[WIP - Regency/R]
Lunch would have passed uneventfully -no dead bodies were found- if it weren't for the little scene performed by Miss de Bourgh during dessert upon learning that Colonel Fitzwilliam was leaving for the mainland as soon as the tides allowed it. The vessel was ready and only the difficulty of navigating it out of the port had prevented the captain from sailing to Aberaeron at that precise moment.
"But why you? Why don't you send someone else?" cried Ann on hearing the news, "tis too dangerous!"
"We decided it that way," the colonel spoke soothingly.
"I do not recall being consulted on this matter."
"Fitzwilliam and I decided this, Ann," Darcy interjected, "we cannot let another day pass without reporting your mother's death."
"Then you go if it is so urgent." Ann snapped. "Why does it always have to be Richard? I don't want him to go. I don't want him to die because of her!"
"Dearest," the colonel attempted to convince her, "nothing will happen to me. The weather is improving and there is no danger ..."
"Improving? Look at the sky! It is getting dark again! You know how dangerous the tides are. Nothing will happen if we wait for another day. She is already dead!"
"Ann, Darcy is right, we must report this incident as soon as may be."
To everyone's surprise, Ann rose to her feet, pushing noisily the chair on which she was sitting. "Then go, and drown in the sea if that is your wish. Even dead she is controlling our lives!"
She ran out of the room, and after exchanging a frustrated glance with his other cousin, Fitzwilliam went after her.
There was a deafening silence at the table, as those who remained did not dare to comment on what they had just witnessed. It was Charlotte who broke the silence when, as a sort of distraction, she commented on how remarkably well cooked their meal was and the inconveniences that the cook must have gone through to produce such an excellent stew when there was so little chance to obtain fresh ingredients because of the weather. Even Maria, whose voice was hardly heard when in the presence of the gentlemen, seconded her sister's statement with a brief 'indeed, that must have been a lot of trouble'. A few minutes later, when they finished taking their nourishment, Darcy escorted the ladies to the sitting room, where they would spend the rest of the afternoon.
"Miss Bennet," said Darcy as they walked down the corridor, "please do not leave the room if not absolutely necessary. Try to convince your friends to do the same. You will be much safer if you remain together."
"Are you leaving, sir?" there was a hint of fear in her voice.
"No, but I must attend some matters before my cousin departs. But do not feel uneasy." Darcy noticed her distress, "I do not think there is much cause for alarm, yet, I would prefer that you and your friends remain in each other's company."
"All right, sir."
"In case you need me, you can send word to my manservant and he will find me."
They had reached the sitting room and Darcy remained with them only for a moment, seeing that the ladies were comfortable and that all their needs were attended. He was quite pleased that Elizabeth had not vacated his side the entire time he stayed there and felt a very rewarding sensation when she accompanied him to the door when he left.
"Please be careful, sir," Elizabeth bid him good-bye.
"Shall we see you at suppertime?"
"I hope so."
She bestowed on him a brilliant smile which Darcy returned with equal delight. He looked at Charlotte and Maria for one last bow and only then he realized that there was something that had escaped his notice during the entire day.
"Where's Collins?" he asked.
Elizabeth's eyebrows rose in surprise, and looked around, also noticing for the very first time that the parson had not been seen since the previous evening. "I do not know. The last time I have seen him was yesterday, during supper."
Darcy frowned. "So have I."
"Do you think something has happened to him?" Elizabeth enquired with concern.
"I cannot say, though it will be better if I search for him."
"I will ask Mrs. Collins if she knows of his whereabouts."
"Be discreet, try not to alarm her."
Elizabeth nodded and Darcy bowed his head in farewell. Once he was gone, Elizabeth returned to her friends and took the lead in the tiresome task of making idle conversation. It did not take long until Charlotte directed the discussion towards a certain subject she was very interested in learning more.
"I see you have forgotten about your prejudices against Mr. Darcy, Lizzy. You two appear to be developing a pleasant friendship."
Her friend looked down. "I have realized that I was wrong about him. He is an honourable man."
"And such a good prospect. I feared that you would drive him away with your impertinence, but fortunately the gentleman's admiration for you had not been affected by the few confrontations you two had in the past."
Elizabeth smiled nervously at her friend's remark. "You are mistaken, Charlotte. Mr. Darcy is not attracted to me in the least. If we appear to be much closer now it is only because the latest circumstances have thrown us together, that is all."
Charlotte could only laugh at her Elizabeth's inability to see what was obvious to her. "You are indeed a simpleton, Lizzy. I cannot understand why is that you still deny that he is completely besotted with you."
This time Elizabeth did not reply, fearing that her words would give away the growing attraction she was feeling for the gentleman. She too had noticed that Darcy had been particularly attentive to her in the latest hours, but given the uncertainty of their current situations, she could not dare to hope of being the recipient of his affection. To her fortune, Charlotte dropped the matter of Darcy's supposed admiration for her and the discussion took another turn.
"Poor Miss de Bourgh," said Mrs. Collins, "she became so altered to learn of the Colonel's departure."
Elizabeth assented quietly and Maria did not say a word; only chewed her lower lip.
"Surely she is still much affected by her mother's death," Charlotte proceeded. "No matter how malicious Lady Catherine was, she was still her mother. Fortunately, her cousins are here to take care of her. I am impressed with how very protective they are of her, specially the Colonel."
To the ladies astonishment, Maria covered her face with her hands and broke in anguished sobs.
"Maria, what's wrong?" cried Charlotte.
It took the girl a moment to regain her composure enough to speak, and when she finally did, her words shocked the other two. "He killed her!"
"What?" they cried in astonishment.
"The Colonel killed Lady Catherine!"
"Maria," Elizabeth said, "that is a heavy accusation, indeed. Are you certain?"
"Yes! I heard him say he would kill Lady Catherine if she insisted on her idea of marrying Miss de Bourgh to Mr. Darcy."
"On Sunday, after playing Blind man's buff. I was walking by the maze and I saw him kissing Miss de Bourgh behind the bushes. They are lovers!"
Miss Lucas proceeded to tell the scene she had witnessed with great detail, some of which were not exactly faithful to the real facts, and especially exaggerating the part in which the Colonel 'implied' that he would use his sword to terminate Lady Catherine's life if she dared to separate him from Miss de Bourgh. The other two recognized the dramatic effect that the young girl was adding to the tale and tried not to be driven by Maria's impressionable mind.
"I think he is trying to escape before the constable arrives. That is why he is so eager to leave the island in the middle of the storm."
"Maria," said Charlotte, "Colonel Fitzwilliam comes from a noble, respectable family. He would never do that."
"I agree with Charlotte, I am sure that he did not mean what you heard, at least not the way you heard it," said Elizabeth, recognizing in Maria's words the same quickness of judgement she had had when condemning Darcy for the same crime. Still, Darcy too had voiced similar concerns regarding his cousin's possible participation in Lady Catherine's demise, so Maria's suspicions were not completely unfounded.
"We should not precipitate our judgements without proof" Charlotte stated. "I am sure the Colonel was just carried away by the circumstances."
"Carried away indeed," Maria recalled the ardent embrace the couple shared right before her eyes, "though I still think there is something about him that is not right. Sometimes, I feel that the affection that he appears to profess for Miss de Bourgh is not completely sincere."
"Do not forget that until two days ago, they had to keep their love in secrecy because Lady Catherine would never have consented to an alliance between the two of them. She was determined to marry Miss de Bourgh to Mr. Darcy."
Maria looked down. "I do not trust him either. Maybe all three of them are responsible for this crime."
"Mr. Darcy is not a murderer, that I can assure you."
Miss Lucas assented, but still looked unconvinced of Darcy's or the Colonel's innocence. The conversation died away and some time later Charlotte asked her sister to sit at the pianoforte to work on her scales. Now with the background noise produced by Maria, the conversation proceeded as follows,
"You are so dull lately, Charlotte," observed Elizabeth, "are you unwell?"
"I am not ill, if that is your concern, Lizzy, though I am not feeling well either. I do not feel comfortable here."
"Once you are in Hunsford, with your husband, you will be able to achieve some peace. I am of the impression that Miss de Bourgh will be a much better patroness than Lady Catherine ever was."
"I can't return to Hunsford, Lizzy. I am going to Meryton with you and Maria."
Elizabeth was surprised by her friend's determination to leave the island. "Do you think it is appropriate to leave Rosings so soon after Lady Catherine's death? I am certain that your husband will not deny you the right to visit your family, though I still think you should stay and support Miss de Bourgh's when assuming her duties as mistress of Rosings."
Charlotte could not contain her anguish anymore. "I can't stay here any longer. I am so scared."
"Scared? There is nothing to fear, Charlotte, you will be safe at home ..."
"I have been trying to tell you this since yesterday morning but I did not find the chance to speak to you in private. Maria is always close to us, listening to everything I say so I couldn't tell you this sooner."
"I know who killed Lady Catherine."
"Are you sure you don't want to wait until tomorrow? The sea is too choppy."
"No, Darcy, this has to be done. If everything comes out all right, I will be back tomorrow afternoon, or on the following day, at the very least." The Colonel adjusted his cape around his neck to protect himself from the misty wind.
Darcy assented and introduced his hand inside his great coat from where he retrieved some letters. After instructing his cousin to deliver those for him, he wished him god-speed.
"Take care of Ann and the others. I leave them in your capable hands," Fitzwilliam said as he placed a hand on his cousin's shoulder.
"I will," Darcy imitated the gesture. "Take good care of yourself."
The Colonel climbed into the coach and once the door was closed, it began the slow, serpentine descent to the manor's private dock. Darcy remained on the road, observing it until it disappeared from sight, his mind occupied in all the contradictions and intricacies of this affair.
"I hope you come back, Richard," he muttered to himself. "If not, I swear I'll chase you around the world and make you pay for this."
A gush of cold air reminded him that he was out in the storm, and of all the things he still had to do. He glanced up at the southern wing of the manor, dark stone rising against the turbulent skies, firm in his determination of going to the end of this.
For a moment, Elizabeth was speechless. On seeing her friend's incredulous expression, Charlotte insisted. "I know who killed her."
Though almost afraid to ask, Elizabeth enquired all the same. "Who?"
"My husband," Charlotte said in between sobs. "Mr. Collins did it."
Elizabeth gasped. "Charlotte! It cannot be! He ... he is a parson!"
