X - Louisa Says Her Goodbyes
Posted on 2011-12-28
Caroline stared at the Colonel and knew not what precisely to say. The round, gold-rimmed spectacles were not exactly ugly, but they did change the aspect of the Colonel's face. She could not precisely say how, but he looked differently to her. Astonishingly, he also seemed to be more at ease now that he had made his confession to her.
'That is your terrible secret?' Caroline asked incredulously. 'That you work from behind a desk and wear spectacles?'
'I am afraid so,' the Colonel said. 'Not very dashing, is it?'
'At least you are not very likely to be shot,' Caroline said. 'And you still get to wear the uniform?'
'I do have the uniform, yes,' the Colonel conceded.
'So what do you do all day?' Caroline asked.
'Well, I read, mostly,' the Colonel said. 'Whenever something of interest happens, someone writes about it and it crosses my desk.'
'And this is how you first became aware of a spy being after Darcy?'
'Yes, precisely,' the Colonel said. 'As I said, when I first noticed something odd, I began to investigate. And it turned out that Darcy's name turned up more often than I would have liked in - well, he was mentioned by certain circles more often than he should have been.'
Caroline looked confused. 'Do you mean the Fr-'
'I should not have mentioned that,' the Colonel said. 'Let us just say, circles that are not necessarily friendly. Anyway, Darcy's name was mentioned far too often for it to be a coincidence. There were only two possible conclusions.'
Caroline waited with bated breath for the answer.
'One was,' the Colonel said, 'that my cousin had seen fit to betray his country and his king, using his influence to obtain information that was not meant for him.'
'Impossible!' Caroline exclaimed.
'The other,' the Colonel calmly continued, 'was, that someone had used his name to do this.'
'Of course -'
'Of course my cousin is innocent,' the Colonel said. 'I say this not only because I wish it to be the case, but because I know how - and where - he spent most of his summer, and I have the proof that at least at one of those times when information was traded, he cannot have been in the place that was used.'
'I see,' Caroline said. 'I would never have thought it possible of Mr Darcy in any case.'
'Me neither,' the Colonel said, 'but I cannot allow personal feelings to overrule facts, and the facts did point in my cousin's direction.'
He paused for a moment.
'So much so, in fact,' he said, 'that I had to conclude that whoever was the real culprit might be deliberately setting my cousin up, in addition to the damage he was bringing to this country. Furthermore, the culprit was using information about Darcy that is not universally accessible. It was not something that only his closest confidantes would know, but more than a casual acquaintance would be necessary.'
'And all this pointed to Mr Hurst,' Caroline said.
'Not at first,' the Colonel said. 'When I first became suspicious, I did not know very much of him and it seemed unlikely that he would know much about Darcy. However, the dates of transactions which we can confirm coincide with Mr Hurst's strange absences - the first transaction of which we know took place in May, about the time Mr Hurst met - or claims to have met - your sister - in short, we knew that someone had been plotting against Darcy since about May, and that was precisely when Mr Hurst stepped into your lives. It was too great a coincidence. I thought it at least very likely that he had something to do with it and further investigations only confirmed my suspicions. I had not yet determined what grudge he could have against Darcy - I suppose that we will only find that out once we learn his true identity - but everything else fitted all I knew about the culprit only too well. '
'That is all perfectly understandable,' Caroline said. 'But why - once you had assembled all this information, why did you not do something about it? Inform someone, make Mr Hurst confess it all -'
'Because,' the Colonel said, 'I could not tell who else might be involved. You see, the culprit did not much to hide his traces - Darcy's name was clearly written all over the place. I could not help but wonder if perhaps the person who did that knew where to make Darcy's name appear, knew where to place it because he is reading the same papers as I am - if, perhaps, someone within my own organisation is involved -'
'So you see why this must not go beyond Darcy, yourself and me,' the Colonel said. 'We do not know who else might be involved. Also, you see why we must act. I will freely admit that I may be the wrong person for this. After all, I do not have a lot of experiencing with practical espionage. However, there simply is no one whom we can trust, no one I could ask for help. And still, if my worst fears are proven, the culprit is someone who has access to a great deal of very sensitive information. By pretending to be acting on Darcy's wishes or assuming Darcy's name - I have no concrete knowledge about how he uses Darcy - he can access a great deal more; in fact, so much that the kingdom could be endangered.'
'You do suspect a certain person then?' Caroline asked eagerly.
'I knew you would pick that up the second I said it,' the Colonel sighed. 'Yes, I am afraid that is the case. My superior - well, let us say he is a man of rather mean understanding who got the post he now holds through good connections rather than true talent and who would not be above improving his own situation if the chance offered itself.'
'Oh,' Caroline said.
'You must not breathe a word of this to anyone,' the Colonel said. 'Not even Darcy knows whom I suspect.'
'Of course,' Caroline said.
'Do I have your promise?' the Colonel said.
'I promise,' Caroline said, 'on my mother's grave. I will swear on the Bible if you insist.'
'No,' the Colonel said and took her hand. 'I trust you.'
'Thank you,' Caroline muttered.
Louisa climbed up the familiar steps to the front door and knocked. Matthew opened the door with his usual smile.
'Algie will be here in a minute,' Louisa said. 'He just remembered he had to pick up something for a gun or some such.'
She followed Matthew inside and into the drawing-room, where she carefully removed her hat, jacket and gloves and placed them on a sideboard.
'I hope you do not mind,' she said, indicating her items, 'but I felt rather flushed right now.'
'Treat it as if it were your own home,' Matthew said. 'Do sit down.'
He helped Louisa to tea and scones from a tray and then poured some for himself.
'When are you to leave?' he asked.
'Some time this week, I suppose,' Louisa said. 'I am sure Charles will inform us soon when he intends to leave.'
'How is dear old Algie?' Matthew asked.
'A nuisance, as usual,' Louisa said. 'He has been saying that he hopes to finish everything in Hertfordshire and return to town a free man.'
'Did he put it like that?' Matthew asked.
'Not that bluntly, for my sake, I suppose,' Louisa said. 'But he has repeatedly said that he will not miss Mr Hurst one bit.'
'You are prepared then to play the mourning widow,' Matthew said.
'As well as one can be,' Louisa answered. 'How does one prepare? But I have been packing some mourning clothes, just in case. I do hope my maid did not think it too odd. I told her one never knew what one might need.'
'You are all packed then?' Matthew asked.
'As good as,' Louisa said. 'There are of course always those little things one forgets until the last minute, but I am sure my maid will think of everything.'
'I hope you did not make the same mistake you made the last time you were travelling with Algie,' Matthew said.
'Which would be?' Louisa asked.
'Not to pack any books,' Matthew said. 'I am sure you do not want to end up reading nothing but treatises on political participation again.'
'Heavens, no,' Louisa said and laughed. 'But I must admit I forgot to think about packing a book. I shall have to buy one later today.'
'Take this,' Matthew said and pulled a book from a low table. 'I just finished it and it is absolutely horrid. Trust me, you will not be able to put it down once you begin.'
'No politics?' Louisa asked.
'None whatsoever,' Matthew said. 'Just a novel. Frightfully exciting.'
'In that case,' Louisa said. 'I will gladly take it with me. Thank you.'
They sat in silence for a moment. Louisa observed Matthew slowly sipping his tea, holding the cup and saucer with his broad hands. She noted that he wore a signet ring with a large black stone on his finger and wondered briefly if she had seen him seal something before. It astonished her that she had never thought much of his physical presence before when she now realised that he was easily as strong and broadly built as her husband.
'I am going to miss you,' Matthew said. 'You will write, won't you, at least occasionally?'
