The Storm finally comes to an end. After so many months, after so many guesses, the mystery is finally revealed. Well, almost. The epilogue is quite long so I cut in two parts. One of pure conjectures and conclusions made by the detectives and the second one with facts. I hope it doesn't disappoint!
I couldn't have been done without the help of my betas and the unconditional support of my readers. Thank you Lee, Elena and Andrea for your excellent advice, for your patience, your collaboration and for coping with my crazy ideas.
Writing this story has been a wonderful experience. Thank you for allowing me to share it with you.
I couldn't have been done without the help of my betas and the unconditional support of my readers. Thank you Lee, Elena and Andrea for your excellent advice, for your patience, your collaboration and for coping with my crazy ideas.
Writing this story has been a wonderful experience. Thank you for allowing me to share it with you.
Darcy tossed in bed. Again that dream. He knew well it was not a nightmare, not like those he had suffered during the weeks that followed his departure from Rosings, though this dream in particular, because of the frequency with which it happened and his inability to understand what it meant had become no less disquieting.
The dream usually began with him wandering through the halls of a big house. Sometimes the building was frighteningly similar to Rosings; others, it resembled the interior of his beloved Pemberley. The people that he met during the dream also varied from time to time, certain details too, but there was one event in particular that remained exactly the same, night after night, making him firm in his belief that it was neither the place nor those he found along the way what mattered, but the message hidden in that particular circumstance that he had been unable to decipher.
While the dream did not provoke any unpleasant sensation when it started, as it progressed, it became more disturbing. The halls turned darker, endless and the feeling that he was trapped inside the house began to grow on him. He knew by then that he was there with a specific purpose, though he did not know exactly what was expected from him. His wanderings would usually take him to a large door -a door that he knew he had to open- which led to an endless spiral staircase. This was the part when the dream took a most unexpected turn. Unexpected while he was still trapped in it, because he knew that once he woke up he would come to realize that things had happened exactly the way they had happened before, dozens of times.
On this particular night, the dream had taken him to the bedchamber he occupied with his wife. Elizabeth was in her nightclothes, anxiously waiting for him.
"William, what took you so long?"
"Excuse me, my dear, I could not find the way," he told her in a calm voice.
Elizabeth appeared disturbed by his delay. "Did you bring me the things I requested?"
"Of course, here they are." He extended his hand to her.
Elizabeth pointed at the single object that was in his hand. "No, that is not what I asked. I said a candle, a piece of cloth and china. Why William, is it that you are never able to fulfill such simple petition?"
This was the part of the dream with which Darcy became utterly frustrated. As she said, the request was simple, the things he was asked to fetch were always the same but he was never able to accomplish the task successfully because when he looked down, he would always find a basket in his hand.
Then, as it happened almost every time the dream was repeated, he woke up, lost and troubled. Why were those three things so important? Why was that he was never able to bring what he was asked? The request was so simple, yet impossible to fulfill.
Fully awake, Darcy opened his eyes to find himself alone in his bed. He found the situation a bit unusual for he knew that his wife rarely left their bed before him. However, given the light that was coming through the windows, it appeared to be later than he imagined. He supposed that Elizabeth had allowed him a few more minutes of rest and was probably in her dressing room doing her morning toilette. Still slightly dazed and confused by his dream, he wrapped himself in his robe and went to join his wife. A moment later, the dream was forgotten and all details locked in the most hidden corner of his mind.
Every time she looked at her reflection on the mirror, Elizabeth could not but think of how much her life had changed since she stepped on that carriage that took her to Rosings Island, five months ago. Little did she know at the time that the journey she had started with a heart charged with enthusiasm and excitement would end with her facing such unthinkable evils. For nearly a month she suffered the abuse inflicted by Lady Catherine and shared the misery and the despair of those entrapped within Rosings shores. Never did she imagine she would see the brutal end of Lady Catherine's days or witness the fall of the eternal walls of Rosings Manor. And what she never expected when she began the journey was that it would take her directly to the man that was now the means of her existence and that, paradoxically, was then the one person she detested most.
Of course, this unexpected turn of her feelings had been the catalyst for everything that followed her departure from Rosings. In only a few days of intense and very revealing moments in Darcy's society, her heart had turned from hate to love and she became completely devoted to his person. The rest happened so quickly that she was still trying to become accustomed to it. Darcy accompanied her to Hertfordshire, requested her hand in marriage and after a few weeks of courtship, they married and departed for his home where she became the new Mistress of Pemberley.
Great changes indeed! She was no longer a country lass but the mistress of a grand estate, responsible for a large household and the wife of a rich and caring husband whose attentions she received with pleasure. Her sister Jane was also benefited with her new situation for Darcy had amended the wrong he inflicted upon her immediately after their arrival to Longbourn, bringing his good friend, Mr. Bingley, with him and confessing his initial error of judgement. Jane was now happy and soon to be married to her beloved Charles.
In spite of her good fortune, Elizabeth did not feel completely comfortable with her new status at the beginning. The courtship had been short and did very little to prepare her for the surprises that married life was reserving for her. Their wedding night was awkward to say the least. Elizabeth entered the marriage bed with little knowledge of what would happen; just a quick, quite inconsistent explanation that her mother offered the night previous to her wedding. Her husband's expertise on the matter was barely larger than hers so it took them some time until they were able to overcome their initial discomposure and allow the passion they felt for each other to drive them into connubial felicity.
However, as Elizabeth told her husband once at Rosings, certain abilities are perfected with effort and assiduous practice. Intimacy was a matter from which Mr. Darcy was not easily dissuaded. Since their wedding night, he had not declined the practice of his lovemaking skills one single night-sometimes she was requested to practice during the day, too- and in only a few weeks of marriage he had become quite proficient in the art of pleasuring his wife. The frequency also increased Elizabeth's confidence, proving Lady Catherine's statement -though Elizabeth hated to quote her- that no true proficiency can be achieved without constant practice.