"I can prove it, Lizzy. The night of Lady Catherine's death, when I returned to my room after our conversation, he was not there. I did not find anything strange about this, he told me he was going to the servant quarters to see after the injured footman, so I went directly to bed. He came back later and said something about being hungry and staying in the kitchen, I can't recall precisely, I was too sleepy, so I fell asleep again. Not much after we were awakened by the maid's screams."
"That is not enough to condemn him. Most of us were wandering the halls that night."
"When I returned to our room after comforting Miss de Bourgh, Mr. Collins was not there. But I saw his clothes on the chair. They were partially covered with one of the blankets, as if he were trying to hide them from me, but I saw them." Charlotte made sure that her sister was still playing before speaking. "The sleeves of his shirt were blotted with blood."
"Good heavens!" cried Elizabeth.
"Fresh blood. You know how Lady Catherine used to mistreat him in front of everyone. On several occasions I heard him say he was tired of suffering such humiliations from her, that he would put an end to it. He even mentioned once that he would kill her if she continued to abuse him. I never believed he would do it, at the time I thought he was only saying this out of anger and frustration, but ... when she was found dead ... I knew it was him. He killed her."
Elizabeth could not deny that there was logic in Charlotte's reasoning, and recalling hearing a similar statement herself, she thought that her friend's conclusion did not appear to be so ill founded. Frowning, she tried to remember the last time she saw the parson. It was after supper, on the previous night. Charlotte and Maria retired early, followed by the parson, who left together with Mrs. Jenkinson.
Suddenly, everything became clear. Both Mr. Collins and Mrs. Jenkinson were behaving very strangely on the day that followed Lady Catherine's death. At the time Elizabeth did not pay much attention to them, she was too preoccupied with her own doubts about Mr. Darcy, but she did notice that both of them were not themselves. Mrs. Jenkinson was pale, apparently concerned, and Mr. Collins was nervous and always finding excuses to stay away from the party. What if Charlotte's theory was right? What if the parson killed Lady Catherine and, after being discovered by Mrs. Jenkinson, murdered the other lady, too? If she could only connect both deaths, prove that Mr. Collins was acquainted with the service area, that he could be the one who pushed Mrs. Jenkinson down the stairs, then she would have solved the crime.
"When did you last see him?"
"Last night, after supper. I decided I would sleep in Maria's room, I could not share the room with him, I was too afraid, so I left him a note, telling that I would spend the night with my sister. He knocked at our door later in the night, I thought he would ask me to return to our chambers, but he was very understanding of my choice. He even said it was a wise decision, claiming that I should not leave my sister alone and mentioned something about going to the kitchen, where he was to meet Mrs. Jenkinson. That was the last time I saw him."
"Yes, that is what he said. I think he said that she asked him to meet her in the kitchen, I cannot recall precisely." Charlotte noticed that her friend had grown pale. "What, Lizzy? Why are you so concerned?"
"Oh, Charlotte," Elizabeth covered her mouth with her hand, "you don't know what happened."
"Mrs. Jenkinson, she is dead."
The dark passages of Rosings had always incited Darcy's sense of adventure in the past but now, more than a decade since the last time he had crossed them, the excitement produced by those youthful games between cousins was now shadowed by the sombre circumstances that were now surrounding him. These stones on which he was stepping had been the escape route of a murderer and he was determined to go to the end of this to resolve this crime.
As he had imagined when he inspected the stairs from the landing, near the kitchen, the entire wing was poorly lit. During the day, the sunlight filtered through the narrow windows that were cut against the stone, but at night, without a torch or a lantern to illuminate it, the circular staircase was more like a dark abyss than an access to the master chambers.
The corridor passed behind Lady Catherine's dressing room, Ann's, the colonel's, his own, and the room Sir Lewis used to occupy when he was still alive. More than once he had played hide and seek with Richard and Edward and he recalled having snuck down through this stairs to steal a midnight snack in the kitchen while he was still a young lad. Tonight his ramblings were far less enjoyable.
After inspecting the doors that connected to the master chambers, all of them locked from the inside, with the exception of his and Richard's, Darcy walked towards the perilous stairs. A candle was his sole illumination, and trying to emulate Mrs. Jenkinson's route, he took the steps careful not to slip or tumble on the uneven stone until, almost one floor beneath, he found the first traces of Mrs. Jenkison's fateful fall.
Despite the darkness, it was clear that it had been at that point where the old lady lost her footing and tumbled down. He saw a teacup, a small basket and a several steps below, a broken candle. From there, she must have rolled a few more steps and at some point, her body must have hit the rail, breaking it, making her fall down the deep hole. Darcy shuddered at the thought of a similar accident happening at Pemberley but then Rosings was built more than three centuries before his own house, therefore lacking the architectural benefits of a much modern and practical design. Pemberley's service staircase was ample, with wide landings in between flights, making the servant's transit much safer and effortless.
His only doubt was now if Mrs. Jenkinson fell or was pushed. The railing appeared to be unsteady, it was old and rotten at some points and it was not improbable that a body, even as light as Mrs. Jenkinson's, would break it if it hit the wood hard enough. There was no evidence of struggle or that a second person had been here with her, but that did not mean she was not surprised in her descent and thrown down the stairs. And if she was, who did it? And why?
There were not many answers to those questions. Ann, Richard and himself had free access to this staircase. And two dozen servants, not all of them capable of murdering, but many of them desirous to get rid of their mistress.
Yet, neither a revengeful servant nor an unscrupulous relative would have reasons to kill Ann's companion. If Mrs. Jenkinson was pushed, it was because she knew something she should not, therefore she was silenced before she could tell anyone about it. Still, several facts escaped Darcy's understanding. If Mrs. Jenkinson knew who killed Lady Catherine, why didn't she come to him, or Richard for instance, or someone she could trust? Did she think that they were involved in the crime too? Could the murderer be a member of the family or one of the guests?
While Richard had been his first suspect, at this point, Darcy could not dismiss Ann either where Lady Catherine's demise was concerned. Or the cook, or the servant that was injured during the storm, or the servile parson, who had suffered Lady Catherine's abuse uninterruptedly for the past weeks and whose disappearance was making Darcy doubt of his innocence. They all had reason to kill. The question was, who had had the guts to murder Lady Catherine and then commit a second crime?
"I shall give my cousins the benefit of the doubt in this one," Darcy muttered, "Ann was too fond of her companion and Richard ... I cannot believe him capable of killing a defenceless lady in this manner."
"Mr. Darcy? Are you there?"
Darcy looked up at the sound of his manservant's voice calling him from the upper floors. "Ferguson, what is the matter?"
"Miss Bennet is here to see you."
His legs could not carry him fast enough.
"Dead? I never imagined she was so badly ill!"
"She was not ill, Charlotte. The truth is that she fell down the stairs. She was found dead last night, just before I knocked at your door."
"But the Colonel said that ..."
Elizabeth assented seriously. "He only said that to spare Miss de Bourgh from the pain of learning about of her companion's death so soon after her mother's."
"She fell down the stairs? Where? Why did we not hear anything?"
"Near the kitchen, in a part of the house that is only for the use of the servants. But it is not merely that, Charlotte. I have reasons to believe that she was pushed. Mr. Darcy shares my suspicions, too."
"For heaven's sake, Lizzy, what kind of house is this? First Lady Catherine, and now Mrs. Jenkinson. Who would want to kill them both?"
"I cannot imagine a reason for someone to kill Mrs. Jenkinson, unless she knew who Lady Catherine's murderer was and the killer, when he found himself discovered, threw her down the stairs, making it appear as an accident."
"And the last person with whom she was last seen was ..." Charlotte's voice faltered.
"Mr. Collins." Elizabeth finished for her. "But we must not precipitate our judgement. How would your husband be acquainted with those stairs?"
"Oh, no, Lizzy," Charlotte's eyes clouded with tears, "he knows them perfectly well. When he first arrived at Rosings, the roof of the parsonage was being repaired, so he stayed for a few weeks in the manor. He is a murderer! He killed them both!"
Charlotte could not contain herself anymore and broke into sobs. Maria, on hearing her sister crying, left the pianoforte and joined them on the sofa.
"Charlotte! What happened?"
Elizabeth found herself in a crossroad, stay and comfort her friend, or run to tell Mr. Darcy what she had just learned. "Maria, stay with your sister and do not leave the room, for any reason."
"Lizzy!" cried Miss Lucas, but her friend was already walking away.
"Do not leave it, do you understand?" said Elizabeth from the door.
Elizabeth ran down the halls in search of a servant that would tell her where she could find Mr. Darcy. First she happened upon a maid who was not of much help and then she ran into a footman that told her that the gentleman was last seen heading towards the stables, together with his cousin. Following the directions of a chambermaid, Elizabeth found her way out of the house and without a coat on, she folded her arms over her chest to protect herself from the damp wind while she ran down the long lane towards the stables. Great was her disappointment to learn that Mr. Darcy had quitted the premises nearly an hour earlier.
Without an instant to lose, Elizabeth hurried back to the house, this time heading directly to the main staircase, which she climbed hastily, and ran towards Darcy's chambers with the hope of finding him there. The house was already darkening and several servants were lighting candles through halls and corridors.
Now in front of Darcy's door, Elizabeth hesitated. It was utterly improper to knock at a gentleman's door while he was still in his chambers, but Elizabeth knew that the gravity of the situation demanded desperate measures. She knocked softly, three times, but no one answered. She knocked again, with more urgency and was about to give up in the task and start her search elsewhere when Mr. Darcy's manservant opened the door.
"Madam?" the puzzled valet asked.
"I must speak to Mr. Darcy about a very important matter. Do you know where can I find him?" Elizabeth was breathless.
"I will fetch him for you in an instant."
The valet opened the door for her and mentioned her to stay close to the hearth to warm up while he went for his master, disappearing then through the door that connected to the dressing room. She waited, pacing in front of the fireplace, her teeth chattering from the cold and preoccupation.
"Miss Bennet!" Darcy finally came. "Is anything the matter?"
"Mr. Darcy, thank God I found you. I must tell you something of great importance."
"You are wet," Darcy noticed with concern and held her arms, which were extremely cold. He immediately went for the blanket that lay at the end of his bed and wrapped it around her shoulders. "What brings you here?"
"Mr. Collins killed Lady Catherine."
Darcy was too stunned to make an immediate answer but soon after he overcame his astonishment, he enquired after how she had come up with this understanding and why she was so certain that that the parson was the murderer. Elizabeth repeated the conversation she had with Charlotte and how she had arrived to the conclusion that the parson was the one who murdered both Lady Catherine and Mrs. Jenkinson.