'Of course I will,' Louisa said. 'But I do not suppose we shall stay in Hertfordshire for very long. We may see each other again very soon.'
'Ah, but what if Algie decides to die in the mean-time?' Matthew asked. 'I do not think we will be able to meet again after that.'
Louisa was silenced by this; she had not thought about it before.
'But -' she began.
'Oh, I do not think we will lose sight of each other forever,' Matthew said. 'In a couple of years, surely, when the world has all but forgot your first husband, and you are happily married and have a dozen charming children - I should wonder though if you remembered me at all then.'
'Don't say that,' Louisa said.
'Why not?' Matthew asked. 'I wish you all the happiness in the world, my dear friend.'
'I do not think I shall marry again,' Louisa said earnestly. 'I shall not have to, so why should I?'
'You say that now,' Matthew answered. 'But one day, it may just happen to you that you run into someone who makes you change all the plans you ever had. Just look at me - I always saw my future in a quaint country vicarage with a pleasantly non-descript wife by my side, and now -'
'Will you miss Algie very much?' Louisa asked.
'Of course,' Matthew said. 'But I shall not be absolutely shattered, if that is what you fear.'
'We are no dull, sublunary lovers*,' he said. 'I do not need him by my side all the time. I will probably go to see my mother while you are gone.'
He sat down his teacup and took Louisa's hand in his.
'My dearest Louisa,' he said. 'I promise that we shall see each other again, whether you are still Algernon's long-suffering wife, the mother of a great flock, or a scandalous, fashionable widow.'
Caroline was shown into the family's private drawing-room by the footman. Colonel Fitzwilliam greeted her with all the niceties which propriety dictated and asked her to take a seat.
'I am afraid my sister has gone out,' the Colonel said.
'I know,' Caroline said. 'I waited until she had left the house before I called.'
'What is the matter?' the Colonel asked.
'Everything is arranged,' Caroline said.
The Colonel raised an eyebrow.
'I am to leave,' Caroline said. 'I just learnt it. I have no idea when, or even if, I shall return.'
'My dearest,' the Colonel said, 'are you not being a tad over-dramatic? We are not at war yet, are we?'
'I mean,' Caroline clarified, 'we are leaving for Hertfordshire tomorrow. Charles just informed us that he has accepted invitations to some local assembly and that we absolutely have to travel tomorrow. Louisa is nearly running mad with all sorts of secret preparations and Charles is carrying his gun-cases to and fro - I simply had to get away and see you.'
The Colonel chuckled.
'Poor Darcy,' he said. 'Does he know already?'
'I hope so,' Caroline said and frowned. 'Charles said he would send him a note.'
'If he has not, I will inform Darcy,' the Colonel said. 'I must see him tonight if he leaves tomorrow. But first, my dear, I will enjoy this precious stolen time with you.'
'Precious stolen time,' Caroline snorted. 'I am here to receive instructions.'
'That too, of course,' the Colonel said.
For a moment, neither of them spoke a word. Caroline tried to keep her gloved hands folded in her lap, but her nerves prevailed. She could not prevent herself from fiddling with her gloves, finally pulling them off and putting them onto her thighs. Almost immediately, one of the gloves slid down the material of her dress and fell to the floor. The Colonel got up from his seat, knelt by her side and handed her the glove. Still on his knees, he looked up at her and asked, 'What sort of instruction do you want?'
'It would be nice, for a start,' Caroline said, 'if you told me what I am supposed to do.'
'Obviously, you need to keep up your pursuit of Darcy,' the Colonel said.
'Great, and make yet another set of people think I am after him,' Caroline said. 'Well, at least it is in the country. I do not care what they think of me.'
'Also,' the Colonel continued, 'if anything about Louisa's or Hurst's behaviour strikes you as odd -'
'You mean odder than usual?' Caroline interjected.
'Quite,' the Colonel said. 'In that case, inform Darcy at once and he will let me know. Do not contact me yourself unless it is an emergency.'
With his hands pressed against his thigh, he finally pulled himself up from his kneeling position and stood now directly before Caroline, towering over her, so close that she thought she could feel the heat radiating from him. Nervously, she began playing with the straps of her reticule.
'What if it is something I cannot discuss with Darcy, because it concerns him?' she asked.
'If you must,' the Colonel said, 'you can send a letter through my sister but you had better give her a good excuse for it - or a good story.'
Instead of returning to his chair, he seated himself on the sofa next to Caroline.
'Very well,' Caroline said. 'Anything else?'
The Colonel reached for the reticule she was still toying with and pulled it from her hands before she could twist the straps completely.
'Behave yourself, be a good girl, think of me every night and sleep with a gun under your pillow.'
Caroline's eyes widened. 'Really?'
'No, not unless you know how to use it. I do not want to have to identify your corpse.'
'When shall I see you again?' Caroline asked.
'I cannot say,' the Colonel said and ran a hand through his hair. 'Perhaps I can free myself for a week and come to Hertfordshire, but otherwise, probably not until you return to town for Christmas - you will return for Christmas, that is?'
'How do I know?' Caroline said. 'It all depends, does it not?'
'True that, true that,' the Colonel said. 'I guess this is goodbye for now then.'
'I suppose so,' Caroline said.
'Take care of yourself,' the Colonel said. 'Do not take any risks.'
He took her hand, lifted it slowly up to his mouth and kissed the inside of her wrist.
'When you come back, and this is done with,' he said, 'let us have a talk.'
'I will make a note of it in my calendar,' Caroline said.
* John Donne: 'A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning.'
Chapter XI - Louisa Has A Theory
Posted on 2012-01-05
'Do not turn around,' Louisa commanded. 'I am going in now.'
'My dear Louisa, I assure you -'
'Just do not turn around for a moment!'
'Louisa, I am standing in front of a mirror right now. I can see you whether I turn around or not. Incidentally, have you gained weight?'
'I assume Caroline thinks this is funny,' Louisa said through clenched teeth. 'And the water is too hot too.'
'I am sorry, you were saying?' her husband, who was concentrating on shaving his throat, said.
'I assume Caroline thinks it is funny to have us share a room,' Louisa said. 'Could you hand me my sponge? I left it on the vanity.'
'Give me a minute,' her husband said. 'Why did you not ask Caroline to alter the arrangements?'
'What, and cast a shadow of doubt on our marital bliss?' Louisa snorted. 'I do not think so!'
'Well, then, it appears you will have to live with it,' her husband said.
'The sponge, Algernon!'
'Yes, in a minute,' her husband said. 'Does that mean you will make me sleep on the couch?'
'What, and then you keep me awake half the night until you have found a comfortable position? No, I think I had rather have you in bed with me then.'
'Thank goodness,' her husband muttered. 'The couch is at least a foot shorter than I am.'
'Yes, coming,' Mr Hurst said and tossed the sponge in Louisa's direction.
Louisa caught it with difficulties.
'Oh, and the soap, Algernon, please,' she said. 'On the vanity. And do not -'
' - toss it?' her husband continued. 'Too late, I am afraid.'
'Goodness, have you ever been to a more dreadful place?' Caroline muttered. 'I never knew there were so many different sorts of horrid.'
'It is not that bad,' Mr Darcy muttered.
Caroline let go of his hand and twirled around him in what she hoped looked like a besotted manner.
'What, then, is not that bad?' she asked when the dance next led them together.
'The fact that Charles has managed to charm yet another poor girl whose heart he will break in a couple of weeks? That somebody stepped on the hem of my gown and did not even have the decency to apologise? Or that this fiddle is so horribly mis-tuned my ears seem to be bleeding?'
'Well, you may have a point,' Mr Darcy admitted.