As for her other obligations in the household, Elizabeth had been as unprepared to execute them as she had been in the matter of satisfying her husband's carnal needs. However, with time and good deal of help from the housekeeper and servants, she was finally achieving the abilities to run a household as grand as Pemberley's. She was now confident enough to decide menus and give orders to servants and had become the true mistress of the estate.
Staring at her reflection, Elizabeth forgot for a moment about her duties on household matters and studied how to resolve the compromising situation in which her passionate husband had placed her. The progression of their intimacy had been fast, and though extremely pleasant, was not always without unwanted consequences. On one occasion Elizabeth found herself with a sore back after her husband chose to love her against the wall of their bedroom and there was one occasion in which the breakfast table suffered of a broken leg because of their lovemaking impetus. This time, though the bed had been the scenario, the act had not been less passionate. Darcy ended with his wife's fingernails imprinted on his back and Elizabeth, who had provoked her husband's desire to the limits of the unknown, was now trying to disguise with powder the mark that Darcy's hungry mouth had left on her neck before her maid could see it.
She was concentrating on the task of disguising her love mark when the man responsible for it joined her at her dressing room.
"Good morning, my dear." Elizabeth said with some degree of amusement. She had imagined he would wake up tired after their passionate exchange of the night before but not this fatigued.
Darcy kissed the crown of her head and sat by her side on the stool in front of the vanity. "Good morning, my love."
On a second glance, more than tired, he seemed distressed. "Are you all right?"
He nodded. "I had this strange dream, I think I have been dreaming this same dream for weeks, and I cannot understand what it means."
"Why don't you tell me?"
"I can't remember. I only recall fragments, being trapped inside a large house, searching for something. But when I wake up, the dream is gone."
Elizabeth gently cupped his cheek. "Maybe it is just a dream."
He smiled and gave her a quick kiss on the lips, as he pulled away, he noticed the bluish mark on her neck. "What is that?"
"You should know, you made it."
Darcy leaned to see it from a closer distance. "I am sorry," he said as a small smile twisted up the corners of his mouth. "I will have to be more careful."
"I will have to wear a shawl, the powder is not covering it." Elizabeth found little amusement in the situation. "Would you like breakfast to be served in our chambers?"
"That is an excellent idea, dearest."
Elizabeth went for a shawl and the couple moved to the sitting area in between their rooms. A moment later, two maids carrying their breakfasts joined them.
Serving breakfast was like a sort of ritual, Darcy had noticed some time ago, that chambermaids performed silently and gracefully after transporting the goods from the kitchen to the master bedrooms. Adorned trays with fresh flowers and the finest Austrian chinaware that always contained the same delicacies (unless something different was specifically requested) were served on their table precisely in the same way, morning after morning. It was like a ceremony in which every single item appeared to have an exact position on the tray to be then carefully placed in a specific location at the breakfast table. Darcy had never paid much attention to this morning rite before. He even considered it pointless and somehow unimaginative, but today, perhaps because it was altered, it captured his full attention.
The reason for this apparently harmless change was the appearance of a new chambermaid who had been sent to the upper floors instead of Hilda, their usual maid, who had fallen ill. The young girl usually performed her duties in the kitchen, but today she was assigned the honourable task of serving the master and mistress in their chambers.
Perhaps it had been her inexperience that had made her so nervous, maybe this first and formidable encounter with the master and mistress in their rooms had sent her to the point of shakiness, but the usual sedated and pleasant ceremony was altered by the tattering of the trembling china and a few dropped items that the young maid let fall on the floor. The situation was rectified immediately by the other chambermaid, apologies were offered and forgiven, thus leaving Darcy and Elizabeth to finally break the fast on their own.
"Poor girl," Elizabeth said as she buttered her toast. "I have never seen anyone so scared. She must think we are a pair of ogres that would eat her alive."
Darcy did not reply. His eyes were fixed on the basket containing the warm bread and scones that the second maid had left a moment earlier.
"You are so pensive this morning. Is there anything disturbing you?" Elizabeth was refilling her cup with hot tea.
His eyes followed the movements of Elizabeth's hand, which flowed gracefully from the kettle to the piece of cloth that covered the basket containing warm bread and scones. He sat back on his chair and searched for the item he considered was missing.
He blinked, suddenly making the connection between dream and reality. A candle, a cloth and china. That was what he was asked to retrieve in his dream but was never able to because he always had a basket in his hand. Which was there, in front of his eyes. The candle was missing but, of course, there was broad daylight coming in through the windows; the service stairs were also well illuminated so no candles would be necessary to transport things to the upper chambers.
"William, are you all right?"
He startled on hearing his wife's voice. "I am sorry, my dear. My mind was wandering."
"Indeed it was. You seem fascinated by our breakfast table this morning. However, you do not appear to be hungry. You have barely touched your tea."
Darcy's eyes returned to the items he had been looking at a moment ago. "This reminds me of my dream."
"The one you cannot recall?"
He frowned, trying to remember. "I do now, though not completely. I am always asked to fetch the same three things but ..."
Elizabeth looked at him. "Yes?"
"Richard ..." Darcy's voice was barely above a whisper.
Darcy felt his heart beat rushing as memories of those tragic days at Rosings -dark days that he had tried so hard to leave behind- were coming to him one after one, filling his mind with facts and details that seemed important but whose meaning remained beyond his comprehension. The information came to him randomly, like stray pieces of a puzzle, which were apparently unconnected, but that he knew had to be situated in the correct place for him to be able to understand what it all meant.
"The objects that Richard saw on the stairs the night Mrs. Jenkinson's body was found are the same of those in my dream. A candle, a piece of cloth and broken china."
"So you are dreaming of something that already happened. There is nothing strange about that."
"No," his eyes were fixed on the basket. "Yet there is one thing that was not mentioned by him, that appears constantly in my dream. The basket."
"Why do you think it is important?"