"We cannot accuse him. If we are wrong we would be inflicting a great pain on an innocent. Do you know where he is at this very moment? I must speak to him."
"No, no one has seen him since yesterday."
"I will accompany you downstairs." Darcy rested his hand on her cheek. "Stay with the others. I will start a search."
Elizabeth blushed and looked down, not uncomfortable with the gentleman's gesture, but puzzled that he took such liberty, wondering what his intention might have been. Darcy must have felt her discomfiture and withdrew his hand quickly while clearing his throat in an attempt to distract her and himself for his impulsiveness. Together they descended the stairs and Darcy escorted her to the sitting room where Charlotte and Maria were still waiting.
"Pray, stay in this room," he told the ladies. "Here you will be safe. I will instruct a servant to guard this door with his life." Darcy was gone in an instant, and headed towards the kitchen, where he gathered several servants. There he organized a search party and instructed the men to track the entire island in search of Mr. Collins.
"I don't know why they are making such noise," said one of the maids, when the party was dismissed, "the parson is in the manor."
"What do you know, Sarah?" the housekeeper asked. "If Mr. Darcy had started a search party is because he is missing."
"He is not" said the girl, "I saw him earlier in the day: He asked me if Miss de Bourgh was still in her chambers."
"Silly girl," the housekeeper gathered her skirts and trotted out of the kitchen, "they are turning the island upside down in search of that man and you did not say you have seen him. I am going to tell Mr. Darcy about this."
The girl shrugged and continued to peel the potatoes.
Col. Fitzwilliam clutched the wood firmly for support. He had sailed on turbulent seas before but the shores of Rosings were known for their unreliable tides and sharp rocks and this storm was making the short trip even more dangerous. The wind was battering the small ship mercilessly and he prayed for the helmsman's ability to sail this vessel to the other shore.
Once out of the dangerous coasts of Rosings, Fitzwilliam concentrated in the task he was about to face and the possible consequences of informing the authorities of his aunt's death. It was obvious that she had been murdered brutally, surely the constable would want to find the murderer, but alas, who wouldn't wish to see the old bat dead? He could not recall a single person on this earth that was fond of his aunt or that respected her, not even her own daughter. She was hated all over the land of Rosings, neighbouring islands and nearest towns. The person who killed her should have a monument erected for sparing this world from Lady Catherine's torment instead of being punished for committing a crime.
Fitzwilliam turned his head at the call of one of the sailors.
"Sir," the young man pointed at the island. "There is something happening at Rosings. Look at the manor."
The colonel looked at the house, tall against the darkening skies and saw a bright, yellowish light coming from several windows of the eastern wing.
"Good Lord!" he cried. "Fire! Rosings is on fire! Turn the ship around!"
Darcy was donning his cape and gloves when the he heard the housekeeper calling his name. In a very agitated manner, the old woman told him what she heard from the maid.
"In Miss de Bourgh's rooms? Are you certain?"
"Aye, sir, that is what she said."
The cape fell behind him as Darcy sprinted towards the main staircase. If Collins was his aunt's murderer and for some particular reason he was after Ann, his young cousin was now at the mercy of this killer.
As he approached the landing, he perceived an unusual smell in the air. Smoke. Not the pleasant, woody scent of a hearth being started, it was much richer and heavier, similar to the one he smelt years ago, when Pemberley's barn burned down to ashes. He looked up the staircase and even through the growing darkness he could discern the thin cloud of smoke advancing over gallery.
"For heaven's sake," he cried, "Fire!"
A moment of complete chaos followed, were servants ran through corridors shouting instructions to other servants that were too confused to know what to do. Darcy took the lead in organizing the household and ordered the men to bring buckets with water and wet blankets to put the fire out. All those who were not devoted to the task of extinguishing the fire should leave the manor immediately.
"Ferguson!" Darcy told his manservant when he met him in the corridor. "Do you know if Miss de Bourgh is still upstairs?"
"I believe she is, sir."
"Take the ladies out of the house, to a safe place." Darcy ordered as he climbed the stairs. "They are in the west sitting room. I will go to the upper rooms to see that there is no one there."
Though Darcy could not see flames once he reached the gallery, the smoke was growing thicker towards the eastern wing and apparently it was coming from his cousin's rooms. He tried to open Ann's door, and finding it locked from the inside, he banged it forcefully with his fist.
"Ann? Are you there?" He insisted. "Ann!"
There was no answer. He tried the door to her dressing room, but it was also locked, leaving him with no other choice but to attempt to heave it down with the weight of his body. It was for naught. The door was made of solid oak, thick and heavy like the door of a prison and if he insisted on this, he would end up with a broken shoulder.
"Damn Rosings and its eternal walls," he muttered while grabbing the spear from an armour that stood in the corridor. He introduced in between the door and the frame with the hope of breaking the lock and, using it as a crowbar, he succeeding in pushing the door open. The heat instantly reached him and cloud of smoke blinded him. The room was hell.
"Fire?" Mrs. Collins asked in shock.
"Yes, madam," said the manservant. "Mr. Darcy requested that I escort you and the other ladies to a safer place until the fire is put off. Please accompany me."
"Mr. Darcy?" cried Elizabeth. "Where is he?"
"He is upstairs. I believe he went for Miss de Bourgh." Ferguson replied as he urged the ladies out of the room, "Pray, madam, we must leave the house as soon as may be."
Once in the corridor, Elizabeth could discern the smoke advancing over the stairs. "We cannot leave him here, someone must help him!"
Ferguson was firm in his resolve to make them leave the house. "Do not worry, Miss, he is well. We must go."
They stopped at the cloak room, where they gathered several coats to protect themselves from the colder weather and hurried towards the front gardens where they stood, at loss of where to go or what to do. Should they leave for Hunsford and wait in the comfort of the parsonage while Rosings burnt? Should they stay and help those who were trying to stop the fire? There they remained, staring at the house with apprehensive eyes, knowing that there was nothing else they could do but pray for those who were still inside.
On hearing the faint voice of his cousin's cry, Darcy narrowed his eyes as he tried to detect her figure through the fire that had taken over the room. He finally saw her, standing in the other end of the bedroom, standing against the vanity, staring horrified at the flames surrounding her.
"Do not move, Ann," he shouted, "I am coming for you."
The scene in front of him was terrifying. The tapestry, the curtains, the furniture, the entire room was in flames. The fire was now climbing up to the ceiling and Ann's bed burned like a giant torch. The smoke was so dense that he could barely see through it and the air was becoming almost impossible to breathe. Avoiding the burning spots, he cautiously his way to his cousin and upon reaching her, he found her paralysed in with fear and shock.
"Ann," Darcy grabbed her by the arm. "we must go, come with me."
But Miss de Bourgh did not move. With wide eyes, she lifted her arm and pointed at something lying on the floor a few steps away from her.
"He tried to kill me," she said with a shaky voice. "He killed my mother and now he wants to kill me."
Confused, Darcy looked at the direction in which her finger was pointing and saw the body of the Mr. Collins laying on the floor.
"Collins!" he cried and walked towards the parson to see if he was still alive. "Ann, what happened?"
"He came into my rooms ... he said I had to die," sobbed Ann. "He put his hands around my neck, he was choking me ... I hit him with the oil lamp. Then the fire started and I ..."
Darcy saw that his cousin was trembling and went to comfort her. Collins was unconscious and he would have to rescue him too but first he needed to take Ann to a safer place.
He looked around, contemplating his escape routes and with dismay he realized that the door through which he had entered was now blocked by the flames. His options were reduced to only two exits, none of them entirely satisfactory to him: through the balcony or through Ann's dressing room, which he could only reach if he ran over a carpet of fire. He chose the first one, hoping that he could re-enter the house through a neighbouring room.
With a chair, Darcy broke the glass and stepped outside to study the territory. As he had thought, the balcony extended toward the adjoining chambers, but the railings had a yard separation in between and though he knew he would have no trouble jumping it, he doubted that Ann would be able to surpass the wide severance. He returned to the room with the hope that his other exit was still viable.
"This way, Ann," he grabbed his cousin by the arm.
Miss de Bourgh stared petrified at the carpet of fire in front of her, making no attempt to move. The flames, fuelled by the wind coming through the broken window, were now roaring with renewed intensity, making their escape almost impossible.
"We must leave now! Ann!" On seeing that she was not reacting, Darcy had no choice but to lift her and throw her body over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
Though the additional weight was making his escape much slower, he finally reached the door, and after struggling with the lock for a moment, he crossed the dressing room and walked towards the gallery, which, to his despair, was now being caught by the flames too. He deposited Ann on the floor and they both ran down the stairs.
"Get out of the house!" said Darcy on reaching the front door. "Stay with the others, find shelter in a safe place."
"Where are you going?" Ann noticed that he was going back inside.
"I must save Mr. Collins."
"Leave him! He is a murderer!" she shouted, "William!" But her cousin was already gone.
Once outside the house, Miss de Bourgh stood with the others to contemplate her burning home.
Darcy climbed the stairs and joined the line of servants that were trying to detain the fire with wet blankets and water. Though Rosings was built of stone, this particular part of the manor had been remodelled several years ago, decorated with the latest French fashions, covered with ornamental fabrics, tapestry and rugs, therefore making it much easier to burn. The fire was climbing up the walls and the thick rafters that supported the ceiling were caught by the flames. It was just a matter of time until the entire wing would fall under its own weight.
"Everyone must get out of here!" Darcy told the butler, who was coordinating the servants' actions. "We cannot stop this wing from burning but at least we can prevent the fire from taking over the rest of the house. I will go for Mr. Collins. This is my last chance to find him alive."
"Do I remove the mistress from her chambers?"
Darcy had been too preoccupied with the latest events to recall that his aunt's dead body was still in the house. Her rooms were surely burning and he saw no point in risking the servants' lives on such an ungrateful and pointless task. "No, let her be. There is nothing we can do for her now."
The butler assented and handed him a wet blanket which Darcy threw over his back before heading to Ann's dressing room, hoping that that route was still safe to use. The dense smoke immediately made him cough and pressing the wet cloth over his nose and mouth he carefully walked the burning path towards Ann's bedroom. The parson was still on the floor and the flames were getting dangerously close to him.
"Mr. Collins!" Darcy tried to wake him up. The parson moaned and slowly regained consciousness. "Collins!"