'And there is no one here apart from you with whom I would even care to dance,' Caroline said. 'When I think that only a couple of days ago, I was peacefully strolling through the park with your cousin - and now I am here, in Meryton, Hertfordshire, at this godforsaken assembly.'
'I did not exactly ask to be dragged here either,' Mr Darcy said when he had finished turning around a lady in a pale yellow gown. 'And I can think of very many things I would much rather do.'
'God, did you hear that woman shriek just now? I think I am getting a headache,' Caroline whispered.
The dance had by now ended and they were again standing side by side in a corner.
'I think she wants me to marry one of her daughters,' Mr Darcy said. 'She keeps pushing them at me.'
'The hardship!' Caroline said. 'Really, I would pity you, if only I had the time while I am acting like you are a divine gift to women.'
'Oh, no, there is Charles,' Mr Darcy muttered. 'I think he wants me to dance.'
'Horrid thought,' Caroline said. 'What a dreadful prospect. Well, enjoy yourself. I am going to talk to Louisa.'
'So, what are your plans for the day?' Caroline asked Mr Darcy as they were strolling through the garden. 'I heard you were going out.'
'We have been invited by the officers,' Mr Darcy said and grimaced. 'And my cousin just sent a letter; he thinks it is an excellent idea to get Hurst drunk and make him talk.'
'Hurst is constantly drunk and never talks,' Caroline snorted. 'Did your cousin say anything else?'
'Not really,' Mr Darcy said. 'He has not found out anything else, if that is what you mean.'
'Oh, I just thought -'
'No, unfortunately, there is nothing new,' Mr Darcy said. 'We are still stuck here.'
'He said nothing about our returning to town then?' Caroline asked.
'He did not even mention it,' Mr Darcy said. 'Easy enough for him, he is not in Hertfordshire.'
'Yes, he is in London,' Caroline agreed.
'He did ask me to convey his regards to you, though,' Mr Darcy added.
'Yes, something about telling you to keep up the good work,' Mr Darcy said. 'He is really impressed with your role-playing.'
'Oh, is he?'
'And he asked me to tell you you would probably be very busy the day you returned to London,' Mr Darcy said. 'He said many of your friends would probably miss you and wish to call on you when you returned. I know Georgiana will want to see you.'
'That is - very kind of your sister,' Caroline said.
'What then are your plans for the day?' Mr Darcy asked.
'Oh, Louisa and I are going to invite Jane Bennet,' Caroline said. 'Poor girl.'
'Is she? Why would that be?'
'Well, with that family,' Caroline said. 'The mother! And the sisters! And, you know, Charles is probably going to break her heart in a couple of weeks - he is my brother and I love him dearly, but - anyway, Louisa and I thought we might give her some subtle hints not to get her hopes up. She is a sweet girl and we would hate to see her disappointed.'
'I would not worry about that,' Mr Darcy said. 'I think her family is more in love with your brother than she is.'
'Do you think so?' Caroline asked. 'It would make things easier, that is for sure.'
'You are not asking Elizabeth Bennet to come as well, are you?' Mr Darcy asked.
'Whom? Oh, no. I thought about it, but it would look odd. After all, she is supposed to be my rival, is she not?'
'Oh, have I not told you?' Caroline said and snorted. 'Oh, it is too precious. Now, listen to this: Remember, when I was annoying you to no end at that one party and you made some remark about Eliza Bennet's eyes just to shut me up? Well, Louisa overheard you and she warned me not to let Eliza get too close to you, for she thought you had already half fallen for her.'
'Did she now?'
'Yes, is it not priceless?' Caroline laughed. 'I mean, to be sure, Eliza is a sweet girl, and will make an excellent wife to whatever vicar or squire she marries, but the thought that you were falling for her - well, you must admit, it is too funny - anyway, that is why I think I should appear not to like Eliza Bennet, at least as long as Louisa is present, because I absolutely could not dissuade her of that notion.'
Mr Darcy remarked that the weather was likely to turn and they had better go indoors.
Louisa was still up when her husband returned that night; she was sitting in bed and reading a rather thick book.
'You are late,' she pointed out. 'Did you have fun?'
'Definitely not,' Mr Hurst said.
He pointed at the unoccupied side of the bed.
'Do not be ridiculous, Algernon,' Louisa said. 'That is your bed as well as mine, you do not need to ask.'
'A gentleman always asks,' Mr Hurst said before letting himself fall, fully clothed, onto the bed.
'That bad?' Louisa asked.
'Someone kept refilling my glass until it was too much even for me,' Mr Hurst said, 'Darcy kept shooting dark looks at me, Colonel Foster told crude jokes and the food was inedible.'
'That bad,' Louisa said. 'Oh, dear.'
'And your brother sang,' Mr Hurst added. 'Something about a dead bunny.'
'He did not,' Louisa said.
'I am afraid he did,' Mr Hurst said. 'All the way home.'
Louisa stifled a giggle.
'I hope he has stopped singing now,' she said. 'He will wake Jane if he is too loud.'
'Jane?' Mr Hurst asked. 'Which Jane?'
'You know,' Louisa said. 'Jane Bennet. Blonde, rather plump, sweet face? Caroline and I had invited her over.'
'To spend the night?' Mr Hurst asked.
'No, of course not,' Louisa said. 'The point was for her to be here when Charles was not, so we could give her some gentle hints not to have any expectations.'
Mr Hurst gave his wife a pointed look.
'Well, maybe not very gentle,' Louisa said. 'We had to be pretty direct, I am afraid. And we might have succeeded, I believe, but -'
'But the silly girl came here on horseback and got thoroughly soaked,' Louisa sighed. 'I am not sure if she even listened to what Caroline and I said; she was already in a rather bad way when she arrived here. I do not know what she thought, riding here in the rain. Although I strongly suspect that was rather more her mother's idea than her own.'
Mr Hurst raised an eyebrow.
'She must have intended for Jane to stay of course,' Louisa explained. 'But now the poor girl has a dreadful cold and looks disgusting - puffy eyes, runny nose, blotched face - we may have to call for the apothecary tomorrow if she does not get better. Her mama cannot have wanted that.'
'Well, you know, Louisa, some match-makers,' Mr Hurst said. 'They are simply desperate.'
'Do you mean either of us?' Louisa snapped. 'I would never send out Caroline in the rain -'
'Calm yourself, Lou,' her husband said. 'I was speaking of mothers. Mine was the same.'
'You have a mother?' Louisa asked.
'It sounds impossible, but yes, I too once had a mother,' Mr Hurst said. 'What are you reading?'
'A novel,' Louisa said. 'Frightfully exciting. You would not like it.'
'No, I suppose not,' her husband said. 'It looks familiar. Have you read it before?'
'Matthew lent it to me,' Louisa said. 'He said I simply had to read it, that I would not be able to put it down once I had started it.'
'Do not believe a word he told you,' Mr Hurst said. 'He could put it down easily enough when he read it.'
'Louisa, dearest, could I talk to you for a moment?' Mr Hurst said a couple of days later over breakfast.
'Certainly, Algie,' Louisa said and followed her husband out of the room.
Once they had reached the privacy of Louisa's own room, Louisa asked, 'What is it?'
'I just received this letter,' Mr Hurst said.
'So I saw,' Louisa said. 'What does it say?'
'I simply do not understand it,' Mr Hurst said. 'You have had Mr Darcy under close observation, have you not?'
'I have,' Louisa said, 'and whenever I was not near him, Charles or Caroline were with him, I made sure of that.'
'And still,' Mr Hurst said, 'I am informed that another shipment has been sent. It must be meant for him.'
'How can you be so sure?' Louisa asked.