"Because it is the one thing that I found when I inspected the stairs on the following day that Richard never mentioned. And I never saw the cloth he described."
Elizabeth was not following his reasoning. "I don't understand."
Darcy rose abruptly and began to pace the room. "We saw different things, Elizabeth. The night Mrs. Jenkinson's body was found; Richard climbed the stairs to inspect the scene while I remained below, with the servant. He told me the objects he found along the way. When I did the same on the following day, I found different things."
"Perhaps he was confused, or you misplaced the objects. It was dark and you were tired and shocked by all that had happened that ..."
"No. I am absolutely certain of what I saw and of what Fitzwilliam said."
"Pray, tell me how it happened. Perhaps I can help you."
Darcy proceeded to tell his wife, very accurately, what had happened when he saw Mrs. Jenkinson's lifeless body and his conversation with the colonel as he climbed the stairs. "I remember saying that there was no lantern or candle that would light the way. I could not see one at the bottom of the stairs, where the tray lay, which called my attention because it would be impossible to transit those stairs in the darkness. As Fitzwilliam climbed the steps, he told me what he found along the way. A candle, a cloth and broken china. But when I walked the same route, from top to bottom, I saw a basket, which he did not mention, there was no cloth and the teacup I found wasn't broken."
"Are you saying that those objects were placed on the stairs after her fall?"
"I do not know what to think, Elizabeth. Why would Richard lie about what he saw on those steps? Something tells me that things did not occur the way we suppose, that Mrs. Jenkinson's fall was not accidental, that Mr. Collins may not be the one responsible for my Aunt's death."
Rosing's tragedy had scarred her husband far beyond the few marks he sported in his body and only Elizabeth knew how difficult it had been for him to overcome the horrors he had experienced during his last visit to his aunt's estate. Nightmares had haunted his sleep for weeks and even now that recurrent dream was still disturbing his rest. That was why their time at Rosings was a subject that had been banished from their conversations since they left the island. Although she had never expressed herself on the matter for her husband's sake, Elizabeth never forgot Mrs. Smith's prophetic words about how, with time, the truth of Lady Catherine's crime would come to him. Perhaps this time had been necessary to mend the wounds that were beneath the surface, those inflicted to his soul; and he was now ready to understand what had remained, until now, foreign to his comprehension
Darcy began to pace the room again. "I know that both deaths are connected. If only I could trace Mrs. Jenkinson's movements that night, where she was last seen, things would be clearer. I know I cannot ask Ann about this, she has refused to discuss the matter any further."
"In Ann's chambers," Elizabeth said absentmindedly. "When she served her tea; after suppertime."
Her husband stopped his pacing and looked at her inquiringly. "How do you know that?"
"I heard Ann tell the bailiff. I was there during his questioning, don't you remember?"
Of course, Darcy thought, Elizabeth was there. He had tried so much to forget about those days at Rosings that he never discussed with her what happened after the mansion was destroyed. Darcy stared at his wife for a moment, then slowly, with a pensive frown, began to walk around the small table.
"William, what are you thinking?"
"It makes no sense."
"Mrs. Jenkinson's body was cold and stiff when it was found, about three in the morning. According to Fitzwilliam's calculation, she had been dead for several hours, five or six, I believe he said. That is in accordance to what Ann said about last seeing her when she brought a tray with tea to her chambers, but ..."
Elizabeth was on pins and needles to learn to what conclusion her husband was trying to reach. "What?"
"If Mrs. Jenkinson left the tea things in Ann's room, why was she carrying a full tray when she fell down the stairs?"
Elizabeth's eyebrows arched up, understanding his point. "Do you think she was pushed after she delivered the tray? That the things were thrown after her fall to make it appear as an accident?"
"That was precisely my thought."
"Well," Elizabeth advocated in Ann's defence. "Perhaps she delivered the tray after suppertime and came later to return it to the kitchen and fell down the stairs."
"No," Darcy shook his head pensively, "at Rosings, the trays that were served during the night were usually removed on the following morning, so the family would not be disturbed during their sleep."
"Are you certain of that?"
"Yes, I am."
"Perhaps in Ann's case it was different. We do not know." Something her husband said a moment before was puzzling Elizabeth exceedingly. "You said that Mr. Collins may not be your aunt's killer. Why, after what you saw, do you still believe in his innocence?"
"I don't know why I still have doubts on that account. After all, the most tangible proof of his guilt, besides Ann's accusation, cannot be refuted. The bloody shirt Mrs. Collins saw in their rooms the night of my aunt's death is a ..."
Elizabeth brought her hand to her lips, suddenly recalling a very important detail that she had left aside. "The blood in Mr. Collins' clothes did not belong to your aunt, William."
"What?" he frowned. "But his own wife said that she saw it, you told me that."
"Indeed, but Charlotte informed me how that happened later at Hunsford. Mr. Collins went to the kitchen that night to visit the injured footman. The cook was slaughtering chickens for the following morning's meal and Mr. Collins tripped on the basin where they were collecting the blood. Apparently that was how his clothes became stained. One of the maids informed Charlotte of that circumstance the night of the fire."
"Then he is not my aunt's murderer." Darcy stated as things became clearer in his head. "From the very beginning, I thought that Richard or Ann, or both, perhaps, were responsible for my aunt's demise. When Collins attacked Ann in her rooms, my suspicions turned against him, it was the logic assumption at the time, but now that the most solid proof against him is gone, then I must revert to the prime suspects. Although now, after everything that had happened, I am more inclined to believe that it was Ann the one who stabbed Lady Catherine to death, and not Richard."
"Ann? Do you think her capable of killing her own mother?"
"The murder was vicious. For some reason, I do not think Fitzwilliam would have stabbed my aunt in that manner. He is a soldier, Elizabeth, he would have chosen a faster and cleaner method. But if he did not kill my aunt himself, as I suspect, I am most certain that he has been protecting the true murderer. That is why he lied about the circumstances of Mrs. Jenkinson's fall. To protect his lover."
