allow her judgement to be poisoned by inaccurate information delivered by unscrupulous people a second time. Now that she doubted Col. Fitzwilliam's reliability, this could also been one matter in which she could have been misled and that demanded clarification. She thus replied,
"Oh, no. She ... has been in Town for the winter and she misses home dearly." The gentleman nodded and she proceeded. "Sir, if you do not object, I would wish to ask you a question."
"Pray, go ahead."
Elizabeth shifted in her seat, not sure of how to begin. They had achieved a relationship of friendship and confidence that she did not wish to ruin. She chose her words carefully. "For some time I was of the idea that Mr. Bingley was persuaded to leave Netherfield before time because of the growing attachment he felt towards my sister Jane. This intelligence was confirmed two days ago by Col. Fitzwilliam, as was your direct participation in the affair. As I am not certain I can trust your cousin's sayings, and having misinterpreted your character before, if it is no inconvenience to you, I would like you to inform me if, in this case, I have also been labouring under a misapprehension."
"No, madam, you have not."
She looked down at her hands, tension now visible in his features. "May I ask you why? Is there a good reason for dividing them from each other? Since Mr. Bingey's departure my sister has immersed in a misery of the acutest kind."
Darcy also studied his words before replying. Elizabeth's question was charged with anguish and he did not want to inflict any further harm on her. "At the time, I believed your sister to be indifferent to my friend's attentions and I thought best to ..."
"Yes, I observed them, most carefully and his attachment appeared to be deeper than hers. I only wanted to spare him the pain of loving someone and not being loved in return. But if you are not mistaken here, I must have been in error. You certainly know your sister better than I do."
"So their separation is not, in any way, related to her lack of fortune or poor connections?"
"No," Darcy frowned, "The want of connection would never be so great an evil on my friend's case as it would be in mine. Other reasons moved to preserve my friend from what I esteemed would be an unhappy connection."
"Other reasons, sir?"
He rose, and walked toward the hearth, uncomfortable with what he was about to disclose. "It is not my wish to offend you with what I am going to say, pardon me if I do but the inappropriate conduct betrayed by your mother and your youngest sisters during the ball were what, in the end, convinced me that I should warn my friend from the inconvenience of proposing to your sister. If it serves of consolation, I must add that you and your sister I must exclude. I have the highest opinion of you."
Elizabeth was too mortified to make reply. After a moment of reflection, he proceeded.
"However, I do not think these reasons were strong enough to prevent the marriage had my friend been certain of having secured Miss Bennet's regard. If Bingley did not propose it is because he seconded my assurance of your sister's indifference. I must confess, though, that his modesty had made him too dependent on my judgement and, perhaps, I drove him on. It was unknowingly done and can only apologize for my actions."
Even when he had just confirmed his blame for occasioning her sister's suffering, Elizabeth applied to her better judgement and commanded herself to be forgiving. Darcy erred, perhaps almost as wrongly as she had when she accused him of being a cold heart murderer. Still, she knew that, even when he brought so much pain to her sister, he was only trying to protect his friend and that was another proof of his loyalty towards those he cared for. She should be as tolerant with his mistakes as he had been with hers.
"Do not trouble yourself on this account, sir, I perfectly understand why you have been misled in this case. My sister hardly shows her feelings to me and it would be impossible for someone so unconnected to her to discern what she truly felt. As for what you saw at the ball, I can only say that I too have memories of that I would rather forget."
Darcy poked the fire silently, wondering if their dance together was one of them.
Elizabeth fixed her eyes on the carpet and wrapped her arms around herself. Everything about that night of the ball had been wrong, her sisters' behaviour, her mother's, her father's and even her own impertinent attitude towards Mr. Darcy.
"Is this storm ever going to end?" Elizabeth shuddered at those recollections. "It has been raining for two days."