'It is being sent to Meryton,' Mr Hurst said. 'That certainly is too great a coincidence. No, I am sure, Mr Darcy is at the core of this. If you cannot think of any opportunity he has had to be alone for long enough to set everything up, then it follows that one or both of your siblings are his allies.'
'No!' Louisa exclaimed. 'No, I refuse to believe that! Charles - I am sure he could never -'
'It was not him I suspected either,' Mr Hurst said.
'But Caroline?' Louisa said. 'No, it is impossible!'
'Still, it would explain why sometimes, Mr Darcy seems to appreciate her advances, and sometimes, he does not,' Mr Hurst said.
'Oh, that,' Louisa said. 'He is a man. Inconstancy does not signify anything.'
'Thank you,' Mr Hurst said. 'Still, unless you can think of anything else, I fear that we must include your sister -'
'Wait,' Louisa said. 'Wait.'
'Do you recall Saturday afternoon?' Louisa said.
'Vaguely,' Mr Hurst said. 'We had pork for dinner, had we not?'
'Oh, what do I know,' Louisa said. 'Anyway, in the afternoon, both Mr Darcy and Miss Eliza were alone in the library for quite some time.'
'Miss Eliza Bennet?' Mr Hurst said, frowning.
'You know, Jane Bennet's sister,' Louisa said. 'Brown hair, straight teeth, does not like cards?'
'Oh, that sister,' Mr Hurst said. 'So she was alone with Darcy?'
'Yes,' Louisa said. 'Maybe she is the one with whom he works.'
'Hm,' Mr Hurst said. 'It could be. I cannot rule it out. Although, would it not be too great a coincidence for her to live in the very town Darcy decides to visit?'
'Oh, that,' Louisa said. 'That is easily explained. It was, after all, someone recommended by Mr Darcy who told Charles to take Netherfield. Nothing would have been easier than to gently steer Charles in the right direction.'
'You have a point there,' Mr Hurst conceded. 'We should keep an eye on her.'
'I always thought that Mr Darcy was behaving strangely around her,' Louisa said, 'but now that would explain everything.'
'Still,' Mr Hurst said, 'we cannot rule Caroline out.'
'It is not Caroline, I am sure about that,' Louisa said.
'We may know more when the shipment has arrived,' Mr Hurst said. 'We may be able to make a capture then.'
'When will it come?' Louisa asked.
'It cannot be long now,' Mr Hurst said. 'All will be over before Christmas, I think.'
'And then,' Louisa said slowly, 'then you will die?'
'Then I will die,' Mr Hurst said.
He got up and patted Louisa's cheek.
'I shall miss you, Lou,' he said and left the room.
'Yes, me too,' Louisa muttered.
Chapter XII - Louisa Is Shocked
Posted on 2012-01-10
'Such splendid weather,' Mr Darcy said when Louisa and her husband had left the breakfast parlour.
'It is raining,' Charles said, frowning.
'Oh, only very slightly,' Mr Darcy said.
In the distance, they could hear the thunder rumbling.
'I am sure a little bit of rain would actually be refreshing,' Caroline said. 'Would you accompany me outside, Mr Darcy?'
'It will be a pleasure,' Mr Darcy said, getting up and offering his arm to Caroline.
'Let me just get my shawl,' Caroline said.
She hastily ran upstairs and was about to enter her room when she heard her sister and Mr Hurst talking in Louisa's room. She pressed her ear to the door but could only make out a few words, so she gave up the attempt. In her room, she quickly dressed and was back downstairs before Mr Hurst left the room. Mr Darcy was already waiting for her at the foot of the stairs.
'There have been new developments,' Mr Darcy said when they were outside and away from the house. 'I just had a letter from town.'
'Do you mean the shipment that is expected in Meryton?' Caroline asked.
'What do you know about it?' Mr Darcy asked sharply.
'I heard Louisa and Mr Hurst talking about it just now,' Caroline said. 'I could not make out much, but I think he told Louisa that a shipment had been sent and that it was to arrive in Meryton.'
'That is indeed the information we also have,' Mr Darcy said. 'Well, this proves that Mr Hurst is involved in the whole business. It would be too much of a coincidence if there were another, innocent shipment expected in Meryton -'
'Yes, but Louisa!' Caroline said. 'This also proves that Louisa is involved in this whole business - I cannot believe it of her -'
'Remember what my cousin said,' Mr Darcy said. 'Louisa is most probably acting under pressure.'
'Has he found out anything more about Mr Aldridge?' Caroline asked.
'Nothing conclusive,' Mr Darcy said. 'It is not easy to find out for certain where Mr Aldridge was a decade ago, but it is definitely possible they met. Something must have happened between Mr Aldridge and Louisa that gives Mr Hurst a hold over them.'
'I would never have thought it of Louisa,' Caroline said.
'She was only fifteen,' Mr Darcy said softly. 'So many of us make mistakes at that age.'
'Poor Louisa,' Caroline said. 'That this should haunt her the rest of her life -'
'Poor Louisa indeed,' Mr Darcy said. 'One single mistake -'
'We must free her of that man,' Caroline said. 'When is the shipment due?'
'We do not know precisely,' Mr Darcy said, 'but we suspect it will arrive before November is over.'
'What will we do about it?' Caroline asked.
'We must intercept it,' Mr Darcy said, 'replace it with an identical one and see who comes to pick it up.'
'Intercept it?' Caroline said. 'But - where?'
'In London,' Mr Darcy said. 'We have received intelligence that it will be deposited in a certain warehouse and only be picked up twelve hours later. That gives us enough time to intercept it. My cousin will take care of that.'
'Oh,' Caroline said. 'What if he is seen?'
'He is willing to take that risk,' Mr Darcy said.
'He will be armed, of course,' Mr Darcy said.
Caroline drew her shawl closer around herself.
'Are you alright?' Mr Darcy asked. 'It is rather cold, is it not? We had perhaps better return indoors.'
'Yes,' Caroline agreed. 'I just remembered I wanted to write a letter.'
Dear Lady Julia,
I only realise now I forgot to thank you for all the kindnesses you bestowed upon me when last I was in London; it is with a very guilty conscience that I pick up my pen and beg your forgiveness for my oversight. Your friendship is very much appreciated by me and I must assure you that I had a wonderful time with you and your family.
They will, I hope, be well, just as you. Please convey my special regards to your son; it was a delight to meet him. Your brother asked me for a list of musical pieces which I have enclosed in this letter. If you could find the time to pass it on to him I would be very thankful.
I am, as you have perhaps heard, currently in Hertfordshire, near Meryton - quite a charming rural town, although I do miss London and all its excitements ...
'The 26th of November?' Caroline exclaimed.
'Shh,' Mr Darcy said. 'Not so loud!'
They were both ready to claim they had been searching for a book, should anybody come upon them in the library. It being the dead of the night, however, they hoped their meeting would remain undetected.
'The 26th?' Caroline hissed. 'But that is the date of Charles' stupid ball!'
'I know,' Mr Darcy said. 'At least that proves that Charles is not in on this, does it?'
'Oh, I would not put it past Charles to mix that up,' Caroline sighed.
'No, indeed,' Mr Darcy said.
'So, the shipment will definitely arrive on the 26th?' Caroline asked again.
'All evidence suggests it,' Mr Darcy said.
'Oh, but -' Caroline said, 'I mean, what if the meeting point is at the other end of the village -'
'But do you not see?' Mr Darcy said. 'It has to be somewhere near here. Mr Hurst knows his absence would be remarked upon, so it has to be somewhere near the house. This is brilliant. When we see him leave, we can just pretend to step out on the terrace and follow him.'
'But what if someone sees something?'