Elizabeth was shocked. "Lover?"
"Yes. Richard had no scruples in confessing their 'status' to me before we left Hunsford."
"Then Maria was right."
"She saw them in the woods on Easter Sunday. They were exhibiting a conduct very improper for an unmarried couple. She also heard the colonel say that he would kill your aunt if she dared to separate him from Miss de Bourgh. Do you think Mrs. Jenkinson learned of their situation, of their plans to get rid of Lady Catherine, and they killed her, too?"
Darcy ran his hand through his hair. "Perhaps Mrs. Jenkinson saw something, something that may point at my aunt's killer. If Lady Catherine succeeded in her intent to marry me to Ann, they would have been ruined. They could very well have planned this together."
"What I don't understand is why, if Mrs. Jenkinson knew that Ann or Fitzwilliam were Lady Catherine's murderers, did she not come to you? Or someone else, for instance. Why did she keep it secret?"
Darcy exhaled and shook his head. "Perhaps for the same reasons you feared me that night in the library. Think of it, Elizabeth. Mrs. Jenkinson knew of Lady Catherine's efforts to produce a marriage between Ann and myself and of my refusal to enter in such an alliance. If she knew that Richard and Ann were lovers, she must have thought that we orchestrated the murder together, the three of us, as no one else would have benefited more with her demise than us."
"So she went to the only person she thought she could trust ..." Elizabeth said thoughtfully.
"Mr. Collins." Darcy finished the sentence for her. "That is why he was so afraid of me when I went to his rescue. He thought I was part of the ruse; that I was trying to kill him, too."
"Now I understand what he meant when he told me that Ann was the incarnation of the devil, Elizabeth. He could not trust me or Richard, he knew it would be impossible to accuse Ann for her mother's crime if we were allied with her, so he tried to stop her the only way he could: killing her."
Elizabeth rose from her seat and joined him. Taking his hand in hers, she stated, "I do not think Collins capable of such atrocity, William. He was confused, desperate, but he was not a murderer."
"Then why was he in her rooms? Why did he try to strangle her?"
"Collins and Ann are the only ones that can answer that question. One of them is conveniently dead and the other one cannot be trusted. Perhaps things did not happen the way Ann described."
"You saw the bruises on her neck, he ..." Darcy stopped on seeing a thoughtful expression on his wife's face. "Elizabeth?"
She let go of his hand and walked towards her room, stopping in front of the mirror atop her vanity. She removed her scarf from around her neck and observed carefully the love mark that her husband made on her skin the night before. It was identical to the ones Miss de Bourgh sported around her neck the morning she spoke to the bailiff. She remembered them clearly. Two small, consecutive bruises on one side of her neck and a larger one on the other. Those were not fingerprints produced by a murderer's hands, Elizabeth realized, they were bruises made by a lover's mouth.
"I do not think those marks were made by Collins hands, William. It would be my guess that someone paid a visit to Miss de Bourgh's chambers the night we arrived at Hunsford."
Darcy assented slowly, fully understanding her meaning. "Richard."
"Still, we have no proof."
"I think it is time for me to travel to Rosings and have a long conversation with my cousins."
The western wind blew intently, like it always did at this time of the year, covering the island with the salty smell of the ocean. As he reached the top of the cliff, Fizwilliam urged his horse to a halt, sparing a few minutes from his morning ride around the island to admire the immensity of the seas below.
Fitzwilliam had always found the marine breeze invigorating. Filling his lungs with its scent, he removed his hat and allowed the wind to caress his hair, forgetting for a moment of his daily obligations. This was one of the things he had always liked most about Rosings; the sea, the roughness, the constant defiance of the unpredictable weather, the daily challenge that living on this island represented. Rosings was wind and rock, ocean and mist, a place that demanded everything from those who dared to visit her and where only the strongest were able to survive.
The colonel had always loved this island. Ever since he was a young lad he had envisioned himself as the master of this magnificent estate, riding his horse across the fields, escalating the cliffs to watch the world from above. However, now that his dream finally came true, he was not happy. Rosings had so many bad memories attached to it that the colonel could not think of the estate with the fondness of his youthful years anymore. Never did he imagine that things would end the way they did when he came last Easter, with his aunt murdered so brutally, with the manor collapsing in a pile of stone. Never did he imagine that he would end his days trapped in a marriage founded in death and destruction. Yes, he was now the master of Rosings, but at what cost?
Certainly, the price he had paid for his financial comfort had been too high. He had lost his freedom, his will. He became a prisoner in his own house, awaking every morning to an insane wife, dutifully attending each one of her whimsical wishes, forced to play her game of domestic bliss while the guilt for the horrid crimes they committed followed him everywhere.
Sighing at his ill fortune, Fitzwilliam followed the flight of a passing seagull, observing its acrobatic twists and dives in search of fresh fish. The graceful bird advanced over the rocky cost towards the bay, forcing his eyes upon the unpleasant sight of the remains of the mansion. There, atop the tallest cliff, dark and sombre against the sky, the ruins of Rosings manor stood as an eternal reminder of Lady Catherine's tyranny and his own sins.
With an almost morbid fascination for the phantasmagorical image, Fitzwilliam studied the crumpled building. Memories flowed back into his mind, and like on that suffocating Easer Sunday, he relived those tragic days like a nightmare that was imprinted in his mind.
He was suddenly transported to the maze to which he had escaped to have a short interlude with Ann. As it usually happened when Lady Catherine interfered in her affairs, Ann was suffering one of the hysterical raptures. He was only searching for some physical amusement when he agreed to accompany her, but when he saw the despair caused by her mother's threats, he tried to comfort her. That was when he made his first mistake. In a desperate intent to calm her, Fitzwilliam promised that he would defend their love affair with his sword or any other method, no matter how extreme it was. And Ann, in her madness -though he had not been fully aware of it then- truly believed that what was only expressed as a wishful thought was indeed a promise to protect their love at any cost.