Before she could notice it, Darcy was standing by her side and the cold replaced with warmth as he placed his tail coat over her shoulders. She tried to protest and return the coat but his soft, 'pray, keep it, you are cold,' convinced her otherwise. It made her feel safe and protected for the first time since she arrived at this island.
"Thank you, sir."
He smiled, and bowed his head before returning to his post near the hearth.
Elizabeth closed the coat over her chest, giving in to the comforting feeling it brought. She glanced at Darcy, who was now pensively poking the fire and could not but sweep her eyes up his figure, which, until now, she had never allowed herself to admire. He was tall and fit, his profile was perfect, and while he was not as presentable as he usually was when in her company, this slightly dishevelled appearance made his manly form even more appealing. A handsome man, indeed.
"What do you think will happen when the bailiff arrives?" she asked a moment later.
He startled, lost in his thoughts as he was. "I have no idea. As my cousin said, we are all suspects. I am not certain we would be allowed to leave the island until the murderer is found."
"And what of the letters? If they are found, the constable might arrive to the same conclusion I had and ..."
"Accuse me of my aunt's murder?" he finished the sentence for her. She nodded quietly. "Too many people would be benefited by my aunt's death. There is no reason for his suspicions to befall directly upon me. Let us have faith in his capacity to resolve this crime."
"Still, I think you should recover them. They may fall in the wrong hands and you will never find peace."
Darcy looked at her, his brows knitted with puzzlement. But then, his features softened and a tender smile curled up his lips. "I wish I knew where they are. My aunt didn't leave them in her chambers. They could be anywhere. Here at Rosings, in a safe in London, anywhere."
"At least no one can force you into an undesired marriage anymore."
He observed her for a moment, as if uncertain of what to say. "No. Still, there are certain impositions for someone of my rank. It is expected that I marry from my own class."
Elizabeth coloured and looked down. While she never aspired to form an alliance with this man, his last affirmation made her wonder about her eligibility as a marriage prospect. Even though he was a gentleman and she a gentleman's daughter, her lack of fortune, her poor connections, as Darcy stated, while not objectionable in Jane's case regarding Mr. Bingley, would be an obstacle impossible to overcome in his. A man like him could never have her.
The grandfather clock chimed two and the couple was reminded that it was too late in the night to stay awake.
"Miss Bennet," said Darcy, "I fear I must decline the pleasure of your company and escort you back to your rooms. It is well passed the hour for bedtime."
Elizabeth rose from her seat and took the arm he was offering her, not once meeting his eyes. They walked through the corridors, climbed up the stairs and crossed the gallery in complete silence. Once at her door, Elizabeth removed the coat from her shoulders and handed it back to its owner.
"Thank you, sir," she said with a quick courtesy. "Good night."
But instead of taking the coat and giving her a bow as had been expected, Darcy captured her hand and lifted it to his lips, placing a soft kiss on her skin.
"Good night," he said and only then let go of her hand.
"Mr Darcy! Sir! Thank God you are awake." Darcy's man servant came running down the gallery. "You must come, sir!"
"Ferguson," cried Darcy, "what is the matter?"
"Tis Mrs. Jenkinson, sir, she fell from the staircase!"
"Is she hurt?" asked the gentleman.
The manservant glanced at Elizabeth and then at his master. Darcy realized that he did not want to talk in front of the lady.
"I shall go directly. Where is she?"
"I will show you." the man pointed out.
Before leaving, Darcy addressed Elizabeth. "Miss Bennet, if you do not find it inconvenient, I would like to ask you to stay in Miss Lucas' room tonight. I would be more at ease knowing that you are not on your own. We have had enough tragedies in this house to risk a new one."
Elizabeth was glad for the suggestion. She too was afraid of spending the night alone in her room. "Aye sir. I will only pick up my nightclothes and join her."
"I will wait for you. I would rather not have you wandering these corridors alone."
She hurried into her room and appeared only a moment later with a bundle of clothes in her hands. Darcy escorted her to Maria's room and waited patiently until the young girl opened the door.