'Oh, you know how it is at balls,' Mr Darcy said, 'people always claim to see funny things and nobody ever believes them. No, even if someone saw something, they would not recognise it for what it was.'
'I cannot believe it will all be over in a week,' Caroline said.
'Yes, me neither,' Mr Darcy said.
'What will you do when we get to leave?' Caroline asked.
'I will go to the North,' Mr Darcy said. 'I will stay with Georgiana and our aunt and return with them for Christmas. You will be going to town, I gather?'
'Yes,' Caroline said and smiled fondly. 'There is some business there I need to finish.'
'Good, good,' Mr Darcy said. 'I cannot wait to get away.'
'No, me neither,' Caroline said, but then her face fell. 'Oh dear.'
'What is it?'
'Louisa,' Caroline said. 'What will happen to Louisa?'
'Well, if she is indeed involved, as we suspect -'
'She is my sister!' Caroline said. 'We cannot send my sister to prison!'
'But if she is guilty -'
'I cannot send my sister to prison,' Caroline said. 'I cannot do that.'
'It will probably not come to that.'
'No?' Caroline asked.
'Well, if Louisa is indeed being blackmailed, as we assume -'
'Of course she is!' Caroline cried. 'There is no other explanation for her behaviour.'
'Well, in that case, we can probably arrange for her not to go to prison,' Mr Darcy said. 'Provided she is willing to co-operate.'
'Of course she is,' Caroline said. 'She will be only too happy to testify against Mr Hurst, I am certain of that.'
'Well, in that case,' Mr Darcy said, 'you will have nothing to fear.'
'When?' Louisa asked her husband the next morning.
'The night of the ball,' Mr Hurst said, 'I have just received the information.'
'The night of the ball?' Louisa repeated.
'Yes,' Mr Hurst said. 'Excellent, is it not?'
'Because nobody will notice a thing with all the commotion going on,' Mr Hurst explained. 'Nothing easier than to sneak out for a bit - oh, that was very cleverly arranged by Darcy.'
'Where is the meeting point then?' Louisa asked.
'I do not think it will be very far from the house,' Mr Hurst said. 'Look here, I made a sketch -'
'Oh, that is indeed clever,' Louisa said. 'Very easy to just slip onto the terrace and -'
'- and that means that it could even be your sister who arranged every thing,' Mr Hurst said.
'I assure you, Caroline is innocent,' Louisa said. 'I will prove that. I will observe every single of her steps from now until the ball, and I shall show you that she is innocent.'
'Nobody could be happier to see that than me,' Mr Hurst said. 'We will have to see.'
'And you will see once the ball is over,' Louisa said determinedly.
'Well, that means you will be rid of me in about a week,' Mr Hurst said. 'Do you know what you will do once the formalities are dealt with?'
'The formalities?' Louisa asked.
'Well, there will have to be a funeral, of course,' Mr Hurst said. 'And the will must be read and all that.'
'Funeral?' Louisa echoed.
'It would not do to let the corpse just lie around,' Mr Hurst said. 'Especially since its head will have been shot off - Louisa, are you going to faint again?'
'No, I am not going to faint,' Louisa said, although she felt a bit unsteady.
'That is a relief,' Mr Hurst said.
'You are not going to shoot your own head off, are you?' Louisa asked.
'Do not be ridiculous, Louisa,' Mr Hurst said. 'Of course not. What would be the point of that?'
'But you said there would be a body -'
'Yes, well,' Mr Hurst said. 'The charm of a headless body is that nobody can identify it.'
'Christian, do not tell me you are going to shoot some peasant's head off!' Louisa shrieked. 'I mean - that is illegal. I am pretty sure it is illegal to shoot peasants.'
'Oh, it is illegal, that is for sure, but it would not be the only crime on my conscience, now would it?'
'You - you cannot be serious,' Louisa said.
'I am deadly serious, it is absolutely illegal to shoot a peasant,' Mr Hurst said. 'Now, would you mind not shouting?'
'But - but -'
'Calm yourself, Louisa,' Mr Hurst said. 'I will not kill anyone, peasant or else. Believe me, the poor bloke will be quite dead - of natural causes, I assure you - before his head is shot off.'
'Oh,' Louisa said.
'Really, Louisa,' Mr Hurst said. 'Do you really think I would shoot somebody's head off? Do you still know me so little?'
'I am sorry,' Louisa said. 'I did not think.'
'Miss Bingley!' Mr Darcy exclaimed. 'What are you -'
'I apologise,' Caroline said and turned around. 'I had no idea -'
Mr Darcy quickly buttoned his shirt.
'You can turn around again,' he said.
'I am so, so sorry,' Caroline said. 'I assure you, I did not mean to intrude -'
'How may I help you, Miss Bingley?' Mr Darcy asked while he put on his waistcoat.
'Where is your man?' Caroline asked. 'Does he not normally dress you?'
'He forgot my boots downstairs,' Mr Darcy said. 'May I ask, though, Miss Bingley, why you stormed into my room this early in the morning and cried you needed to speak to me?'
'Louisa,' Caroline said. 'And Mr Hurst. They are going to shoot somebody.'
'They are what?' Mr Darcy said, frowning.
'They are going to shoot somebody,' Caroline said. 'I just heard them talking in Louisa's room. Louisa cried that it would be illegal to shoot somebody, and then Mr Hurst said that would not be the only crime on his conscience, and Louisa said he could not be serious - the rest, I could not understand.'
'Hm,' Mr Darcy said, tying his neck-cloth.
'Mr Darcy, we must do something!' Caroline said. 'We cannot let them shoot people!'
'You must have misunderstood them,' Mr Darcy said. 'I am sure they would not -'
'Do not tell me you are going to shoot some person's head off,' Caroline quoted. 'Those were Louisa's very words. Do you think I only made this up?'
'No, of course not,' Mr Darcy said. 'I believe you.'
'Well, then, what are we going to do?' Caroline asked.
'What can we do?' Mr Darcy said. 'We can only do what we have been doing the last weeks: observe them closely and make sure they cannot harm anybody else.'
'And the guns?' Caroline said. 'There is a room full of guns in this house!'
'I have the key to that,' Mr Darcy said. 'Charles left it in my care.'
'That is at least a little relief,' Caroline said.
'Nevertheless, I want you to be careful,' Mr Darcy said. 'Your task is to gather information, not to apprehend anybody. Stay with Louisa. sSe what you can find out - if you see or hear anything that is potentially dangerous, call Charles or me, will you?'
'Yes, if you insist,' Caroline said.
'Good,' Mr Darcy said. 'If that is all, I will see you at breakfast in a couple of minutes. You had better leave before my man comes back.'
'Good morning, Caroline,' Louisa said pleasantly when Caroline sat down. 'Did you sleep well?'
'Tolerably, yes, thank you,' Caroline said. 'How are you this morning?'
'Quite well,' Louisa said. 'I say, Caroline -'
She lowered her voice to a stage whisper.
'- did I see you entering Mr Darcy's room just now?'
'Mr Darcy's room!' Caroline exclaimed. 'Oh, yes. I found one of his kerchiefs on the floor and thought his man had probably dropped it.'
'Oh, I see,' Louisa said. 'I knew there would be an innocent explanation.'
She gave Caroline a wink.
'Louisa!' Caroline exclaimed, then recovered and said, 'it was of course all very innocent, you know me, Louisa.'
'Bacon is almost cold,' Mr Hurst muttered.
'I do not know what you mean,' Caroline said. 'It has just the right temperature.'
'The ham is over-cooked,' Mr Hurst said.
'I like my ham well done,' Caroline said.
'What are you planning to do today?' Louisa asked quickly.
'I still need to consult with Mrs Nicholls about some arrangements for the ball,' Caroline said. 'I would be grateful if you could help me with that, Louisa.'