At the time, Fitzwilliam thought that his dreams of becoming the Master of Rosings had been in vain. Lady Catherine was firm in her pursue of uniting Rosings and Pemberley houses and both Ann and Darcy received their last warning. That circumstance led to his second mistake, and many more.
Alone in his bedchamber and resigned to the fact that Rosings was lost for him, the colonel opened a bottle of port. He was drinking his second glass when Ann entered his chambers through the service corridor.
"Ann, what are you doing here?"
"Richard, you must help me!" she cried desperately.
"Dearest, we must wait; there is nothing we can do now. Soon you will become of age to inherit and your mother will have no power over you. Our only hope is that Darcy would remain firm in his conviction and do not consent to this marriage before this happens."
"He will, I know it. I believe my mother has information against him that will make him change his resolve."
"Richard, you promised! You said that you would protect our love with every possible method. I do not want to marry him! You must stop her!"
"Ann, how can I do that? You know your mother, she's implacable."
"Then kill her." Ann stated coldly. "I will become the mistress of Rosings. She will not be able to stand between us if she is dead."
Fitzwilliam had been shocked by Ann's petition. Not because he had not been seduced by the idea of getting rid of Lady Catherine, he had endured enough from her, but because it was her Ladyship's own daughter who was suggesting her demise. Yet, in spite that he was a trained soldier with experience in the battlefield and several deaths on his account, Fitzwilliam was not a criminal. He could not just go to his aunt's rooms and commit a cold blooded crime, no matter what great benefit he would obtain with her death.
"I will speak to my cousin. Things will be right in the end. You must have faith."
Ann began to sob and moved closer to him, seeking the comfort of her lover's arms. "She will never desist, Richard. We will never be free for as long as she lives."
The colonel placed a finger under chin and lifted her face to his. "I will find a way to resolve this, I promise you."
Gently, he brushed his lips hers, and slowly increased the pressure as Ann opened to his kiss. She leaned her body against his, pert breasts pressing against his chest, bold hands playing over his behind as she brought his growing arousal closer to her. His passion was incensed by her inflaming provocation and leaving his scruples behind, he lifted her body and carried her a few steps back, until she was leaning against the wall of his bedroom.
That was not the first time they had made love. Ann's feelings for him had never been a mystery to the colonel. Truth be told, he had always felt flattered by this infatuation Ann had professed for him since she was a child. However, as time passed and Ann grew up to became this pretty young lady -though he had always admitted that her fortune had captivated him more than her looks or wit- his feelings for her took a different turn. A more physical turn which had been reinforced by the fact that Ann never did anything to conceal her desires for him. Since the young age of seventeen, every time he visited Rosings, Ann managed to drag him to secluded places to incite his manly urges, allowing him to take liberties with her body that no gentleman would take with a lady of her rank.
However the ardent nature of those encounters, Ann's virtue had never been compromised. They played these harmless games for several years but certain lines were never crossed, as the colonel was always able to put a halt to their activities before they went too far. But, though a gentleman, the colonel was still a man with carnal needs that were awakened by those meetings did not die away after the separation. They had to be satisfied. That was how the colonel usually found himself requesting the company of a young chambermaid who in general would present no objections to being mounted by Ladyship's charming nephew. In fact, the colonel had earned himself quite a reputation among the girls, for he would rather exercise those practices with young, healthy Welsh lasses that were strong enough to be recipients of his stamina than with his pale and skinny cousin.
All this changed during his last visit to Rosings, when the colonel discovered that Ann had blossomed into this lovely creature with passionate disposition who recognized no boundaries where winning her cousin's attention was concerned. She was determined to have him, at any cost. On the night of his arrival she had sneaked into his room through the service corridor and without a hint of shyness or decorum, she had climbed into his bed and offered herself to him.
Fitzwilliam should have become more aware of her lack of sanity at this point, but he was too comfortable with his situation to care about the danger to which he was being exposed. In his mind, every night they spent together took him one step closer to becoming the master of Rosings, so who was he to protest when fortune and pleasure were being served to him on the same tray?
The colonel's thoughts returned once again to that fateful night at Rosings when Ann came to his rooms after receiving a final threat from her mother. He was close to making love to her when Ann suddenly called off the encounter, claming that there was something she should do before they could be together. He should have become more doubtful of her intentions then, Ann was not one to delay their lovemaking for any reason; still, Fitzwilliam gave the matter little importance. He had never been much interested in Ann's concerns, so he did not enquire. Once she was gone, he drowned his arousal with another glass of port.
But he should have known better than to believe that Ann would let an amorous encounter pass without attempting a second round. She returned two hours later to complete the failed coitus. Truth be told, she acted like an animal in season, urging his manhood to grow in his sleep and loving him with a fierceness she had not shown before.
"Oh, my, Ann," he said once he recovered his breath enough to speak. "What has gotten into you?"
Still straddling him, Ann sat up and pressed her palms onto his chest. "She is gone, Richard, she will not trouble us any further."
The colonel frowned. "Ann, what do you mean? Who is gone?"
"My mother," she smiled demoniacally. "She will never stand in between us again."
Even if his mind was blurred by the port and the sex, he understood what she meant. "Ann, what did you do?"
"I did what you did not have the courage to do."
"You ... killed her?" he asked, astonished.
"Yes," she laughed.
Fitzwilliam sat up quickly and pulled away from her, throwing Ann off his lap.
"Richard? What is the matter?" she did not understand the cause of this behaviour.
"This can't be true. Ann, tell me you did not kill your mother." He left the bed and walked away, his face pale with shock.
Ann followed him. "Is it not what you wanted? Richard, we are free now! We can marry whenever we choose!""
He ran his hand down his face in an attempt to clear his mind. "Ann, you will go to prison."