"Lizzy! What is the matter?" cried Maria.
"Lizzy!" Charlotte appeared directly behind, "where have you been? We knocked at your door and ..." the parson's wife realized that Elizabeth was not alone. "Mr. Darcy," she dropped a courtesy, "I am sorry, I didn't see you, I ..."
"Charlotte," Elizabeth proceeded. "There was an accident downstairs and Mr. Darcy suggested that I should not stay alone in my room."
"Of course," Mrs. Collins noticed Darcy's earnest expression and realized that something serious must have happened. "Come in." That said, she grabbed Elizabeth's arm and pulled her into the room. Darcy was gone immediately after.
Elizabeth's surprise upon finding Charlotte in Maria's room matched that of her friends for having her knocking on the door at such late hour and in the company of Mr. Darcy. Of course, the situation demanded an explanation and when the initial shock was overcome, the questions began.
"Lizzy, where on earth have you been?" cried Charlotte, "we knocked at your door several times and we did not find you! We were about to start a search!"
"I was downstairs, in the library," Elizabeth attempted to calm her friend. "I went for a book and happened upon Mr. Darcy. But ..." only then she realized the oddity of her friends' sleeping accommodations, "why are you not in your room, Charlotte?"
Mrs. Collins took her sister's hand. "Maria was afraid of sleeping alone and I decided to keep her company."
"Yes, Lizzy," said Miss Lucas, "there is a murderer in this house and we thought it would be best if we stayed together."
"I cannot deny the wisdom of that decision, Maria. Too many things have happened in this house to dare to stay alone."
The young girls walked towards the bed. They sat on it, Maria and Charlotte sliding inside the covers while Elizabeth removed the pins from her hair.
"Why was Mr. Darcy with you? Did he wake you up?" asked Charlotte.
"No, as I told you, I went to the library and I found him there. We conversed in the study until a moment ago. He was escorting me to my chambers when a servant came to inform him of an accident downstairs. Like you, he also thought that it would be better if I did not stay alone for the night so he accompanied me to Maria's room."
Mrs. Collins was quite surprised with that information. She glanced at the clock on mantelpiece and then at her friend. "You stayed with him, in the study until this hour? Lizzy! You know that is not to be done! If your father learns about this, God knows what will happen!"
"I know, I know. Nothing inappropriate happened, I grant you. We only talked."
"About what? Lizzy, it is almost dawn!" cried Maria.
Elizabeth knew she could not tell her friends the truth of what she discussed with the gentleman and was too tired to come up with a something that would justify being alone with him until so late in the night. "Maria, it is late and I am very tired. I will tell you everything in the morning."
Miss Lucas nodded and so did Charlotte, although she appeared to be very eager to discuss the matter a little further. Elizabeth changed into her nightclothes and the three young ladies accommodated themselves in the large bed.
Darcy glanced up at the structure that spiralled several floors above him. He could not discern the end, barely the few yards that the light of his lantern allowed him to see, but if his memories of his young explorations of Rosings manor were correct, these stairs went from the pantry to the attic, passing behind the master chambers of the mansion, which were four floors above. The steps were narrow, without rests, as he recalled, and the wooden railing, like many other things at Rosigns, appeared to be poorly kept. For years, these stairs had been only for the use of the family's personal servants, as it was the shortest way of accessing the dressing rooms of the master apartments.
At his feet lay Mrs. Jenkinson's lifeless body. Darcy had never had a stomach for the dead, and this one, was not a pleasant sight. The old woman lay partially on her side, with her head twisted in a very unnatural position, her eyes glassy and wide open, her mouth contorted in a horrid grimace of surprise. Her skin was already deprived of colour save for the bruises and cuts that might have been produced during her fall. One of her legs was bent in an odd position, broken surely, her arms rigid and spread. Not far away there was a tray and several pieces of broken china that told him of the task in which she was involved when she rolled down the stairs.