Collins slowly opened his eyes, apparently unaware of the inferno burning around him. After a moment, though, he recognized the danger surrounding him and clutched Darcy's arm in fear.
Darcy helped him up and together they headed towards the door to the dressing room. But before they could cross the threshold, the masonry over the door collapsed, making them reconsider the way. It looked as if hell had come up to the world to claim its ownership over Rosings. Off they ran to the terrace, with the hope that they could re-enter the house through an adjoining room. When they reached the stone railing, Darcy told Collins his strategy to escape the fire.
"Tis an impossible jump!" the parson looked down at the precipice below them. He turned to Darcy and cried in an accusatory voice. "She sent you to get rid of me!"
"What?" asked a confused Darcy.
"She is the devil! She won't stop until she sees all of us dead!" Collins stepped back. "Her mother's evils have possessed her. She must be detained!"
"Ann?" Darcy walked towards Collins. "That is why you killed my aunt, that is why you tried to kill her?"
"No!" With a terrified look in his eyes, he walked further back, and back, until his legs touched the stone railing. "You must understand! She is the devil! She must be stopped!"
At that moment, they heard the loud noise of stone collapsing. Darcy looked at the house and saw the roof of Ann's bedchamber crumbling in a cloud of dust. They had no more time left. "We must leave now, before it is too late."
But the parson was blinded with fear. In his struggle to avoid the gentleman's hold, he had pressed his body against the railing. Some of the lose stones gave in to his weight, making him lose his step and fall back into the abyss.
"Collins!" Darcy leaned over the balcony to see if the parson had fallen down the cliff. He saw him a few feet bellow, hanging precariously from some rocks. Without an instant to lose, Darcy lay on the floor and tried to reach him. "Give me your hand!"
There was not time for doubts. If Collins once thought that Darcy was there to harm him, the hand he was offering him was his only chance to escape from a sure death. Knowing he would not be able to hold onto the slippery rock much longer and without a firm footage on which he could support himself, the parson balanced his body and stretched his hand to reach Darcy's. His first attempt failed.
"Take my hand!" ordered Darcy. "Now!"
His second attempt was successful. They both held tightly, but the moistness of their hands, the blood of their cuts, the exhaustion played against them and the parson's hold quickly lost strength as his hand slipped from Darcy's fingers.
"Hold on!" cried Darcy on seeing he was losing him, "I'll lift you!"
Darcy tried, he really tried, but as he pulled up, Collins' hold weakened and his own fingers stretched as they became the parson's only support. Collins' hand slipped further down, and down, until only their fingertips where touching. Suddenly, the pressure was gone and all the effort was for naught. The parson fell down the cliff, his body rebounding grotesquely against the sharp stone until it was swallowed by the dark seas of Rosings Island.
Sick of so much death and destruction, Darcy rolled onto his back and fought the wave of nausea that overcame him. He was so tired. He wanted to lay down and sleep, rest for the first time in days. But he knew he could not stay there forever. He still had his own life to fight for.
The image of Rosings Manor from the distance was intimidating. The house had never presented a welcoming sight but tonight, with dozens of yellow spots appearing through the dark stone, it resembled a diabolic vision created in hell. The skies around the towers were grey and turbulent, the wind, unmerciful, fuelled the flames and spread the smoke beyond the island's shores, announcing to the world its victory over the once invincible fortress. Rosings manor, built to stand forever, was about to fall.
Outside, a small crowd observed how the house burned with the helplessness of those who had nowhere else to go. Half of the manor was in flames and the other half was possessed by servants who, like rapacious creatures, ran about the halls trying to rescue from the fire -many of them, perhaps, for their own benefit- what could still be saved.
For Elizabeth, who had no attachment to Rosings and to those who resided in it, the experience was not less anguishing. She may not have a husband inside the house like Charlotte, neither was she about to lose her home like Miss de Bourgh, but her heart ached in preoccupation for those who were still inside and, in particular, for a certain gentleman who had returned to the house to save those who were still trapped. Oh, how she would have liked to speak to him before he was gone! How she would have liked to tell him how much she cared for him, wish him God speed before he embarked on such a dangerous task! But fate had been against her almost since she arrived on the island and Elizabeth could not expect things to come out right this time.
"I should do something to help." Ann's voice interrupted Elizabeth's thoughts, "My house is burning."
"The servants are doing all they can to stop the fire from spreading to the rest of the manor, miss," said the housekeeper who was standing closer to her. "Rosings' invaluable treasures will be preserved."
Ann assented quietly and allowed the elderly woman to hold her as she continued with her helpless observation of the house. Several servants appeared at the front door, most of them carrying objects and clothing they had saved from the part of the house that was not in flames. Charlotte, who had been a quiet witness all the time, inquired after her husband.
"Have you seen Mr. Collins?"
The footman looked at her, confused.
"The parson," she explained, "Mr. Collins."
The man shook his head and returned to the interior to help those who were busy with the same task.
"He is inside," Ann replied. "My cousin went for him."
The two ladies looked at each other and averted their eyes quickly; both troubled by the information they beheld against the parson. One had recently become an orphan because of him and almost became her second victim and the other, though still unaware of it, had just become her widow.
The sounds of hooves approaching them made them turn around.
"Richard!" Ann ran towards him.
Fitzwilliam jumped off his horse and the young couple embraced. "Ann!"
"Oh, Richard, you are back!" she sobbed.
He tried to calm her. "I saw the fire from the ship. I had to come back."
The couple remained embraced for a while, whispering endearing and reassuring words to each other. A moment later, at the colonel's request, Ann was telling him what had happened, of Mr. Collins' attempt to kill her and how that had started the fire. Charlotte listened with stunned features.
"Colonel Fitzwilliam," Elizabeth joined them on seeing that Ann was not directing her tale to the matter that concerned her the most. "Mr. Darcy is still inside the house. He brought Miss de Bourgh out safe and sound and then returned to the house to help the others."
"He is still inside?" said the colonel. At that precise moment, they heard the loud sound of masonry falling. "Darcy! I must go for him."
"No!" Ann held his arm. "Richard, do not leave me!"
Fitzwilliam shrugged her away and ran into the house.
Darcy sat on the stone and came face to face with the burning house. At his back, the tallest cliff of the island and to his sides, the most unsafe balconies he had ever stepped on. He had come to the terrace with the hope of being able to jump from one balcony to another, though after seeing what happened to Collins, he feared that he would suffer the parson's fate when he landed on the other side. Everything at Rosings was ill kept; every piece of stone presented a risk.
At least the fire was allowing him to see the exterior properly. The separations between balconies was not as wide as he thought and on a closer inspection, he detected that the stones were attached to each other with mud, creating an indent in which he could introduce the tip of his boot. If he could find a way to hold himself to the wall, he could climb to it and walk the severance to the other balcony instead of trying a jump that he was not sure he would be able to overcome. It was a dangerous walk, the adjoining room might be in flames too, but at present it was the only option he had.
After testing its resistance, Darcy climbed onto the railing so he could introduce his foot in the indent, barely a few inches above. It appeared to be firm enough, not as slippery as he had thought it would be and there were roughness in the wall to which he could hold onto. Without looking down, he advanced slowly. His foot slipped once, but he managed to keep his body pressed against the wall until he was stable enough to continue. When he was close enough to the other railing to make a safe jump into the balcony, he jumped.
That was a mistake, a big mistake. The landing was successful, but some lose tiles made him lose his footing and fall back. His body hit the stone railing very hard, sending the lose pillars down the cliff. Desperate, knowing that he was about to fall, Darcy struggled to find something firm to hold on to. He managed to grab a pillar, which he held onto tightly while his feet kicked the air in an attempt to find some sort of support.
He tried to pull himself up, but he could not find the strength. Hanging over the precipice, alone and exhausted, he was suddenly possessed by anguish and despair. Was this the end?
Fitzwilliam dashed up the stairs but stepped aside to give room to small group of frightened servants who were abandoning the house.
"You must leave the house, sir," one of them shouted. "The ceiling is about to fall."
"Have you seen Mr. Darcy?" The colonel grabbed the man's sleeve.
"The last time I saw him he was entering Miss de Bourgh's rooms, but those have collapsed already."
Colonel Fitzwilliam hurried down the gallery to confirm what the servant just told him and found that the fire on that area was already dying because of the lack of material to burn. Yet, the rafters were still on flames and it was only a matter of time until that part of ceiling would fall, too.
He had to think quickly. If Darcy was still alive, which was probable, knowing his cousin's cautious nature and quick mind, either he was trapped inside the room or he had tried to escape through the service corridor or through to the terraces which, though separated by a certain distance, were not impossible to jump.
The room next to Ann's was his aunt's. It was burning so the colonel tried the following one, Sir Lewis' former chambers. They were smoky but the fire had not spread into them yet so he would have no inconvenience in crossing them.
This room was a novelty to him and he paused for a moment to inspect it. It was evident that it had been closed since his uncle's death, surely it was opened once or twice a year for dusting and airing, still certain objects appeared to be in use. The small desk against the wall was one of them, as one of the drawers was partially opened. Perhaps his aunt, known by her twisted mind and morbid inclinations, had become a frequent visitor of her husband's chambers after his death when it was known that she had not admitted him in hers while he still alive.
But there was not time to waste investigating his late uncle's chambers when his cousin's life was still danger. He went to the dressing room, to the door that connected to the servant's corridor and upon opening it, he called his cousin's name. There was no reply save for the echo of his own voice and the sounds of the burning wood. He returned to the bedroom and headed towards the balcony.
He reached the terrace the moment Darcy landed from his unfortunate jump. Fitzwilliam saw him lose balance and fall back and heard his cries as his body hit the stone. Part of the balcony yielded with the impact and the colonel became the quiet witness of his cousin's struggle to find something to hold onto.
Fitzwilliam did not move. Thoughts raced through his head with imagines of what would happen if Darcy did not survive.
Darcy did not know how much longer he would be able to hold on. His arms were aching, his hands were bleeding and he was losing strength with every breath he took. But seeing his death so close, he could not give in to the idea that this was the end. Not like this, not at Rosings, not this day. What would become of his sister? Of his estate and all those who depended on him? He thought of the charming Miss Bennet, of his plans for courting her, of the family he would like to raise. He was young, healthy, with an entire life ahead of him. Fitzwilliam Darcy was not one to surrender easily, and he was not ready to give up yet.