"Why? She deserved it!" cried Ann. "No one can blame me on this. Darcy, you, I, everyone I know wanted her dead."
"Hang it, Ann!" the colonel cried, exasperated of her inability to understand the extent of her actions. "You committed a crime; you murdered your own mother!"
"But this was necessary, do you not see? You wanted to become the Master of Rosings, you wanted to be my husband. That would never have happened while my mother was still alive. I had to get rid of her. I did this to protect our love, to assure your happiness, can you not see now?"
The colonel was at loss of words. Suddenly, all his wishes and expectations had been shattered by Ann's madness. A distant de Bourgh cousin would become the master of Rosings and all his efforts to marry Ann would have been for naught. Yet, there was still something he could do to assure his future. God forbid him for what he was about to do but he could see no other way to resolve this imbroglio to his benefit.
"Hush. Let me think." Richard waved his hand, urging her to silence. And then, coming up with an idea that he thought might be the solution to his predicament, he took her hands in his and spoke steadily, convincingly. "Now, hear what I have to say. Return to your chambers, clean every trace that might have been left of the murder and go to bed. Do not leave your rooms until I tell you."
Ann nodded quickly.
"Now go. I will find a way to resolve this."
She gave him a kiss and disappeared into the dark corridor.
A series of unfortunate occurrences happened one after another that dreadful night, proving that the Colonel's determination of not denouncing Ann had been indeed a very unwise one. From then on, every decision he made became the wrong one, therefore trapping him even more in the web of lies and deceit that he fabricated. He became the suspect of a crime he didn't commit; he was now confronted by his own cousin as Ann's possessiveness of his person had grown to the point of being unsupportable.
After his argument with Darcy in the library, in which his cousin practically accused him of murdering Lady Catherine, Colonel Fitzwilliam headed for his rooms where he remained, nursing a glass of Scotch with the hope that it would help him clear his thoughts and allow him to find a way to extract himself from the precarious position in which he had been placed. He needed to find a way to deflect his cousin's attention from him and prove his innocence without pointing at the true murderer, that way exonerating him from the crime while assuring his future as the Master of Rosings.
Alone in his rooms, the colonel meditated for a good hour, not finding a logical, credible solution to this dilemma. The murder had been brutal, vicious to the extreme and unless he found a good scapegoat on whom he could throw the blame, no one in that house -with the exception of Ann- was capable of committing such a crime.
However, in spite of his unchristian and mercenary thoughts, the colonel was not a criminal, he was a gentleman of good breeding and principles that had only been carried away by these unfortunate circumstances. There was an instant where he recognized the wrongs of his actions, when he felt tempted to confess the whole affair, to wash his hands from the guilt he felt covering for Ann and clean his conscience from the burden he was now carrying. But that moment of lucidity lasted only a brief instant. He was throwing his second glass down his throat when Ann requested his presence in her rooms and suddenly, any scruples that might have possessed him were gone when he was informed of a new threat that had fallen upon them, compromising their situation -and his financial security- even more.
"Richard, you must help me." Ann begged, desperately clasping his shirt. "She knows. Mrs. Jenkinson knows what I did. Now she will accuse me of my mother's murder!"
"Are you certain?" he cried, "But, how could that happen?"
"She must have seen the blood in my clothes, she ..."
"Ann, did I not tell you to destroy all the evidence? How could you be so careless!"
"I tried, Richard!" she cried, becoming more hysterical with every word. "I burnt the nightgown, I washed my hands; she must have seen the blood in the basin!"
"Damned, woman!" he bellowed, "Can you not do one thing right! You should have thrown the water into the hearth! Did you not imagine that the servants would see it?"
"It would have put the fire off!" Tears ran down Miss de Bourgh's cheeks. "I would have been cold!"
Fitzwilliam looked at her, incredulous that that had been Ann's principal concern. The woman in front of him had just killed her own mother, there was the great possibility that she would end hanging from the gallows and she chose to keep herself warm instead of destroying the evidence against her. Ann was more disturbed that he thought.
Stressed, the colonel rubbed his temples, trying to put some order to his thoughts.
"We must find a way to learn how much she knows, we cannot risk being discov ..." Fitzwilliam paused, alerted to some noises on the adjoining room.
"Hush." He stopped her. "There is someone here."
Silently, Fitzwilliam walked towards the folding screen and pushed it away with his hand. There, eyes wide and pale as she had just seen a ghost; stood Mrs. Jenkinson.
The rest happened so quickly that he could not recall exactly what had driven him to do what he did, but he did it, sinking him even deeper in the sea of lies that were then drowning him.
Likely, Fitzwilliam would deduce now, the poor woman had only come to Ann's rooms to serve her tea as she did every evening, without an inclination of what her mistress had done the previous night or that there was a gentleman visiting in her chambers. She served the tea on the sitting area on the adjoining room and probably walked into Ann's bedroom to inform her mistress and bid her good night. Surely she never counted on finding Colonel Fitzwilliam in Ann's chambers or that she would hear them discussing how to destroy the evidence of Lady Catherine's murder.
"She heard us, Richard!" Ann shouted in absolute panic. "She will be our ruin!"
"No!" cried Mrs Jenkinson, her eyes widening with fear.
Truly, the colonel could not believe that he advanced to the poor lady, that he followed her as she ran away towards the service corridor and that he grabbed her by the arm to prevent her escape when she reached the stairs. He secured her firmly as she struggled to free herself, pulling him several steps down the spiral staircase. But her efforts were in vain. What chances would she have to win this fight? She was a middle aged woman of thin constitution and Fitzwilliam doubled her in weight and strength. It was a lost battle for her. Eyes glassy with terror, mouthing desperate cries that she knew no one would hear, Mrs. Jenkinson fought for her life until her captor did the unthinkable. In the pinnacle of the struggle, the once valiant colonel of His Majesty's Army, taking advantage of his firmer footing on the taller steps, suddenly opened his hand and let go of her, throwing her off balance and making her roll down the spiral staircase.