'Of course, of course,' Louisa said. 'And you should also make a choice regarding the music. If you wish, I could assist you with that, too.'
'That would be lovely,' Caroline said. 'I would really appreciate that.'
Chapter XIII - Louisa Gets A Gun
Posted on 2012-01-17
'Can I ask you a question?' Louisa said that evening when they were lying in bed and had blown out the candles.
'It appears you can,' her husband said gruffly.
'No, I mean, a real question,' Louisa amended.
Her husband sighed, then turned over so he would face her.
'What is it, Lou?' he said.
'I have been wondering -' Louisa began. 'Why did you fall in love with Matthew?'
'Heavens, Lou,' her husband groaned. 'One does not plan to fall in love; I cannot advise you how to go about it.'
'That is not what I mean and you know it,' Louisa said.
'You are evading my question,' Louisa said. 'If you do not want to tell me, fine, but there is no need to play silly games with me.'
Her husband pondered this for a while.
'Maybe you are right,' he finally said.
'Well, then, do you want to talk about it, or -'
'I do not know why it happened,' Mr Hurst said. 'I could not even precisely say when - one day, I simply realised that he was a constant presence in my life and that I would not have it any other way. He has been there for me in the best of times and in the worst and I would not change one bit about that.'
'But - did you not have doubts whether it would be right -'
'Of course I had, Lou, do not be silly,' her husband said. 'Let us not forget that we are not talking about love, but about both a crime and a sin - that is not a commitment one enters lightly.'
'You did though,' Louisa said.
'I did,' her husband said and suddenly chuckled. 'Dear Jove, I felt like a modern Prometheus - challenging the gods and their seemingly arbitrary laws -'
'Yes, but why?'
'Why, why -' her husband said. 'Because I could not not do it, that is why. I knew it might destroy me to pursue what I perceived as my happiness, but I also knew that not to pursue it would destroy me for certain.'
'That bad?' Louisa asked.
'That bad,' Christian said simply.
'Louisa will not leave me alone,' Caroline reported to Mr Darcy that night in the library. 'I know I said I was going to keep her close to keep an eye on her - but this is definitely too close. Wherever I go, she follows me, whatever I do, she does too - I think she knows I know.'
'Hm,' Mr Darcy said.
'I had to check twice she was truly sleeping before I dared come downstairs,' Caroline said. 'Thank goodness she snores. What if she found us here?'
'Hm,' Mr Darcy said again.
'What is the matter with you today?' Caroline hissed. 'You have not spoken more than two words all evening, and Charles said you were in a foul mood all day.'
Mr Darcy made another angry sound, then apologised to her.
'I am sorry, my mind was elsewhere,' he said.
'Well, my mind was on our mission,' Caroline said. 'On what was yours?'
'I have met someone I would rather not meet,' Mr Darcy said. 'Someone with whom I have had to deal before.'
Caroline said nothing.
'It is Mr Wickham, if you must know,' Mr Darcy said. 'The son of my father's steward. I just found out he is to join the militia here in Meryton. He is - well, suffice it to say he is not a very pleasant fellow and has harmed many good and decent people. You should better stay away from him if you have the misfortune to meet him. I cannot think of anyone who has ever benefited from an association with him.'
'Good,' Caroline said. 'I will keep it in mind. Now, can we please come back to the business of Louisa and the guns?'
'What guns?' Mr Darcy asked.
'Well, I have no idea,' Caroline said. 'But I suppose you need a gun to shoot someone's head off.'
'What is the matter with you?' Louisa inquired of her husband the morning before the ball. 'Will you not get up?'
'I just cannot stop thinking,' Mr Hurst said, still lying on the bed.
'A dangerous affliction, I am sure,' Louisa said. 'Hopefully, it will pass.'
'No, seriously,' Mr Hurst said, rubbing his forehead. 'I feel like I have overseen something.'
'What would that be?' Louisa asked.
'If I knew that!' Mr Hurst exclaimed. 'It is just - maybe it is nothing, only -'
'It is all too easy,' Mr Hurst said. 'Darcy must know someone is onto him by now, even if he does not know it is us. Why would he arrange for a transaction to take place here? He must know it would be so much easier to apprehend someone here than, say, in London.'
'Are you sure though he knows?' Louisa said. 'Perhaps he thinks he has been clever enough.'
'Oh, believe me, Louisa, he must know,' Mr Hurst said. 'He left traces all over the place - he must know what he has done. He probably plans to leave the country when he is done with his work here.'
'But why did he leave such traces in the first place?'
'I do not know,' Mr Hurst said. 'That is why I am wondering. It almost looks as if it were deliberate. Darcy is too intelligent to leave those traces by mistake. No, it looks almost as if they wanted us to catch up on him ultimately -'
'They?' Louisa said.
'If that were the case, obviously somebody else would have to be involved,' Mr Hurst said. 'They may want to unmask Darcy at a latter stage to protect the identity of the others.'
'They would sacrifice Darcy?' Louisa asked. 'But did you not say he was one of the most important informers?'
'He is,' Mr Hurst said slowly.
'Yes!' Mr Hurst said. 'I think I have got it!'
'If they would sacrifice Darcy to protect someone else, it follows that that someone is even more important than Darcy - Louisa, that's it!'
Mr Hurst jumped out of the bed and kissed Louisa full on the lips.
'I think I have it, Louisa!'
Louisa stood there completely confounded. Finally, she managed a weak, 'What?'
'I think I know who the head of the operation is!'
Suddenly, Mr Hurst stopped dead in his tracks.
'What is it, Christian?' Louisa asked again.
'Sweet Jove,' Mr Hurst said. 'If I am right - and I hope I am not - then this is much more dangerous than I thought.'
'What are you going to do now?' Louisa said.
'I must write a letter,' Mr Hurst said. 'Ink - where is the ink - and my quill?'
Louisa handed him the missing items.
'I hope I am not too late,' Mr Hurst said. 'And I hope even more that I am mistaken.'
He began penning the letter feverishly.
'Just in case, Louisa,' he said and looked up. 'Do you think you could get a weapon from the gun-room?'
'Now, remember,' Mr Darcy said to Caroline before they went down the stairs together. 'We keep an eye on both Louisa and Mr Hurst and when either or both of them leave the ballroom, we follow.'
'I know,' Caroline said. 'We have been over this at least thrice. If I need to leave the room, I will say I need to speak to cook, if I need you to come with me, I will ask you to take me outside because it is too hot inside. I will not follow them on my own, I will not take any risks -'
'That is right, you will not,' Mr Darcy said grimly. 'Especially because I think one of the guns is missing.'
'What?' Caroline shrieked.
'Be quiet,' Mr Darcy hissed. 'Someone will hear you.'
'A gun - gone?' Caroline gulped.
'I think so,' Mr Darcy said. 'But that does not have to mean anything.'
'But what if Mr Hurst - or Louisa -'
'Now, calm yourself,' Mr Darcy said, 'they will hardly carry that on their person, now, will they?'
'Yes, but -'
'I probably just miscounted,' Mr Darcy said. 'Nevertheless, I do not want you to take any risks.'
'I promise, I will be careful,' Caroline said, trying to forget about the gun.
'I see we understand each other,' Mr Darcy said. 'Very well. May I ask for the first dance?'
'You may,' Caroline said. 'Unless I need to speak to cook, of course.'
They arrived downstairs to find Charles already there.
'Everything looks splendid,' he said. 'Caroline, you have outdone yourself!'
'Louisa did most of that,' Caroline admitted. 'I only helped.'
'I cannot wait!' Charles exclaimed. 'I just know everything is going to be fabulous.'