"When was she found?" Darcy asked his manservant.
"A few moments before I went in search of you, sir. We try not to use these stairs during the night. They are poorly lit."
"I see." The gentleman looked up again, attempting to calculate the height from which Mrs. Jenkinson fell. "Why do you think she ventured to use them?"
"Lady Catherine did not allow servants to carry trays to the upper rooms through the main staircase so Mrs. Jenkinson used these ones when serving Miss de Bourgh's tea in her chambers. She did it almost every night."
Darcy heard footsteps approaching them and turned to see Col. Fitzwilliam coming in the company of a servant that was lighting the way for him.
"I thought the servant was joking," The colonel said somberly. "I cannot believe we have another corpse."
"How long do you think she has been dead?" Darcy asked his cousin.
Fitzwilliam crouched near the body and touched it with his hand. He tried to move an arm, but to no avail. "She's already cold and very stiff. At least five or six hours."
Darcy checked the time in his fob watch. "It's three in the morning. She might have been pushed after supper."
"Pushed? Do you think she was pushed?" Though this was asked with certain degree of astonishment, the Colonel could not but share his cousin's suspicions.
"That would be my guess. There is a tray over there and pieces of broken china, though I did not find a candle or lantern that would light her way up or down the stairs. There is no way she could navigate these steps in the darkness."
"Let me see if I can find something." Fitzwilliam took one of the candles from the servant's hand and climbed up the stairs.
"Be careful, Fitzwilliam!" Darcy told his cousin. His eyes followed his ascent until he was out of sight, only the light of his candle telling that he was still in motion.
"I found something!" he shouted from where he was, at least two floors above Darcy. "There is a candle on one of the steps ... and a cloth and ... pieces of china."
"Leave them where they are. The bailiff may want to see them when he arrives."
Fitzwilliam began the descent, careful not to step on several things that were apparently dropped during Mrs. Jenkinson's fall. A few steps lower but still at a good height, he slipped on something and only his quickness to secure himself from the railing prevented him from suffering Mrs. Jenkinson's fate.
"Blast!" cried the Colonel with one leg hanging outside the stairs. One of his arms was wrapped around the pole and the candle he was carrying fell down the hole, almost crashing on Darcy's his head.
"Richard! Are you all right?" shouted Darcy with concern. He hurried up the stairs.
The Colonel manoeuvred his body to extricate himself from the precarious position in which he was. Once he was standing on firmer ground, he waited for Darcy and they began their descent, carefully watching every step.
"So they are dangerous." reasoned Darcy when they reached the landing.
"The railing is broken at one point. She probably rolled several steps before breaking the pole and falling down the hole. This certainly increases my respect for the servants that have to carry our baths up to our rooms."
"Indeed. It doesn't appear to be steady, though." Darcy shook the wooden railing. "So you think there is a chance that she might have fallen?"
"It is probable, though I cannot tell. Too many things are happening lately to believe it is only an accident," replied the colonel.
"There have been many accidents on these stairs during the past months, sir," the servant interjected. "Sarah, one of the maids, broke her leg last year and several other servants were injured when fetching things from the upper rooms. I had a couple of tumbles myself."
Darcy then instructed the manservant to take Mrs. Jenkinson's body to the cellar, the less humid and coldest room of the mansion, where she would be kept until the bailiff arrived and they could decide what to do. The servants left and the cousins returned to the family's room.
"Do you think it's wise to inform Ann of Mrs. Jenkinson's death?" Fitzwilliam served himself a glass of port. With a gesture of his hand, he offered one to his cousin, but he refused.
"Perhaps it would be better if we spare her the pain for another day, until the constable is here. She lost two people that were very dear to her in a very short time."
"What are we going to tell her? She'll ask for Mrs. Jenkinson as soon as she is up."