That was the night where Colonel Fitzwilliam killed an old, defenceless woman.
Frozen on his post, the colonel stood in shock, unable to tear his eyes from the sight of Mrs. Jenkinson's rolling down the steps in an untidy bundle of skirts and limbs. Her body hit the wooden railing with a loud sound and she disappeared, drowned by the black abyss of the staircase. With an acid sensation growing inside his stomach, Fitzwilliam held his breath for what he thought were the five longest seconds of his life, until he heard the horrendous sound of flesh crashing, of bone breaking against the stone floor of the cellar. And then, there was absolute silence.
"Richard?" Ann called him, startling him out of his stunned state. "Richard, are you all right?"
Fitzwilliam pressed his fist to his mouth, swallowing the bile that was climbing up to his throat. "Return to your room, Ann."
"What happened?" She was descending the stairs.
"Do as I say." He raised his voice as he headed up.
But Ann would not hear reason. "Is she dead?"
"Yes," He grabbed Ann's wrist and dragged her into her rooms.
"Oh, Richard!" She threw her arms around his neck. "We are safe! No one can detain us now!"
Revolted by his actions and Ann's sinister delight over so much tragedy, he pushed her away. "We are not safe yet. We must find someone to blame for these crimes."
"Someone with enough motive to kill your mother. As for Mrs. Jenkinson, perhaps we can make that appear as an accident."
"You are right!" Ann agreed. "These stairs are so dangerous! I always hear the servant's complaints about them. Not long ago, one of the maids fell and broke her leg, but my mother refused to allow to them carry the trays through the other one."
Thinking quickly, the colonel grabbed the tray that old woman brought into Ann's rooms and threw it down the hollow of the staircase. But their sordid plan had a failure. Fitzwilliam didn't count on the fact that Mrs. Jenkinson, on reaching Ann's rooms, had removed from the tray the candlestick she used to illuminate her way up and placed it on small table close to the door. Also foreign to his understanding, another item remained in the room, the small basket containing scones that had fallen from the tray when the colonel grabbed it.
Never did he imagine that that simple and apparently harmless object would be the one that would orient his cousin towards the resolution of the crime.
Now, several month later, and though the fire had destroyed any incriminating evidence against him, Fitzwilliam thanked the providence for his cousin's quick mind, for he would have faced a much complicated predicament if it had been the bailiff who was the one who inspected the scene and discovered that there was no candle to illuminate Mrs. Jenkinson's way. But his good cousin provided him that information, therefore warning him of his involuntary mistake. That was why he offered himself to examine the staircase that night, to be able to 'find' the missing object and place it on the steps later. However, in his haste to endorse the 'accident theory', Fitzwilliam didn't just tell Darcy of the supposed candle. To make his narration more believable, he added other elements that were usually carried on trays and that might have fallen from it as well. China -there would not be tea without china-, a napkin and the candle that would light Mrs. Jenkinson's walk through the dangerous steps.
When Darcy and the colonel parted ways that morning, each in pursue of their own affairs, Fitzwilliam ran towards Ann's rooms to make himself sure that there would not be an element there that could connect he and Ann to Mrs. Jenkinson's death. He took a candle from one of the candlesticks, a teacup that remained on the table and on the way out, tripped on the basket that fallen from the tray the night before. Holding those items like trophies, he descended several steps down the staircase and situated them neatly close to the place in which Mrs. Jenkinson's body hit the railing, never imaging that his cousin would come later to verify his assertions and completely oblivious to the fact that that little licence of creativity he had allowed himself would, in the end, be his ruin.
The faint ring of a bell carried in the wind brought the colonel's thoughts to the present days, reminding him that these briefs moments of freedom and solitude were not under his control anymore. Damned his wife and her habit of announcing to the entire town that she was requesting his presence. With a sigh charged with annoyance, Colonel Fitzwilliam began a slow walk back to the house.
As he guided his horse through the narrow path that led to the bay, with his eyes watching the intricacies of the road, he wondered if he made the right choice when he turned the ship around the night he saw the mansion in flames. Things would have been quite different, of that he was more than certain. Darcy would probably be dead, he would have become Georgiana's guardian, and, if he played his cards wisely, he would have had become the Master of the grand Pemberley. He had even allowed that idea to flow into his head the moment he saw his cousin struggling for his life on that balcony the night of the fire. But, on the last second, his scruples possessed him. Lady Catherine's death had assured him his future at Rosings and he saw no reason to stain his hands with his cousin's blood if it was not strictly necessary.
Despite this, he still thought that Georgiana would have made a good wife to him, quiet, obedient, submissive; much better than Ann, whose possessiveness and follies were a daily challenge to his patience. Indeed, life would have been far more pleasant and tranquil with her. Still, this was something that could not be changed, and he would not dwell on the subject anymore.
Back at the house, Fitzwilliam handed his horse to a groom and climbed the stairs that led to the beach house's entrance. Two servants commented along the way that the mistress was asking for him. Taking a deep breath to repress his exasperation from becoming noticeable, he climbed the stairs towards their rooms.
"Where have you been?" cried Ann as she entered husband's chambers. "Did you not hear the bell? I have been requesting your presence here for nearly two hours!"
Fitzwilliam opened a bottle of scotch and poured himself a glass. "Do not expect me to run to the house whenever you call, Ann. I was busy elsewhere."
She noticed the growing irritation in his voice and softened her tone, trying not to provoke his ire any further. "I am not complaining," Ann ran her hands up and down his back, "I know the estate management takes plenty of your time, I only wish that you would not put those obligations before me."
He closed his eyes and sighed, tired of his wife's constant demands for attention. "Tis necessary if we want the new manor to be ready before the end of the following year."
"Yet," she walked closer to lean her bosom on his back as her hands moved around his waist to caress his lower stomach. "I still think you could spend more time with me, you left so early this morning that we did not have the chance to ..."
