The story is moving fast. Things are about to take a drastic change (as you will see by the end of this chapter). What will it mean? I’m starting chapter 14 as soon as I post this chapter. Please remember that I’m not proofreading it. I post as soon as I finish typing. All the best to all of you!
Grateful to see the approach to Longbourn, Elizabeth reflected on all that had happened since she left her home earlier that day. By the time the carriage pulled to a stop, she had determined not to return to Netherfield Park. Ever! Someone else could finish the story.
Before the footman could help her from the conveyance, an unknown man burst through the front door of her house, almost ripping it off the hinges. He was a heavyset man dressed completely in black with a narrow white collar pressed between the folds of his garment and his neck. His age was indeterminable as his head was tipped downward to check his steps on the cobblestones and avoid as much of the rainfall as possible.
What a curious fellow.
He passed her by as if she was invisible only to step into the carriage unassisted. Elizabeth wondered if he was an acquaintance of Mr. Darcy as it was the gentleman’s coach. Almost before she concluded her thought, the man disembarked to return to the house, completely ignoring her presence.
“Mrs. Bennet! Mr. Bennet!” The man yelled, his nasal voice traveling easily through the door he had left open. “Mr. Darcy’s carriage has graced your humble home with its presence. I need to know now how this has come to pass. Mrs. Bennet! Mr. Bennet!”
As Elizabeth wandered up the pathway, she concluded the only person expected that day was her father’s cousin, Mr. Collins. In all honesty, the first impression he gave was not good. Unbeknownst to her, a fleeting desire to share her first reaction to the man with Mr. Darcy popped up and almost moved her back into the coach. She quickly squelched the yearning to share. No doubt, Mr. Darcy would believe her to be the last person on the planet he would want to encounter.
Her mother glanced through the opened doorway. “Oh, it is only you, Lizzy.” At that, she stepped back inside the house to calm their guest.
This was to be her future husband? She shuddered. Never!
“Lizzy, what has happened?”
Elizabeth wrung her hands as she paced back and forth from the window in their bedroom to the door and back again.
“I hardly know where to begin.” Exhaling quickly, she seated herself across from Jane. “Colonel Fitzwilliam asked for privacy to speak with me.”
“Oh, Lizzy, he is a genial man who appears to handle responsibility well.” Jane swallowed, and Elizabeth knew she was thinking of her disappointment with Mr. Bingley’s inability to take charge of his household. “Do you love him?”
“It matters not as he used the time to praise his cousin, Mr. Darcy.” At the lift of Jane’s brow in puzzlement, she continued. “Oddly enough, Mr. Darcy had done the same about his cousin when we spoke on the way to Netherfield Park. It was as if both men were attempting to convince me that the other is one I should consider. I do not know what these men are about. I do know, with confidence, that I do not love Colonel Fitzwilliam.”
“And, Mr. Darcy?”
“I do not know that what I am feeling is even closely related to love.” Elizabeth attempted to arrange her thoughts in order. “He kissed me.”
“Mr. Darcy? What did you do?” Jane leaned forward to not miss a word of her sister’s reply.
Shrugging her shoulders nonchalantly, she blandly stated, “I kissed him back.”
“Elizabeth Margaret Bennet!” Jane’s blush was as brilliant as hers surely was. “What was it like?”
“Heart-stopping. Stunning. Wonderful. Magnificent. Frightening. Worrying.”
Elizabeth dropped her chin. Speaking quietly, she said, “Jane, I do not know what he meant by it. He immediately backed away from me and apologized. He acted like he would rather forget it had happened.”
“Did anyone witness your first kiss?”
“Do you mean my first, second, and third kiss?” Elizabeth saw the humor and chuckled. “His uncle, Lord Matlock, came upon us as we were sprawled on the floor in the upstairs hallway, our mouths pressed together where not a breath could pass between us from our lips to our toes. I cannot imagine the thoughts running through the poor man’s mind. After all, his son had just requested a private conversation.”
“Oh, no. Will he claim compromise?”
“I cannot imagine he would be desirous of his nephew becoming attached to the second daughter of an insignificant landowner. He is an earl who exudes authority. I cannot see it happening.” A compromise had not occurred to her. “I am sure he has a bevy of society maidens he would rather see attached to his son and his nephew than me.”
“Do not diminish your beauty or your appeal, Lizzy. Mr. Darcy sees no one else when you are in the room. I have yet to meet the Colonel, but do not doubt he also finds your charms to be sufficient.”
“Thus, speaks a beloved sister!”