"That she has taken ill. I will speak with the housekeeper and instruct her to what the servants must say in case Ann enquires after her." Darcy walked towards the window while running his hand through his hair. "I will also ask Miss Bennet and Mrs. Collins to keep her entertained."
"Yes, that would be best." The colonel turned towards the fireplace and rested his boot on the stone step.
Darcy looked out of window and scrutinized the exterior. The rain had eased and there were signs that the wind was finally decreasing. The storm was coming to an end.
"I will ask the servants to prepare the vessel to depart after noon, if the weather allows it. We cannot delay the report of this crime any longer."
Fitzwilliam stared pensively at his glass, "I'll go. You are more used to running a household than I will ever be."
The cousin's looked at each other, both wanting to say something that would put an end to the distance that had grown between them after their argument of the previous night but neither trusting the other enough to take the first step. Darcy walked towards the door but stopped to have one last word with his cousin.
"Richard, I am sorry for what I said yesterday evening. I fear I allowed myself to be overwhelmed by the circumstances."
Fitzwilliam studied his cousin and was not completely certain of the sincerity of his apology. "Think no more of it. I also said things that I now regret."
They both bowed their heads at each other, leaving the misunderstanding behind for the moment. The trust they have always felt for each other was gone, yet they still needed to remain allied in this crusade.
It was rather late when the ladies of the Hunsford party reached the morning room and after having a quick breakfast, with all possible activities discarded because of the weather, they headed towards the sitting room where they would spend the rest of the morning. Not much later they were joined by Col. Fitzwilliam, who immediately engaged Ann in conversation, and then came Mr. Darcy, who had been busy elsewhere.
Having seen the gentleman only a few hours ago, Elizabeth was quite anxious to speak to him and learn more about the 'accident' that had driven him away from her so abruptly on the previous night and that had aroused such protective feelings over her. Not a word about this supposed incident was said among the rest of the party, in fact, they appeared to be completely ignorant of disgraces of any sort and Elizabeth was left to wonder about what could have been so urgent as to require Darcy's presence in the middle of the night but that had remained a secret for the rest of the family.
Darcy greeted everyone with a curt 'good morning' upon his entry but, as was his custom, did not join them directly and remained standing near the windows. In general, he was not one to sit when there was a large party so his conduct did not call anyone's attention. Only Elizabeth perceived the distress present in his features and a general tiredness which she attributed to the little sleep he had had on the previous night, if he had had any.
Had she not been aware of his true character, Elizabeth would have otherwise found his detachment irritating, as she would have considered it just another demonstration of his rudeness. But now that her original prejudices against him were gone, she knew that this conduct that would appear unsocial and taciturn to everyone -it was to her, once- was in fact the exteriorisation of the concerns of a noble man that carried a heavy weight over his shoulders. For the first time since she met him, she would have preferred to stand by him instead of having to listen to the colonel's chat or to agree to one of Charlotte's uninteresting remarks and so troubled she was by Darcy's apparent aloofness that she missed the fact that the gentleman, with every move he made, was only trying to capture her attention without raising the suspicions of the rest of the party. Twice she had been oblivious to his signs but the third time she saw the slight inclination of his head and the meaningful look in his eyes that were telling her to join him at his post by the window. She excused herself from the rest and walked in his direction.
Darcy merely acknowledged her presence with a nod and continued his scrutiny of the cloudy skies. "The weather is improving."
"It is still windy but at least the rain has stopped." Elizabeth was a bit disconcerted by his indifference to her presence. Perhaps she misunderstood him.
With his hand, he indicated the way and they both walked towards the other window, where there was little chance the others would hear them. He remained silent for a moment, then said, "Miss Bennet, I need your help on a matter of delicate nature."
"Pray, go ahead."
The gentleman cast a glance at the rest of the party before speaking and proceeded only when he was certain that no one was paying attention to them. "As you already know, there was an accident last night. Unfortunately, it was more serious than that. Mrs. Jenkinson ..." he swallowed, "... she fell down the stairs."