'Of course,' Caroline said weakly.
'Was that a carriage?' Charles asked. 'Did you hear a carriage already? It did sound like the Bennets' carriage, did it not?'
He rushed over to a window.
'It really is time we returned to town,' Caroline whispered to Mr Darcy, 'before Charles breaks poor Jane Bennet's heart, or she his.'
'Did you say something about town?' Charles called from the window. 'That reminds me, I am riding into town early tomorrow morning. I had some pesky letters this morning, apparently I forgot to see my lawyer about some business - anyway, it should not take me longer than two or three days to settle, so there is no need for you to accompany me - oh, I think there is a carriage coming!'
Louisa dismissed her maid, inspected her appearance one last time in the mirror and decided she looked as well as she could.
'I hid the gun in the library, in the window-seat,' she said to her husband. 'Just as you suggested.'
'Did you have any trouble getting it?'
'No,' Louisa said. 'Darcy has the key of course, but it turned out Mrs Nicholls has duplicates for all the keys in the house. I do not think Darcy realised that.'
'Excellent,' Mr Hurst said and gave his tie one last glance.
'Shall we go downstairs, then?' Louisa asked. 'Are you ready?'
'One moment, please, Louisa,' her husband said.
'Of course,' Louisa said. 'What is it?'
Mr Hurst took a bundle of letters tightly bound together with black ribbon out of a drawer and pressed them into her hands.
'I had no right to them in the first place,' he said. 'I want you to have them back.'
'My letters,' Louisa muttered. 'But -'
'Keep them, burn them, whatever you want,' Mr Hurst said.
Louisa said nothing, but stuffed the packet of letters into a drawer of her vanity table.
'I want to apologise,' Mr Hurst said.
'Blackmailing you with them,' Mr Hurst said. 'That was not fair of me.'
'No, it was not,' Louisa agreed.
'I am sorry for using that against you,' Mr Hurst said. 'I simply should have explained the situation to you and hoped for your help.'
'You could have done that,' Louisa said.
'It was stupid of me,' Mr Hurst said. 'And despicable to use you like that. Honestly, Louisa, I am sorry.'
'It is alright,' Louisa said. 'I understand.'
'The only thing I can say in my defense is that I would not have made good on my threat,' Mr Hurst said. 'You must believe me when I tell you I would not have done that.'
'I know,' Louisa said. 'Shall we go downstairs, then?'
'Yes, let us,' Mr Hurst agreed. 'Thank you, for everything, Louisa. No matter how this evening ends, I want you to know that I am truly grateful for your friendship these past months.'
'You are welcome,' Louisa said and took his arm. 'Incidentally, why did you choose to apologise tonight? Did Matthew -'
'He may have suggested it in his letter this morning,' her husband admitted. 'But I had come to the same conclusion by then.'
Louisa only smiled.
'May I ask for the first dance?' Mr Hurst asked as they stepped into the ballroom.
'You may,' Louisa said. 'I shall be delighted to dance with you.'
Chapter XIV - Louisa Dances
Posted on 2012-01-24
'Mr Hurst has just gone over to those French doors,' Caroline whispered into Mr Darcy's ear.
'Over there,' Caroline hissed. 'If you step over to where Miss Lucas and Miss Bennet are talking, you can see him.'
She gave him a gentle push in the back and watched him stumbling over to the two ladies. Mr Darcy quickly talked to them, looking around in the room while he did so, then came over again to Caroline.
'And?' Caroline asked.
'I think I have just asked Miss Bennet to dance,' Mr Darcy said.
'And Mr Hurst?' Caroline insisted.
'Oh, he is standing there at the window and drinking punch,' Mr Darcy said. 'You should keep an eye on him while I dance with Miss Bennet.'
'You are too funny!' Caroline exclaimed and laughed. 'Oh, Mr Darcy!'
Mr Darcy was about to ask what she meant when he realised that two officers were walking past them within hearing distance.
'If you ask me, there is a lady involved, if you catch my drift,' one of them remarked.
'Well, Wickham claimed it was urgent business that made him go to town,' the other said and snickered.
Caroline saw Mr Darcy turning red again. She thought it best not to mention that Jane Bennet had also been wondering about Mr Wickham's absence and had asked Caroline if she could say anything about Mr Wickham's history with Mr Darcy. Jane Bennet seemed to be under the impression that Mr Darcy had used Mr Wickham very ill; it was a business about which Caroline knew nothing but which she could not believe to be true, especially keeping Mr Darcy's remarks in mind. It was perhaps better, she thought, not to trouble Mr Darcy with these unpleasant news.
'I think you are to dance, Mr Darcy,' she said. 'Enjoy yourself, I will keep watch.'
Mr Hurst moved away from the window and sought his wife in the crowd.
'Mr Darcy is dancing,' he whispered into her ear.
'I know,' Louisa said gleefully. 'With Eliza Bennet. I told you Caroline was innocent.'
'We will see,' Mr Hurst said.
'Look, they are talking,' Louisa said. 'I am sure they are finalising everything now.'
'You may be right,' Mr Hurst said. 'Keep an eye on them. I will see if anything else of interest is happening.'
When the dance had ended, Louisa walked over to her sister.
'I see Mr Darcy danced with Eliza Bennet,' she remarked.
'Yes, I believe so,' Caroline said, distracted. A vague idea had been forming in her mind.
'Are you not quite jealous?' Louisa said.
'What?' Caroline said. 'Oh, of course I am. Nasty little minx, she is.'
'They seemed quite close,' Louisa said.
'Hm,' Caroline said. 'I had perhaps better speak to her.'
'Speak to her?' Louisa said. 'Caro, what are you up to?'
Caroline did not answer her but instead walked over to Elizabeth Bennet. She had meant to speak more freely, but Louisa was still listening, so Caroline had to keep her warning rather vague. Elizabeth Bennet seemed not to be very grateful, but Caroline could not afford to worry about this right now.
'Oh, I love how you gave her a set-down,' Louisa said when they walked away again. 'Who is this Mr Wickham anyway? Is he here tonight?'
'No, he is not,' Caroline said slowly.
'But we did extend the invitation to all the officers, did we not?' Louisa asked. 'I am quite sure I told Charles not to forget it.'
'It was,' Caroline said. 'But apparently Mr Wickham chose not to attend.'
'Oh, well,' Louisa said. 'He probably thought there was something more worth his time. I say, Caroline - Caroline?'
Caroline did not heed to her sister.
'Excuse me,' she said. 'I feel rather faint. I think I had better catch some fresh air.'
'Of course,' Louisa said. 'Do you want me to come with you?'
'No, thank you,' Caroline said. 'Stay here and enjoy yourself. I see Mr Darcy at the French window over there; he will step out with me for a moment.'
'Oh, of course,' Louisa said. 'Let me know if there is anything I can do.'
'What is it?' Mr Darcy asked when Caroline had dragged him outside.
'Mr Wickham,' Caroline hissed. 'Mr Wickham!'
'What has he done now?' Mr Darcy groaned. 'Will I never have peace from that scumbag, that absolute -'
'Mr Wickham is the one Hurst is meeting,' Caroline hissed.
'Do you not see it?' Caroline said. 'It all fits! Mr Wickham arrived here just a week before the shipment was due; Mr Wickham is not here tonight even though he was invited - he is not here tonight whilst everyone else is here and he will be unobserved - Mr Wickham is close enough to you to be able to assume your identity -'
Mr Darcy groaned.
'It must be him!' Caroline said. 'Why else would he come to Meryton so suddenly - to join a regiment? There must be dozens of regiments with much more prestige in England surely.'