With considerable effort, he managed to encircle the pillar with his forearm, what gave him enough support to stretch his other arm and grab the base of the railing. Now he only needed to pull himself up a little bit more, until he could lean part of his chest on the floor and then crawl up to the balcony. His first attempt was not entirely successful, but at least, with both arms completely over the platform, his body was in a position that would be much easier to lift. His fingers scratched the floor and Darcycried in agony and frustration when he found that there was nothing to grasp. But in spite of the pain, he held on. He was so close, one more try and he ...
"I have you, Darcy," Fitzwilliam held his cousin's forearm firmly. "I will pull you up."
Darcy recognized his cousin's voice and felt as if he had just reborn. With Fitzwilliam's help, he climbed onto to the balcony.
"Richard," he panted as he sat on the floor. "You are here."
"I saw the fire from the ship. Ann told me you were still inside." Fitzwilliam examined his cousin carefully. Darcy did not appear to be seriously wounded, except for the cuts on his hands. "Can you walk?"
Darcy assented quietly. His mouth was dry and he was still shaken because of the fear and effort.
"Come," Fitzwilliam helped him to stand up. "We must leave this terrace before it is too late."
Seeing that his cousin was still unsteady, the colonel put Darcy's arm around his neck and guided him to Sir Lewis's rooms, which, to their luck, shared the terrace with Lady Catherine's.
"How did you know I was out here?" inquired Darcy as they crossed the smoky room.
"I had the feeling that you might try to escape through the terrace. There is no other way to get out of here. And Collins? Did you find him? Ann told me what he did to her."
"He is dead. I tried to take him out of the house but he fell down the cliff."
Upon reaching the corridor, seeing that he was rested enough to go on by himself, Darcy let go of his cousin's hold and the two gentlemen ran down the gallery towards the main staircase. They reached the bottom just at the moment the ceiling of the eastern wing collapsed, enveloping them in a cloud of dust and smoke.
Outside, everything was concern and despair. Ann, on hearing the loud noise of the stone falling, shouted the Colonel's name and tried to enter the house. Elizabeth and the housekeeper tried to secure her, but Ann, in hysterics, fought and kicked to free herself.
The colonel appeared first and Ann ran into his arms. The couple embraced and kissed but Elizabeth paid no attention to them for her eyes were searching the interior for the figure of the man she was desperate to see. And then, from inside a cloud of smoke, he appeared. He was covered with soot and dirt, his clothes torn but he was still the most precious sight she had ever seen. In one instant her arms were about his neck, his around her waist, and they were both laughing in happiness and relief.
"I thought I had lost you." She whispered against his neck.
"I am here."
What followed shocked them both. They could blame their conduct to the tension suffered in the past days, to the anguish and uncertainty they lived for the last few hours but what happened, happened, and it was beyond their control. Darcy pressed his lips against Elizabeth's and kissed her with the desperation and intensity of someone whose life depended on the nectar of life that came from his lover's lips. She, if initially surprised by his boldness and the novelty of feeling a man's lips against hers -this was, after all, the first kiss she had ever received- was frozen at the beginning but soon she responded to his kiss with openness and ardour of a woman in love.
While the two couples were all happiness and affection, the others around them had lost too much to express the same joy. In spite of how much they hated the old mistress, for most of them, Rosings had been their only home. They had lost their possessions, their employments and now they would have to live with the uncertainty of those who would have to start anew.
Yet, for one person in particular, the tragedy was even greater. Charlotte Collins stood contemplating how everything she had dreamed of came down in a pile of ashes. She had married a man whose true disposition she barely knew with the hope of finding security and stability; she had come to this island with the illusion of raising a family, of having a comfortable home. But in a matter of minutes her hopes and expectations had been taken away from her. She was no longer the respectable wife of a parson, but the homeless widow of a cold hearted murderer.
The small group began to walk the road towards Hunsford's parsonage without looking back. They had suffered so much the past hours; they had lost so many things that no one was willing to confront the lugubrious image of the smoky manor any more. At least the weather was giving them a respite from so much misery. The skies above them were not clear yet but the wind had stopped and the silvery light that illuminated the horizon told them that the storm that had chastised them so unmercifully had finally come to an end.
The night had been long. Too long. Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Darcy had remained into the late hours of the night helping in the task of stopping the flames from advancing further into the house and rescuing everything that could be saved. Once the major threat was over, they saw that the rooms containing the most valuable objects were locked, that way preventing opportunists from sacking the rest of the house. And only then they sat to rest.
It was during that interlude that Mrs. Collins kindly offered her home for the family to stay until they decided where to go. Even if part of the manor was not destroyed by the fire, at present, it was inhabitable. The soot, the smoke and the dust had taken over every room and no one was certain for how long would the rest of structure would stand after the collapse of the eastern wing. Hunsford's accommodations were not as luxurious as some of them were used to but the prospect of a comfortable bed and a warm bath, for humble they were, was something that none of them were willing to refuse.
At the parsonage, Charlotte organized her household with great efficiency, urging her surprised servants to prepare a quick breakfast and to ready the bedrooms for the Rosings' family. Clean clothes were given to them with the hope they would fit and jars with warm water were delivered to their rooms for them to freshen up.
"Darcy," said the Colonel as they entered the house. "You should take care of that hand."
The gentleman looked at the bandage Ferguson had improvised when he came out of the house. It was black with soot and dry blood. "Yes, I should wash it."
The men excused themselves from the table and headed towards the kitchen. Darcy sat on a chair next to the table and Fitzwilliam pulled one opposite to his.
"I did not have the chance to express my gratitude for coming to my rescue, Richard," Darcy winced as his cousin unwrapped the bandage, "You saved my life. I thank you."
Fitzwilliam did not look up and inspected the wound carefully. "You would have done the same for me."
"Yes, but that does not lessen the merit of your actions."
The Colonel stole a quick glance in Darcy's direction and accepted his words with a quick nod. Darcy smiled, for he knew that his cousin's military experience hardened him to what he thought was unnecessary and overdone praise. Still, it was deserved.
The cook placed a basin with warm water and soap on the table as the Colonel studied how to clean the wound. It was a nasty wound. The flesh of Darcy's palm was peeled open like the skin of an orange and only a small section kept it attached to his hand. There were several cuts on his fingers, half of one of his fingernails was gone, but, in general, these injuries did not appear to be of major concern. Yet, there was always the risk of gangrene and infection if the wounds were not tended properly and his cousin might suffer the loss of one finger or two.
"Do you think you can handle the pain if I soap your hand inside the hot water?" the Colonel inquired, "I do not see another way to remove all this dirt."
"If I could fit inside of it," Darcy smirked, "I would be jumping into that basin at this very moment. All I want now is a hot bath and a warm bed."
"I agree with you. It has been a long night." Fitzwilliam produced a flask from inside his pocket and offered it to his cousin. "Take a sip. I'm sure it will help you."
Darcy took a long gulp and looked away as his cousin introduced his hand into the basin to clean the wound. The rubbing hurt enormously but he managed to endure the painful process without screaming aloud.
"Ah, Miss Bennet," the Colonel saw her appear at the door, "you came just in time to help me with this. I'm sure some feminine company might help to ease my cousin's present discomfort."
She blushed. Her eyes went from the gentlemen to the basin, and her jaw clenched at the sight of the dark reddish hue that the water was acquiring. "I .. I brought some clean linen. I thought you would need them."
The water of the basin was changed at the Colonel's request, and Fitzwilliam repeated the procedure until he was certain that the wound was completely clean. He dried the hand with a cloth and then pressed back the lose skin against the flesh.
"If this heals properly, you will not have more than an unattractive scar to sport, Darcy. The muscle does not appear to be seriously damaged. Though I fear this injury may affect your beautiful handwriting."
Darcy smiled at his teasing. "It will still be neater than yours."
Fitzwilliam smirked and asked Elizabeth to cut the linen into strips. Darcy's manservant, Ferguson, who was near helping with the gentlemen's things, assisted her in the task of preparing the bandages.
"Excuse me, sir," Ferguson gave them the strips. "There is a woman in the village that is known for her ability to heal with medicinal plants. As there is no doctor on the island and, given the nature of Mr. Darcy's wound, I thought that she might be of help."
"A witch doctor?" inquired the Colonel, slightly amused. "I never thought my aunt would allow one of those at Rosings."
"Well," Ferguson doubted, "Her Ladyship was not aware of her skills. As you well know, she was not fond of such unchristian practices on her estate, though, in this case, I see no harm if we try some of this ... pagan medicine. I strongly recommend her, sir, Her methods are known to be very effective."
"We have nothing to lose. Go fetch her."
Ferguson left and the Colonel asked Elizabeth to come closer.
"Miss Bennet, I am no longer needed here. Please take care of my cousin until the other lady arrives. He will enjoy your company much better than mine." Elizabeth sat on the seat that the Colonel had just vacated and took Darcy's hand that Fitzwilliam placed in hers. "Keep this cloth pressed against the palm."
Elizabeth did what she was asked but, in her nervousness, she pressed it a bit too hard, making Darcy gasp and jump on his seat.
"I am so sorry." she quickly said.
"Gently," smiled the Colonel. "Have the ladies already retired to their rooms? My cousin Ann, is she all right?"
"Yes, sir," replied she, "I accompanied her to her room after she finished her breakfast. I believe she is already asleep."
"Good." Addressing his cousin, Fitzwilliam said, "Take a rest, Darcy, you look exhausted. I will return to the manor to see that everything is done according to our orders. I will be back at noon."
"Aye, be careful." Darcy nodded.
The Colonel left the room, leaving Darcy and Elizabeth in an awkward and rather uncomfortable position. They had not exchanged a word since the passionate kiss they shared barely three hours ago and here they were, in Hunsford's kitchen, holding hands, both at a loss of what the other might be thinking of that formidable -and extremely inappropriate- event. Were they only carried away by the intensity of the circumstances? Was it only a moment of weakness in the midst of so much tragedy? Neither wanted to believe that that had been the case, for they knew their own sentiments to be heartfelt. Still, as not a single word had been said on the matter and the uncertainty of ignoring the other's feelings was making them quite shy of each other. Elizabeth's reluctance to meet his eyes made Darcy think that his actions might have offended her while she was convinced that the gentleman believed her an easy woman for throwing herself in his arms in that manner. And with two servants around them to hear every word they said, it was not the most appropriate time to discuss it.
Darcy cleared his throat. "How is Mrs. Collins? She is showing great strength for someone who has just lost her husband."