"Not now, woman," the colonel moved her hands from over his manhood. "I have matters to attend."
"Can't they wait?" She rose to her toes to whisper in his ear as her hands returned to their previous location. "I have a surprise for you."
Fitzwilliam knew her well enough to know that she would not desist in her intent until she obtained what she wanted. On a second thought, knowing his wife's wicked tastes for morning intercourse, perhaps joining her in bed for a while was not such a bad idea after all.
"Wait for me in your room, I'll be there in a moment," the colonel pulled up an obliging smile.
With a victorious laugh, Ann scampered out of the room, leaving her husband to nurse his beverage. Liquor was the only thing that soothed him, especially when he was faced with Ann's constant demands.
Ann had always an inclination for adventurous situations, he admitted. Even during the most stressful and unusual moments her carnal needs would be aroused and she would request to be satisfied. As it happened that second night at Hunsford, when they were all too shocked and exhausted to think of anything but rest. He recalled it well. Now that nothing seemed to satisfy him, that night became an enticing transgression that even now, many months later, brought a smile to his lips whenever he recalled it. He went to Ann's chambers to warn her of Darcy's suspicions and their need to invent a credible story that would convince their cousin that Collins was indeed the murderer. Fitzwilliam didn't know how the parson discovered that he and Ann were related to Lady Catherine's demise, he supposed it had been Mrs. Jenkinson the one who warned him of that circumstance, still, his search for the truth ended being for their benefit. Ann had the courage to allow Collins into her chambers (it didn't surprise him, she was fearless) and knocked him out with a lamp to assure herself he would not continue in his quest to expose her. Her actions did not come without consequences, though. Her adventure had burnt the mansion to ashes but the Colonel did not give the matter much importance at the time. He had never liked the old manor that much and what a better way to start his life at Rosings than building a new home, more to his liking?
That night at Hunsford, as they made love, they developed the plotline. They were safe from being charged as the stupid Mr. Collins had directed the blame onto himself when he went to confront Ann in her chambers. They could not have come with a better resolution for this if they had planned it with anticipation. Ann also played her role of heiress in distress to perfection that night. Her scheme to throw the blame on the poor parson had been outstanding. The supposed strangulation, Collins demoniacal delusions and the story about the parson's determination to erase the evil from Rosings were simply brilliant. Her mind could be twisted at times, but Fitzwilliam had to admit that what Ann lacked in common sense she had it in creativity. Even the marks on her neck were her idea, too. She thought they would be the perfect way to support the strangulation story. In the midst of their lovemaking, she urged her companion to love her fiercely and Fitzwilliam could only oblige, leaving three noticeable love bites around her slender neck. With everything solved to their satisfaction, they were finally able to rest.
However, the colonel's inclination for wild encounters and inappropriate transgressions had lost their initial enchantment now that he was forced to perform them every day. Fitzwilliam was bored, tired of having to satisfy his wife's most insignificant wishes, irritated by his lack of freedom, unsatisfied with his own life.
After serving himself his second glass of scotch -his faithful companion these days- Fitzwilliam opened the drawer in search of paper to write a letter to his brother, the newest Earl of Matlock. Inside the drawer, tied up with the same blue ribbon Georgiana had chosen nearly two years ago to adorn her secret correspondence with her beloved, were his young cousin's letters to that rascal Wickham that Fitzwilliam found in Sir Lewis' rooms the night Rosings burnt.
Fitzwilliam had almost forgotten about them. Truth be told, he was not certain of why, at the risk of his life, he had returned to the mansion for them on the following morning. He knew this information to be dangerous for Georgiana, her reputation would be ruined if this letters became of common understanding, yet he had kept them under his guard instead of allowing the fire to destroy them.
Though Fitzwilliam hated to admit it, Lady Catherine had indeed played her cards masterfully when she threatened Darcy to make them public if he did not marry Ann, even if that had been against the colonel's best interests at the time. It is a truth universally acknowledged that information bestows power and Lady Catherine certainly knew how to use it to her advantage. Had he been in possession of this knowledge the night of his argument with Darcy, things would have been different. He could have been able to refute his cousin's accusations with more emphasis and reverse the situation to his own profit, directing the suspicions towards the noble Mr. Darcy of Pemberley instead of himself.
It had been a wise decision to keep the letters. Knowing Darcy's tendency to advocate in the cause of truth and justice, he might very well insist in his idea that the crime was not resolved yet and return to Rosings to find the true murderer. It was improbable, but who knew for sure? It did not hurt to be precautious. With this consideration in mind, Fitzwilliam headed for the safe in his room and locked the letters inside, together with other valuable belongings.
Yes, it was better to keep them in case his cousin needed to be dissuaded from any inconvenient, yet noble crusade he decided to begin.
"Richard, are you coming?" Ann called him from her room.
Fitzwilliam let out a low curse and finished his drink in one shot. He knew not how much longer he could endure this life. He needed to put an end to his misery. But how? How could he get rid of Ann without damaging his financial security? He could very well accuse her of insanity, lock her in an asylum, but then, for as long as Ann lived, he would always be the danger. Someone might believe her tales of what truly happened at Rosings and connect him to those crimes. No, he could not allow anyone to take Rosings away from him.
He looked out of the window, at the seagulls flying around the cliffs, playing with the wind, diving into the sea and inspiration came. Perhaps there was a way to recover his freedom without putting his fortune at stake. The construction of the new manor was very advanced, full of dangerous scaffolds and unstable rafters, certainly not an appropriate place for elegant shoes and long skirts. Indeed, perhaps it was time to take Ann to see their new home and use his wife's temerarious preferences for heights to his advantage.
With his spirits somehow uplifted by that thought, the Colonel marched to his wife's chambers foreign to the fact that, at that precise moment, a servant was climbing the stairs carrying an express that announced the arrival of his cousin, Mr. Darcy of Pemberley, to Rosings Island.
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