Elizabeth felt a chill running down her spine. If Darcy was being so guarded about this 'accident' surely it was more serious than she could imagine. "Is she hurt?"
He lowered his voice even more. "She died."
Elizabeth gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. Noticing her discomposure, Darcy took her hand and placed it in the crook of his arm and guided her to a painting on the wall. Pretending he was telling her about it, he proceeded.
"The others are not aware of this. I agreed with my cousin that we would keep this from Miss de Bourgh for a little longer. She had suffered enough with her mother's loss to inform her of this tragedy so quickly."
"But, what will I tell her?" Elizabeth whispered. "She will ask for her at any moment!"
"That she is indisposed, a cold will be a good excuse. The servants are already instructed of what to say in case Ann asks. If she is distracted, there is very little chance that she would inquire after her." With a nod, Elizabeth agreed to his suggestion. "The colonel will sail to the mainland this afternoon and fetch the bailiff. We will wait till his arrival to inform Ann of her companion's death."
"Are you going too?" Elizabeth looked up at him, concern evident on her features. Even though it was not raining, the wind was still blowing intently and she was very concerned that he would embark on such a perilous journey.
"No, I will stay here. I must attend to some matters."
Elizabeth could not describe the relief she felt at that moment. Not only because he would not have to face the dangerous tides of Rosings in this weather but because she felt much safer knowing that he was in the house. "You can count with my help, sir. I will do my best to entertain her."
"What an unfortunate accident. Mrs. Jenkinson was a very agreeable lady." said Elizabeth, pointing at one particular section of the picture.
"I am not certain it was an accident," he murmured.
"Do you think she was ..."
Darcy nodded before she said the word 'murdered', less that someone would hear her.
"But how ..."
"She was found at the bottom of the stairs that connect the kitchen with the master chambers. In appearance, it looks like an accident, though, given the latest events, I cannot completely be assured that she had not been pushed."
"If that were the case, do you think her death is somehow connected with Lady Catherine's?"
"I cannot discharge that possibility. It is a very suspicious coincidence." Darcy resumed their walk.
"I agree with you, sir. But this certainly serves to the resolution of the crime. Only the servants have access to those stairs, which means that all of us who are not acquainted with that part of the house can be excluded as possible suspects."
Darcy smiled down at her, admired by her curiosity and cleverness. "Yes, but it surely makes all the suspicions fall upon those of us who are acquainted with that part of the house."
Elizabeth looked up at him, her eyes wide with surprise. She had not imagined that this would be even more incriminating for him. He was still in a very delicate position as the first murder was concerned. "But at least you cannot be blamed for this second crime, sir, you were in my company for a good part of the night."
His smile broadened, "Would you allow me to use that as my alibi?"
"Why not, sir?" Elizabeth was puzzled. "It is the truth!"
In jest, he added. "Surely it might save me from the gallows, madam, but it will put me face to face with your father's shotgun."
"Oh." Elizabeth had not considered the implications of their late chat and how it would be interpreted by the others. The gentleman did not appear threatened by the possibility, merely teasing her, so she replied in the same manner. "Will that be such a terrible fate? Are you so afraid of my father?"
Darcy raised an eyebrow, if not amused, puzzled by the turn the conversation was taking. Had he not been so tired, he would have sworn that Elizabeth was flirting with him. "No, madam, I do not fear him, neither I am afraid of the ..."
" ... seen Mrs. Jenkinson? How odd, I rang for her this morning and she did not come," came Ann's voice from the other end of the room. "I will ask a servant to fetch her."
The couple exchanged a short glance of understanding and headed towards the sofa to join the others. There Darcy mentioned that he was told earlier in the morning of Mrs. Jenkinson's illness, that it did not appear a matter of concern but nonetheless he recommended Ann to let her rest for a couple of days. Elizabeth quickly suggested they play cards, the gentlemen excused themselves soon after and the ladies remained thus entertained until lunchtime.
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