"Oh, yes, though I am sure that on the inside she is devastated. Everything had been so sudden that she has not had the time to realize the dimension of her present circumstance."
"I assume she will return to Meryton."
"She has expressed that wish, yes."
Elizabeth remained silent and shifted on her seat as she pondered if she should express the subject that was troubling her. The noise of the maid cleaning some pans behind her convinced her otherwise.
"You look so very tired. You should follow the Colonel's advice and rest," she finally said.
He smiled at her. "I cannot recall the time when I last slept."
"It was a very brave thing you did, trying to safe Mr. Collins' life, for undeserving it was, at the risk of your own."
Darcy's expression darkened. "It is my belief that every soul is worthy of being saved and that every man deserves the chance to defend himself."
"But he killed your aunt; he tried to kill your cousin!" Elizabeth looked up at him. "How could he defend himself from that?"
"He cannot now that he is dead."
Elizabeth was surprised that he was expressing such doubts. "Do you think Charlotte might have been mistaken, that your cousin lied? You were the last one to see him alive ... did he say something that makes you believe he was innocent?"
"No, his words made no sense to me. Nothing that he said can either confirm his guilt or his innocence." Darcy shuddered as he recalled the moments prior to Mr. Collins' death; his disturbing words, his fingers slipping from his hand, the image of his body hitting the rocks. "There was such terror in his eyes; such madness, that I do not know what to believe."
"It must have been a horrible experience." Elizabeth said softly.
She fell silent, not willing to discuss such a disturbing matter any longer. The man whose hand she was holding was in no different state. But the silence, the contact of their hands turned their thoughts to the other subject that had been torturing them.
"Miss Bennet," Darcy broke the silence, "I must apologize for my conduct last night. I fear I may have imposed on you; that I might have offended you and I offer you my most sincere apology for my inappropriate behaviour."
Elizabeth flushed and could not meet his eyes. "No sir, you are not to blame. You were hurt, and in danger. It was my conduct that was highly reproachable, I should never have ..."
"No, please," Darcy raised his other hand to her cheek and made her look at him, "do not torture yourself. If I should blame someone, it is myself for allowing my feelings to ..."
The door flung open and the couple pulled apart. Ferguson burst into the room with a middle aged woman at his heels.
"Mr. Darcy," the manservant approached them. "Mrs. Smith is here to see you."
Elizabeth left the seat to give room to the other woman. Mrs. Smith sat and removed the cloth wrapped around Darcy's hand. She studied the hand carefully and gently touched the palm with the back of her fingers.
"The wound is clean, but warm. The infection is already beginning." She turned the hand over to examine the other cuts and inspected Darcy's fingernails. "These two will fall, but they'll grow again. You must not worry." She stated, looking at her patient. "You are a young, healthy man, you will heal nicely."
Darcy was not in the position to comment or object so he submitted to the woman's cares.
"You are Lady Catherine's nephew." She said a moment later. The gentleman assented. "You were hurt at Rosings, during the fire."
This time, Darcy only glanced at Ferguson and assumed that the man servant had informed Mrs. Smith of what just occurred. Surely the entire village was commenting on the event.
With her eyes fixed on Darcy's palm, she continued in a slow, even tone. "You faced death twice this night. Someone else's, then your own. The Lord protects those who are brave and loyal and you were saved. But your heart is still restless. You must not allow tears to deceive you and courage should not confuse you. It will take time but the truth will come to you."
Darcy had never been superstitious but this woman's words were too close to his thoughts to take them lightly. Mrs. Smith rose to retrieve a mortar from her bag, where she also produced some herbs. She smashed the mix until she obtained a pasty ointment. "Are there other wounded ones? Send them to my house. The mistress does not allow my medicine at Rosings."
"You must not worry on that account." Darcy stated. "Lady Catherine passed on two days ago."
The woman nodded and returned to her seat with the mortar. She anointed part of the contents over Darcy's palm and his other wounds. "I knew the red dawn would bring tragedy."
The gentleman shifted on his chair, not because the woman's ministrations caused him pain but because her words disturbed him. "You can go to the manor to help the injured ones, you have my consent. Though I believe everyone escaped the fire without being seriously hurt."
Mrs. Smith smiled at him and proceeded to carefully wrap the white linen around his hand. "This contains the blue mould, it will stop the infection. You must do this every morning, for five days, and change the bandages for clean ones every time. Once the skin is completely attached, you can leave it uncovered, so the scar can dry. If you are in pain or feverish, drink some tea made of willow crust. That will help you. I will not tell you to come to see me in a few days, for you will be gone very soon."
Darcy only raised his eyebrow.
"I will leave you now. Your lady will take care of you."
The couple looked at each other, Elizabeth blushing, Darcy slightly amused. While Mrs. Smith was putting her things away, Darcy extracted some coins from his breast pocket and attempted to give them to her.
"Thank you, madam," said he, "for your services."
"No, no. I cannot take your money." she refused to take it. "It is my duty to cure the ill. Good day."
Mrs. Smith was gone and Darcy instructed Ferguson to send a basket with food to the woman's house later the day. The events of the previous night had tired them out and Ferguson, seeing his master so worn and exhausted, told him that his room was ready and urged him to go upstairs to refresh himself and rest. Darcy, as grateful as he was for his manservant's solicitousness, had no choice but to postpone his conversation with Miss Bennet until the appropriate time came. Nonetheless, he offered his arm to the lady and escorted her to her door.
"Have a good rest, my lady," Darcy kissed her hand.
"Thank you," she smiled. "You too, sir."
The residents of Hunsford's parsonage -which had seen their number considerably increased because of the latest circumstances-, did not emerge from their rooms until very late in the day. Nonetheless, the housekeeper received dozens of callers, neighbours and villagers who, informed of what had occurred at the mansion, had approached the house to offer their help in anything that the Rosings family might be in want.
The first ones to come downstairs were Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam. It was past teatime, neither had had breakfast or lunch so they asked a servant to send them a light meal to Mr. Collins' study, where Fitzwilliam informed his cousin of the latest news concerning Rosings.
"Most of the upper floors of the eastern wing are now a pile of stone, but fortunately the ground floor and everything beneath it still stands. I am not sure if they represent any danger or not, so I will not send anyone to inspect them yet; I would rather wait a few days, in case the structure collapses."
"I would not worry about the kitchen and the cellars," Darcy lay back on the armchair, still feeling very tired in spite of the few hours of rest he had. "They do not have many things of importance, save, perhaps, for the wine and stored goods. My concern is for the ball room and the library, which contain many valuable objects."
"Those are locked now. I inspected the rest of the house and ordered the servants to move most of the furniture and silverware to the west sitting room. It is large enough to be used as storage room and the farthest away from danger."
"And the servants? Where are they going to stay?"
"I requested that they all move to the barn and the stables until we are certain that there is no danger for them. Only a few of them will remain at Rosings, guarding what is still there. Though I fear that we'll have to dismiss most of them from service in a few days time, they are not needed anymore. I will speak to Ann when she is recovered enough and ask her what is that she wants to do and which servants she would like to keep."
Darcy assented. "The housekeeper will be of help in this case. Some of them might be of need in case Ann remains in the island. If she does not mind, I would like to take Fergusson with me. In the days he has served me he has shown great loyalty and efficiency. I can certainly find him a place at Pemberley or at the Townhouse."
"He is very good, yes." Fitzwilliam looked down at himself. "If we are now wearing our own cleaned and ironed clothes instead of Collins' it is because he was clever enough to rescue what was still at Rosings' laundry rooms. And this woman he brought to see your hand, was she of use?"
"I must confess that I thought her a charlatan when she first came. I cannot complain about her medical abilities, though, I am healing much faster than I thought." Darcy turned his hand over and inspected his fingers, only the part the bandage allowed him to see.
The Colonel took a look at them. Indeed, the cuts were healing and showed no signs of swollenness or infection. "I have seen wounds of every kind and very few have healed this quickly. Perhaps I should introduce her to the Regiment's doctor," he spoke in jest, "for some reason the wounds he cures end in amputations."
Darcy smiled, though found little humour in his cousin's joke. "We now have to decide what we are to do, Richard. Rosings is destroyed and we cannot stay at Hunsford forever."
Fitzwilliam began to walk around the room. "I have a few ideas; I would like to know what you think of them."
"I do not think Ann would wish to leave Rosings. She hates Town and I doubt that she would want to reside at Matlock or Pemberley. I think -if she agrees- that the best thing to do is to move into the beach house. It is large and very comfortable; we can stay there until the new manor is built."
"We?" Darcy arched an eyebrow. "So you two are to be married."
"Yes. I sent a boat to the mainland instructing the captain to fetch the bailiff and a vicar. I do not wish to postpone this any longer. I want to marry Ann as soon as may be."
"The bailiff." Darcy stated pensively. "With the fire I almost forgot that we still have to inform him of Lady Catherine's murder."
"There is not much to say on that account. The crime is resolved"
"Is it?" the gentleman rubbed his chin. "Are we completely certain that Collins is the murderer?"
Fitzwilliam seemed surprised. "You astonish me, Darcy, this woman's medicine must have affected your wits. Collins killed Lady Catherine and then went after Ann. She told you so when you rescued her."
"Yes, that is what she said." Darcy did not seem convinced.
"Good Lord, Darcy!" The Colonel began to pace the room. "What is wrong with you? First you accused me and now you doubt Ann. Collins tried to strangle her! She has bruises around her neck. What other proof do you need?"
Darcy frowned, trying to recall that frantic night at Rosings more precisely. Everything happened so fast in Ann's room that if someone would ask him to describe exactly what he saw, he wouldn't be able to do it. Perhaps his cousin was right and he doubted those he should trust.
"I am sorry, you are right." he sighed. "Collins' words were so confusing ..."
Now Darcy had his cousin's full attention. "I thought he was unconscious when you found him. You said that he fell from the cliff when you tried to take him out of the house. You never mentioned that you were able to speak to him."
"We did. He recovered consciousness as soon as I entered the room."
"Pray, what did he say?"
"This is the most outrageous part. We could not escape through the dressing room, the ceiling was collapsing, so I helped him out to the terrace with the hope that we could jump from one balcony to another. But when Collins saw the gap, he accused me of wanting to kill him."
"You entered a room in flames to rescue him at the risk of your own life. He should not be threatened by your presence, quite the contrary.
"I know, but he kept repeating that someone wanted to get rid of him. He said that Ann was possessed by her mother's malice and that she should be stopped."