“He kissed you, Lizzy. Repeatedly.” Jane’s smile lit her face. “I cannot imagine a man being so overcome with passion he resorted to the only action crossing his mind. I certainly have never inspired strong enough feelings to move a gentleman to act…ungentlemanly. You cannot be steadfast in your claims.”
“Jane, men are strange creatures. If Mr. Darcy cared, why did he spend what little time we had alone to convince me his cousin was the better man. If the Colonel cared, why did he do the same with Mr. Darcy? And, why would Lord Matlock find humor in discovering his nephew and me entangled on the floor? And, why would Mr. Collins greet Mr. Darcy’s carriage like it was an extension of the man? I simply cannot figure out the male species. They are odd.”
Jane chuckled. “Our father’s cousin is a much different representative of their sex than the gentlemen of Netherfield Park, is he not? He spent his first minutes inside Longbourn admiring the furnishings and inquiring as to their cost. He draws out each syllable of speech until I wondered if he assumed we were simple. And, Lizzy, wait until you see him engaged in conversation. He flaps his arms in the same manner a bird does when taking flight against a strong wind.”
By then, Elizabeth had tears of mirth flowing down her cheeks.
“Oh, how I needed you, Jane dear.” Wiping her eyes, she vowed, “I believe the course of wisdom for us Bennet females is to remain unwed. After all, who could possibly appeal after what we have seen this past fortnight?”
Jane was quick to agree. “Now, tell me, did you happen to get a glimpse of Mr. Darcy’s and Mr. Bingley’s feet?”
“I shall leave you two boys alone. This way I can enjoy the quiet of the drawing room for some reading. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst appear to be avoiding my company.” Aunt Helen grinned.
“Sulking, most likely.”
“You are undoubtedly correct, Richie.” Lady Matlock patted her son’s hand before leaving the room. Turning to her nephew, she addressed him directly, “I cannot pretend to guess what happened outside this door, but you are wearing your guilt like your best coat, Will. Do you need my attention or is the sole company of your cousin what is necessary to ease your mind?”
Darcy marveled at her discernment.
Nodding, she turned to leave the room, stopping at the doorway long enough to note, “Whatever Hugh witnessed that stirred his humor, the footman also saw. I expect you to accept, with dignity, any accountability for what transpired, Nephew. We could hear the firm tone of Miss Elizabeth, although we did not hear the words.”
Darcy gulped, then gave a brief tip of his head in agreement. Once she was gone from the room and the door firmly closed, he realized he did not know how to begin. How do you confess to being a traitor to someone you hold in high esteem? Darcy had not a clue.
“Out with it, Darcy. Your pacing is making me nervous enough I long to jump from this bed and shake you until your tongue wags.” Richard gave him the opening he needed.
“What I have to share, Rich, will be more difficult than any conversation we have had before.” Darcy considered it a good start.
“Harder than when I had to tell you it was me who put mud in your new boots, not Wickham?” Richard smiled at the memory. “Or, that same summer, what was it, my ninth?”
“Yes. I was newly turned seven. Those boots were handmade to match my father’s. They were my first grownup apparel and I treasured them.”
“Or, harder than when I confessed it was me who hid your garments while you were swimming at the pond? What, was that the same summer?”
“It was. You were full of mischief. If I recall correctly, you first attempted to blame Wickham that time as well.”
“I did. He was an easy target for blame.”
Inhaling deeply, he took a seat next to the bed, dropping his folded hands between his legs as his chin hit his chest. Looking back to his cousin, he despised himself for the hurt he was going to cause. He knew no way to make the task any easier.
“I kissed Elizabeth.”
“Elizabeth? You kissed her? That is what she was yelling about?” Richard’s mouth dropped open, such was his surprise.
“Miss Elizabeth. And, yes, I kissed her three times in fairly quick succession.” Fear gripped him as he waited for judgment. “Pray, know that it was not planned. It was the actions of a moment with no forethought.”
“You had not thought of kissing her? I have!”
Warmth flooded Darcy’s cheeks as he whispered as if to himself, “Indeed, I have.”
Then, there was silence, a quiet stillness of the room broken by the sound of his breathing ringing loudly in his ears. When Richard’s chest moved, Darcy became aware he was not the only one taking in air. He was grateful he had not stunned his cousin to the extent he should concern himself with his continued health.
“You kissed Miss Elizabeth three times?” Richard mused. “Hmmm.”
Darcy still said nothing.
“Did she willingly return the kiss?”
Clearing his throat, Darcy replied, trying to calm himself, “not the first kiss. She instigated the second and I have no idea who was responsible for the third.”
The Colonel repeated the string of words and phrases he had used upon his injury. Darcy chose not to interrupt him. He was clearly in the wrong. When his cousin ceased speaking, he glanced at him to see if he could read any clues as to his thinking.