"That is why he tried to kill her," Fitzwilliam stated pensively. "In his insanity he imagined that she was as evil as her mother and that she had to be stopped before she transformed into the monster Lady Catherine was."
"I inquired the same thing. He did not deny my accusation and looked very disturbed. He seemed afraid of something and at that moment I thought he was afraid of me. He stepped back and leaned on the railing ... it broke and he fell back ... I tried to save him, Richard, truly, I tried. " Darcy shuddered at the unpleasant memory. "I held his hand and tried to lift him but he was not strong enough to hold on."
"What I do not understand is why he thought you were there to harm him. Unless he believed that you had come to take him to the bailiff to make him pay for Lady Catherine's murder."
"That could be a possibility." Darcy assented.
Fitzwilliam resumed his slow walk around the room. "Only God knows what was in his mind. After all the abuse he suffered from our aunt, I would not be surprised if he attempted to kill all those related to her. You and I included."
"Perhaps. Though I cannot believe that would be reason enough to stab someone to death. He was a parson, for heaven's sake. He could have left Rosings, found another living, live a happy life elsewhere."
"The man was mad, Darcy. We cannot expect him to act rationally. Ann told me that Collins was completely out of his wits when he attacked her."
Darcy had to admit that Collins was not in full possession of his sanity when he last saw him. "Mrs. Collins also thinks he is the murderer. She said she found a shirt stained with blood among his clothes the morning after Lady Catherine's death."
"Do you not consider that enough to prove his guilt?"
Though not completely convinced of this, Darcy nodded slowly. "I guess it is."
"So this is what we are going to tell the bailiff." Fitzwilliam stated.
"I do not see what else can be said. We only need to know what happened to Mrs. Jenkinson."
"We do not have much to say aside from what we already know. Part of the service corridor has collapsed and any proof that lay on those stairs is now gone."
"Then it is the bailiff's duty to determine what happened."
"I think it is time to tell Ann of this. She will enquire after her as soon as she wakes up. I do not wish to lie to her any longer."
"Yes, you are right." Darcy sighed. "We must tell her. There is no point to hide this from her."
Colonel Fitzwilliam walked towards the door. "I will see if she is awake."
"Yes, go. That would be best."
The Colonel closed the door behind him and Darcy laid his head back on the armchair. His eyelids were heavy and his mind foggy. He glanced at his hand and wondered if Mrs. Smith's medicine could be the cause of his present fatigue. Probably not. Five or six hours of rest were not enough to compensate three days of sleeplessness and the extreme effort to which his aching body had been put through. Perhaps he should have another of those teas made of willow crust and get some more sleep. It had served to ease the pain that morning and surely it would make him feel better now.
He went to the kitchen and asked a servant to take his tea to his room. He slowly climbed the stairs and without any other ceremony than taking his shoes off, he let his body fall back on his bed and fell fast asleep.
"Lizzy?" Maria knocked the door, "are you awake?"
Elizabeth opened the door a moment later. Her eyes were sleepy and her hair dishevelled. "Maria, is anything the matter?
Miss Lucas looked concerned. "Tis Charlotte, she has been crying for more than an hour. I know not what to do. She will not speak to me. Perhaps she will talk to you."
There was no time for dressing up or doing her toilette so Elizabeth just washed her face and put some order in her hair before heading towards her friend's room. She found Charlotte lying on her bed, sobbing.
"Charlotte," Elizabeth said kindly, "are you unwell?"
The young widow did not reply. Her friend sat on the bed and addressed her in a soft voice. "I can imagine the pain you feel, Charlotte, but you must be strong."
"Oh, Lizzy," Mrs. Collins broke in sobs. "What will become of me? What am I to do? My husband is dead, I have no home, my life is ruined!"
Elizabeth bit her lip. Indeed Charlotte's future could not be darker and less promising. "You must allow some time to pass, to forget. Surely you will feel much better once you return to your family. You are still young, you have an entire life ahead of you."
"Life? Pray tell me, what sort of life will I have? My husband murdered his patroness and attempted to kill her daughter. No other man will have me, no one will employ me. At least, had I been with child, I would have had the chance to inherit Longbourn, but even that was denied to me."
"You are not to blame for your husband's sins, Charlotte. You must have faith that things will change."
"I cannot see how this can be reversed. I have disgraced my family; returning home will only bring shame to my family. All Meryton will point at me as the widow of a murderer. And to think that there was a moment in which I thought I might have been mistaken, that he was innocent!" Mrs. Collins broke in sobs once again.
"What do you mean?"
"The reason why I thought he could be the murderer was the bloody shirt I found in our room." Elizabeth assented quietly. "A maid told me how it happened. Last night, while we were watching the house burn, she told me that Mr. Collins had gone to the kitchen during the night before to see the injured servant and that he stayed with him for a time. The cook had slaughtered four chickens earlier, for the following day's meal, which he hung not far away to bleed dry. I was told that when Mr. Collins returned to the kitchen, he slipped on the wet floor and hit the basin on which the blood was being collected, staining his shirt and coat. You know not the relief I felt at the moment. Albeit he had been acting strangely since Lady Catherine's death, there was a chance that he was innocent and that no shame would befall us. But then I heard Miss de Bourgh tell the Colonel that Mr. Collins confessed being Lady Catherine's murderer; of his attempt to kill her too and I realized that all that hope had been for naught and that my life was indeed cursed."
Elizabeth was speechless. She thought of Mr. Darcy's doubts on the same matter, of Mrs. Smith's words and how all the evidence conveniently pointed at Mr. Collins when, with the exception of the relief that Lady Catherine's death would bring to him, he was, perhaps, the one who would obtain the least benefit with her demise. Albeit he was not there anymore to defend himself of her ladyship's murder, Miss de Bourgh was the living proof of his criminal propensity. Unless ...
"Charlotte," Elizabeth enquired. "Did you see marks around Miss de Bourgh's neck when she came out of the house?"
"I cannot recall. It was dark and I was too concerned about my husband to notice. Why do you ask? Did you not see them?"
Miss Bennet shook her head. "No, though I cannot say they were not there either. As you said, it was dark and I did not pay much attention. Like you, I was also preoccupied about ..."
"Mr. Darcy." In spite of her tears, there was a small smile in Charlotte's face.
"And all those who were still inside." Elizabeth smiled, too.
"You cannot fool me, Lizzy. Your concerns were centred on one person only: the man whose lips sought yours when he exited the house."
Elizabeth looked away. "It is not what it seems, Charlotte."
"I saw it with my own eyes. I know he extracted himself from a near death, that he was injured and perhaps his distress must have driven him to act so recklessly but you cannot deny that the ardour of his kiss and your response to it has put your reputation at stake. If your father learns of this incident, he would demand an engagement."
"I understand what you mean. If it serves you as a consolation, he apologized for his forwardness."
Charlotte's voice acquired a less amiable tone. "Apologized? I do not think that that could be resolved with a mere apology, Lizzy. An honourable man would have proposed to you after such an exhibition."
"Please, do not mistake him. He ... we ..." Elizabeth sighed, not able to explain a matter of which she was not even certain. "Our circumstances are too different. Even if he were in love with me, he unfortunately suffers the limitations that society establishes on persons of his rank. But I am certain that if the matter arises, he will do everything that is needed to rectify my situation."
Miss Collins observed her friend carefully and saw tears brightening Elizabeth's eyes. "You love him."
Elizabeth assented quietly.
"Oh, Lizzy, what are you going to do?"
"I don't know. If he loves me enough to overcome his scruples and propose to me despite my limitations, then I will be the happiest woman on earth. But if he does not, I will understand. I will not use that incident as an instrument to force him into an unwanted obligation. I would rather live with the memory of the kiss we once shared than to have him against his will."
"Then your family will never learn of this incident from my lips or Maria's, I assure you."
"Thank you." Elizabeth smiled. "You must be hungry. You have not eaten since yesterday."
"I don't want to leave my rooms, Lizzy, I do not wish to see anyone yet."
"Your guests are still resting, I assure you. But if you prefer to stay here, I will ring for a maid and ask her to bring us some tea."
"You are right. Ask Maria to join us. My poor sister is beside herself in concern."
Elizabeth went for Miss Lucas and the two ladies crawled in Charlotte's bed. The rest of the evening was spent in conversation.
The bailiff called on the parsonage early in the morning. His first hours were spent in conference with the gentlemen, first with Mr. Darcy and then with Colonel Fitzwilliam with the intention of collecting as much information he could about Lady Catherine's death. He then requested an audience with Miss de Bourgh. In this case, so Ann would not be left alone with him, Elizabeth was asked to keep her company.
"You say that he went to your rooms and confessed being your mother's killer?"
"Yes, sir." She pressed her handkerchief to her nose. The recapitulation of the hours that followed the announcement of Lady Catherine's death had left Ann extremely disturbed and she was having difficulty controlling her tears. "He spoke of heaven and hell, he said that the devil had taken possession of the house and the only way to stop him was killing those who had invoked him. He believed my mother to be the incarnation of evil and that Rosings was cursed. Then he approached me while reciting a strange prayer. In another language, I believe; I could not recognize the words. I was terrified," she rested her palm on her chest, securing the shawl she was using to cover the marks. "I could not move. He ..." her voice faltered, "he put his hands around my neck ... he was choking me. I tried to fight him but he was too strong. Somehow I reached the oil lamp on the table and was able to hit him on the head. I cannot recall exactly what happened immediately after, I believe I was in shock for a moment, and by the time I realized where I was, the room was in flames and my cousin was calling my name."
Ann made a pause and the bailiff allowed her some time to compose herself. "I suppose his attack left marks on your neck."
She nodded quietly.
"I would like to see them, if you do not find it inconvenient." The bailiff requested.
Though visibly uncomfortable with his petition, Ann moved aside the shawl that was wrapped around her neck. Even from a distance, Elizabeth could see the rosary of purple marks imprinted on Miss de Bourgh's skin.
"Poor child," the bailiff whispered. "I have one more question, Miss de Bourgh, and you will be free to go," said he. "What do you know of Mrs. Jenkinson's death?"
"Not much," Ann's eyes clouded with tears. "My cousins informed me of the news only last night. They wanted to spare me the pain for a little longer. I was told that she fell from the stairs."
"Yes." He offered gently. "When was the time you last saw her?"
"The night that followed my mother's death. She brought my tea to my rooms soon after suppertime. That was the last I saw her. She was so caring, so solicitous," Miss de Bourgh sniffed. "I miss her so much."
"Thank you, Miss de Bourgh, you have been very helpful." The bailiff condoled with her. "I will not disturb you any longer."
The bailiff then asked Elizabeth a few more questions, mostly concerning Mr. Collins' behaviour in the hours that preceded and followed Lady Catherine's death. She told him everything she knew and having nothing else to enquire, he expressed that they were free to go.
After nearly a week of bad weather, Rosings was finally blessed with a clear day. Spring had reached the island at last.
Once she was certain that Charlotte was resting peacefully after her interview with the bailiff, Elizabeth changed into a comfortable frock and her walking boots and headed for the pebbled path that bordered the coastline.
It was indeed a beautiful day. The skies were blue, the breeze was soft and fresh and the seagulls tracked the coast, grazing the sand in search of whatever the storm had thrown over the shore. Invigorated by the sun and the marine breeze, Elizabeth forgot the tension, the fear suffered during the past days. She took her bonnet off, lifted her face to the sun and allowed the wind to caress her skin.
The path split into two and Elizabeth was tempted to take the wider one, the one that led towards the rock on which she used to sit and watch the sea during her first days at Rosings but then she reconsidered knowing that that road would put her face to face with the mansion, a sight that she was not willing to see again. So the other one she took, heading towards the shore, with the hope that the low tide would allow her a long walk on the beach.
After overcoming the more irregular part, she finally reached the sand, and turning to the right, she continued her walk facing the sun. She knew she should shelter her face before she would become too tanned but the sensation was too pleasant to detain it.
She walked a considerable distance until she noticed that she was not alone on the beach. Appearing from the curve, coming toward her, not far away, a manly figure appeared. Her heart skipped a beat when she recognized the man was no other than Mr. Darcy. He approached her, and after bowing, said,
"Miss Bennet, I see you have returned to your old habits. It is a very pleasant day for a walk."
She dropped a quick courtesy. "Good afternoon, Mr. Darcy. I hope you are well. You look much improved."
Darcy smiled and accepted the compliment with a short bow. "I am, thank you. You too look much rested."
"I thank you, sir." She returned his smile.
"May I accompany on your walk?"
"Yes, of course, sir." As she took her place by his arm, Elizabeth chastised herself for her choice of attire. Her frock was plain and her hair, which she had so carefully arranged that morning, was blown about by the wind. Surely the gentleman thought she was a wretched sight.
But little did she know that her dishevelled appearance excited exactly the opposite impression on the gentleman, who now thought her a most delightful image. To him, the pink blush of her cheeks made her eyes shine even brighter and her loose locks framed her face beautifully.
The couple continued their walk in silence. Even though they had so much to say to each other, neither could find the appropriate words to start. Darcy spoke a moment later, saying something about the brightness of the day and the lack of humidity, comments to which Elizabeth replied with a simple, 'oh, yes, indeed,' before they fell silent again.
Elizabeth knew it was her turn to say something and too nervous to come up with neutral matter that could be of mutual interest, she asked what first thing came to her mind, "Does it hurt?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I am sorry. Your hand, does it hurt?"
"No, not much. It is healing very fast. I am very surprised, for I did not expect Mrs. Smith's medicine to be so effective."
"I am glad it is. I was afraid that you would become ill because of it. It was a very severe wound."
He nodded, and a few minutes later, stated, "You were accompanying my cousin during her conversation with the bailiff. I hope you were not disturbed by what you heard."
"Oh, no. Though I must admit that I found her revelations quite shocking. I never thought that Mr. Collins could be a madman."
"I am of that impression, too. The evidence against him seems irrefutable and the bailiff has already declared him my aunt's murderer. Any doubt he could have of his guilt had been settled by my cousin's declarations."
"Then there is no danger that someone would accuse you of your aunt's crime." Elizabeth declared with obvious relief.
"No, there is not, I suppose."
"I am happy to hear that."
He smiled at her. "So am I."
They continued their walk, Darcy with his hands clasped behind his back, seeming increasingly uneasy with every step he took. Elizabeth was in no different state and could not utter a word for the next several yards. Suddenly he stopped, and facing her, thus begun,
"Miss Bennet, in vain I have struggled to repress my feelings, I have already forgotten myself once and I fear I cannot go on without telling how ardently I admire and love you."
Elizabeth listened in mute surprise. Though puzzled by her silence, he continued.
"I am fully aware that your opinion of me has not been favourable in the past; that, perhaps, you might have found my impetuousness of the other night offensive, I can hardly forgive myself for my conduct but it cannot be helped. Almost from the earliest days our acquaintance I have come to feel for you the most passionate admiration and regardł this is why I am begging you, to relieve my suffering and do me the honour of becoming my wife."
She knew that the gentleman's feelings were inclined in her favour; the kiss he gave her was a most tangible proof of his affection for her but after learning of his limitations where marriage was concerned, she had never aspired to be the recipient of such declaration. And to learn that this has been occurring since they first met was even more shocking.
If Darcy first found her silence puzzling, now he thought it dreadful. He waited in agony for her reply and when it finally came, her words did very little to appease him.
"I am sorry, sir, that I have put you through such misery. It was most unconsciously done. I know your good opinion to be rarely bestowed and therefore, in this case, I find it more worth the earning. I am the one that should feel honoured by your proposal, for I do not, given my past faults against you, consider myself deserving."
He looked at her, utterly confused. Though she was not rejecting him, he was not certain that she was accepting him either. "You are too generous to trifle with me, madam," Darcy said as sensibly and warmly as a man as violently in love could be supposed to do, "if my feelings are not corresponded, tell me so at once and I will be silenced on the subject forever. But if there is a chance that in the future they might be returned, that there is something I can do to lessen your ill opinion of me, I must know. I promise I will spend the rest of my days showing you, by every civility in my power, that I can become a better man for you."
Elizabeth never imagined she could be of such importance to him. Just to know he could love her so intensely made his affection every moment more valuable. "Sir, I ... my feelings for you have changed so much. In fact, they are the opposite of what they have once been. I ..." She looked away, unable to go on.
Darcy placed a finger under her chin and lifted her face to his, "Pray, continue."
"I cannot ask you to become a better man because I already believe you the best man I have ever known. I love you and nothing will make me happier than becoming your wife."
An expression of such heartfelt delight suddenly diffused over his features that Elizabeth, inundated by a similar emotion, laughed and wrapped her arms around his neck as he embraced her tightly against him.
"You have just made me a very happy man, my dearest Elizabeth," he whispered close to her ear.
"And you, sir, have just made me a very happy woman."
He lifted his head a bit and, smilingly, said, "May I kiss you now?"
Elizabeth smiled impertinently. "You are all politeness, sir. I do not recall you voicing a similar petition the first one you did it."
Darcy lowered his face a bit, ready to capture her lips with his. "I am not one to make the same mistake twice."
She lifted her chin, positioning her mouth barely a breath from his. "I never said it was a mistake."
The force of their desire pulled them together and their lips touched in a kiss that began soft and tentative but that soon increased in passion, where they unleashed the love that had so steadily grown during the past few days and that they had struggled in vain to resist. They parted some time later, and heading back to the parsonage, they spoke of their wishes and expectations, of their plans and began to design their future together.
"Engaged to Miss Bennet?" The colonel raised an eyebrow. "When did this happen?"
"This afternoon, during our walk along the beach."
Fitzwilliam smirked, "You proposed on the beach? That is awfully romantic, Darcy."
"This is not at all the reply I would have expected. Why am I of the impression that you are not pleased with my decision?" Darcy walked towards the decanter and served himself a port.
"But if it is your wish to marry a dowry-less country girl, who am I to object?"
Darcy did not like his cousin's tone. "I am a gentleman and she is a gentleman's daughter, so far we are equal."
"Yes, yes," Fitzwilliam dismissed the comment with a wave of his hand. "And very pretty too, that I concede you. But what else does she have to recommend her? She has no money, connections or fortune. I know you are an honourable man, Darcy, and that, perhaps, you feel obliged because of that stolen kiss, but there is no need to compromise your future because of that. You only forgot yourself in a moment of infatuation; it can happen to anyone."
"I never thought you were so simple minded, Richard." Darcy chuckled and shook his head. It was not his wish to start a fight with his cousin in what he considered the happiest day of his life, but Fitzwilliam's ironies were beginning to bore him. Still, his tone, though amiable, left no room for objections. "It was not infatuation what made me kiss her that night. I did it because I love her. As for her connections, to which you so strongly reject, I can only add that that is not a matter of concern for me. Unlike you, I am not obliged to evaluate my intended's fortune before proposing, I do fairly well with my own."
"Touché." The Colonel bowed his head, though he did not seem offended by Darcy's reply, simply amused by his cousin's directness. "Yet, I feel to warn you of this: there will be many among our circle that will oppose to your choice of wife."
"They are of little importance to me."
Fitzwilliam served himself a port and rose his glass for a toast. "So it only rests on me to congratulate you. I wish you and your Miss Bennet all the happiness in the world."
Though Darcy did not think this was a heartfelt congratulation, Darcy bowed his head nonetheless
The gentlemen sat in opposite armchairs and continued with their conversation.
"When are you going to ask for her hand?
"Tomorrow morning I will escort her, Mrs. Collins and Miss Lucas to Hertfordshire. I will speak with her father as soon as we arrive."
"That means that you will not be here for my wedding with Ann. The vicar will arrive in a sennight."
"I wish I could stay but Mrs. Collins is desirous to leave the island and, speaking honestly, so am I. If it serves you, I can write to my solicitor in London and ask him to obtain a special license for you and Ann. That will validate the ceremony."
"Yes, thank you."
Darcy considered his words carefully before voicing them. "You and Ann will stay at the parsonage for an entire week, un-chaperoned. I trust that you will apply to your better judgement and behave like a gentleman while you two are alone in the house."
The colonel sipped his port and looked at his cousin directly in the eye. "You must not worry, Darcy, nothing will occur between us that did not happen already."
The gentleman nodded quietly, in full understanding of what that comment implied. It did not surprise him, though, for he had suspected that the couple's behaviour had crossed more boundaries than it should during the past weeks. "Then I will do everything within my power to speed things up, so there are no unnecessary delays in your wedding."
"That will be very much appreciated."
A servant knocked at the door and announced that supper was being served at the dining room. The gentlemen left the room and went to join their intendeds.
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