Finally, he could stand the silence no more.
“Rich, if you feel the need to box my ears or run me through, I will gladly stand close enough for you to do so. I will even provide the sword.” His words sounded rushed. “Should you be willing to continue with your plans, despite knowing I took advantage of Miss Elizabeth, I will remove myself from the competition. I will pack and leave within the hour.”
“You would, would you?”
His cousin continued to refuse to look at him. Darcy felt worse with each passing second. Deciding the best move would be to leave, he stood to go.
“What plans?” The Colonel interrupted his movement.
What did he mean, what plans? Darcy looked at the decanter next to the bed. Water, not whisky or brandy. Shaking his head, he replied, “your betrothal.”
“I am betrothed?” Richard tilted his head whereupon his eyes landed on his cousin. “I think not unless my father has gone behind my back and arranged something of which I am not aware.”
“To Miss Elizabeth. You must know as you yourself requested a private conversation with her. Right after she concluded her reading. Do you not remember?”
“Oh, I clearly recall asking for the private moment and I recollect every word spoken between the two of us. However, I do not remember asking for her hand nor do I believe she gave me a reply. I have no idea at all of what you are speaking.”
It was then Darcy spied the twinkle. To him, this was not a subject for jest.
“You are not betrothed to Miss Elizabeth?” He needed to hear the declaration with his own ears.
“I am not.”
“Thank the Lord in heaven!” With that, he fled the room yelling for his horse. He had an important question to ask the woman whose heart filled his own. He barely heard Richard’s laughter as he ran the length of the hallway to his room.
“No, Papa, no!” Elizabeth grabbed her father’s arm, attempting to keep him from running back inside Longbourn. “It is too late.”
Her father shook off her hands and headed back into the smoke and destruction of their beloved home. Surveying the others, family and the older servants alike standing under the heavy branches of the old oak tree situated to the side of the house, she realized, to her relief, none had been harmed. Jane was busy tending the small burns incurred from the flying embers as they all ran from the building.
How she wished she could cause harm to Mr. Collins. Despite the fire, which started in her father’s library, being the result of his actions, he offered no apology—only pithy comments about the loss of his inheritance and what a regret that was. Elizabeth wanted to take one of the buckets being filled from the pond by the rest of the staff and hit the man over the head with it. The clergyman made no offer of assistance or even a sympathetic word to those who would soon be homeless.
Grabbing a large pot that had been thrown out of the kitchen, she ran to the pond. Even with the pouring rain she knew their efforts would be in vain. With the sheer volume of books and papers in her father’s bookroom adding fuel to the flames and the fabrics draped on every surface by her lace-addicted mother, there was little hope much could be saved. Nonetheless, she needed to make an effort.
Francine Bennet wailed in chorus with her three youngest daughters. Finally, the groom had the nervous horses hitched to the carriage which would carry them to her sister’s house in Meryton. They added nothing but distress to a horrid situation. Her relief was great to have them off the estate property.
Running back and forth, she missed the arrival of Mr. Darcy. When someone strong grabbed her arms on her way by, she swung the empty pot at the person who dared to keep her from her task. His grunt let her know she had hit her target.
Surprised at Mr. Darcy’s presence, she stopped long enough to beg him to rescue her father. Rushing her words so he could attend to the task, she beseeched him, “Pray help my father. In vain he is striving to rescue his books. Yet, the fire started in the room. I worry…please…help him.”
Before she finished he was rushing inside Longbourn.
Within minutes, although it felt like hours, he dragged a coughing Mr. Bennet from the residence. Elizabeth could see her father fighting Mr. Darcy’s efforts to save and protect him. Foolish man! Two of the estate’s tenants diverted to pour their buckets over the Master’s charred clothing. Only then did she become aware of the burns.
Large inflamed blisters covered the backs of his hands, his face, and his neck. The smell of the burnt portions of his hair and eyebrows turned her stomach. Of all that had happened, this, by far, was the most devastating.
Her Papa. Her beloved father was severely injured. Keeping him in the rain may have eased the pain of his burns, but the quaking of his shoulders and quivering of his hands motivated her to instruct the men to help him to shelter with the others under the tree.
Once relieved of his burden, Mr. Darcy, without seeking her out, quickly mounted his horse and raced towards Netherfield Park.
What? She needed him beside her? Who would help her be strong? Who would help her care for those displaced? Who would…who would…?
Salt from one of the raindrops slid down her cheek to the corner of her mouth. Only then did she acknowledge her tears. Standing alone in front of Longbourn she felt the foundation of everything she had known shift, leaving her off-balance.
What on earth was she supposed to do?