Mr Darcy did not speak. In the moonlight, Caroline could see his lips were firmly pressed together.
'It simply must be Mr Wickham,' Caroline said. 'It is him Mr Hurst is meeting tonight. They are in on this together!'
'Yes, maybe,' Mr Darcy said slowly. 'Maybe you are right.'
'What are we going to do now?' Caroline said.
'It is too late to do anything,' Mr Darcy said. 'We can do nothing but wait now and see what happens.'
'I feared you would say that,' Caroline said. 'I just hoped there would be something we could do.'
'No, unfortunately not,' Mr Darcy said. 'I am sorry. Shall we go inside again?'
Caroline took Mr Darcy's arm and they made their way inside again.
'I think that man is wanting to speak to you,' Caroline said.
'What man?' Mr Darcy asked.
'The fat man in black coming straight towards you, waving his arms and yelling your name,' Caroline said.
'Oh. That man.'
'Exactly,' Caroline said. 'If you would excuse me, I think I need to be at the other side of the room.'
'It definitely is Eliza Bennet,' Louisa whispered in her husband's ear during dinner. 'Did you notice how Darcy will not leave her alone? He must be waiting for a signal.'
Mr Hurst only nodded in agreement and then remarked loudly about the quality of the beef.
After dinner, some of the daughters of the neighbourhood were asked to provide for some musical entertainment and readily provided it.
'I think Mary Bennet is involved as well,' Louisa said to her husband.
'What makes you think that?' her husband whispered.
'Nobody would sing in public if they were that bad unless they had to,' Louisa said. 'I think she is giving the signal. And I think I know what it is.'
'Did you pay any attention to the words?' Louisa asked.
'My dear, I was busy pretending I was deaf,' Mr Hurst said.
'Well, it was something about a maid meeting her love in a bower near a river. Thus -'
'There is a small sort of stream not far from the house,' Mr Hurst agreed.
'So there!' Louisa said. 'That is the meeting point.'
'Either you are completely mad, Louisa,' her husband said. 'Or you are right.'
'Such a shame her father made her not sing that last song,' Louisa said. 'I am sure that would have settled the matter.'
'Do you think Eliza Bennet might be somehow involved in this whole business?' Caroline asked Mr Darcy.
'Miss Bennet!' Mr Darcy exclaimed. 'What makes you think that?'
'Well, Mr Hurst and Louisa keep watching her,' Caroline said, 'as if they were waiting for some kind of signal from her. And I heard that she was rather friendly with Wickham, too -'
'No, I do not think that,' Mr Darcy said. 'She is definitely not involved in anything. If the Hursts keep observing her, it can only mean she is in some sort of danger.'
'What sort of danger?' Caroline said. 'You said yourself they were probably not armed.'
'But that was before you said they were observing her -'
'Then maybe you should better keep an eye on her, to make sure she is safe,' Caroline said tersely. 'Meanwhile, I will try to find out where Mr Hurst plans to pick up the shipment tonight.'
'Yes, let us do that,' Mr Darcy said.
He was following Elizabeth Bennet back into the ball room before Caroline could say anything else.
Louisa made her way over to her sister.
'Who was that odious man?' Louisa asked.
'Which one?' Caroline asked back.
'Oh, you know,' Louisa said. 'The fat, pompous one, who kept going on and on about Mr Darcy's aunt and his own humble profession - I take it he is some sort of clergyman?'
'Oh, that one,' Caroline said. 'He has been pestering Mr Darcy all evening, I fear. I gather Lady Catherine granted him a living some time this year.'
'Did we invite him?' Louisa said, frowning. 'Why would we do that?'
'Unfortunately, he also is a cousin of the Bennet girls,' Caroline said. 'And of course we had to invite them.'
She rolled her eyes.
'I have been meaning to have a word with you about them, by the way,' she said.
'Yes, indeed,' Caroline said. 'I do not think we can allow this to continue.'
She nudged her head in the direction of Charles and the eldest Miss Bennet, who were earnestly talking to each other in a corner of the room.
'If we allow this to take its natural course,' Caroline said, 'one or both of them is going to end up heartbroken.'
'You think so?' Louisa asked.
'Oh, yes,' Caroline said. 'It is obvious that while Jane likes Charles, she is not in love with him; he, on the other hand, is smitten now, but you know how it is with him - I do not think it will last until Christmas. No, I think we had better act now. If we allow this to continue, the mother will probably force a wedding, and I do not think either of them would benefit from such a union. They are too different in background and social standing; they could never be happy with each other once the initial attraction was gone.'
'Hmm,' Louisa said. Her views on marriage had been quite dramatically altered by her own experiences.
'Besides,' Caroline added, 'would you really want Charles to have such a mother-in-law?'
'Lord, no,' Louisa said. 'I had rather it be Georgiana Cavendish than her!'
Both sisters laughed. Caroline realised that they had not laughed so freely together for a very long time. The joke itself became unimportant compared to the momentary delight she felt at the return of her companionship with her sister.
The Bennet family were the last to leave; when their carriage was finally departing, the Eastern horizon was already pink. Charles, who needed to get up early to ride to town that day, excused himself, but Caroline, Mr Darcy and the Hursts opted to have a last round of drinks in the salon.
'I will help you with those glasses, Mr Darcy,' Caroline said, then whispered, 'well, then?'
'Well, what?' Mr Darcy hissed.
'What has happened?'
'What do we do now?'
'I have no bloody idea,' Mr Darcy hissed.
Louisa and Mr Hurst were having a similar whispered conversation on one of the sofas until Caroline stepped over to hand them their drinks.
'Scotch for you, Mr Hurst,' she said, 'and your brandy, Louisa.'
There was a knock on one of the French doors and everybody turned towards it. The door then opened and a voice said, 'I am sorry to trouble you at such a late hour - may I enter nevertheless?'
Louisa jumped, Caroline cried, 'the shipment!' and Mr Hurst cursed and dropped his glass.
The new-comer stepped out from behind the curtains and into the room.
'You!' Mr Darcy exclaimed. 'What are you doing here?'
Chapter XV - Louisa Catches A Spy
Posted on 2012-01-31
'Colonel Fitzwilliam!' Caroline exclaimed and with trembling knees sat down.
'It is you then!' Louisa cried. 'It is you, and not Mr Darcy, who is the spy!'
'I am no spy!' Mr Darcy said haughtily. 'Your husband is the spy, Mrs Hurst!'
'Colonel Fitzwilliam!' Caroline said again.
To everybody's surprise, Colonel Fitzwilliam saluted to Mr Hurst.
'I apologise, Colonel,' he said. 'I only learnt about your involvement in this affair last night - I had no idea who you were -'
'Of course not,' Mr Hurst said. 'That is the whole idea of an under-cover identity, now is it? How did you find out?'
'There is no time to explain everything,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'Suffice it to say Lord Hawkesbury contacted me when he received your letter, and he asked me to show you this.'
From his pocket, he drew a letter, unfolded it and showed it to Mr Hurst. Mr Hurst read it, paled slightly and nodded.
'That is what I feared. Good thing Hawkesbury acted so quickly - and you, too, Colonel,' he said. 'Good to have you on board.'
'Wait!' both Louisa and Caroline exclaimed. 'What is going on here?'
'No time for explanations,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'The Colonel and I must be off.'
'Wait - wait a moment,' Mr Darcy said. 'So Hurst has not been stealing my identity after all?'
'Of course not! I was trying to apprehend you,' Mr Hurst said. 'Now, Colonel, where are we going?'
'To catch the spy, of course,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'And we must make haste. I have already arranged for the carriage, if you would come with me, Colonel -'
'I demand an explanation!' Mr Darcy said.
'No time now -'
'Then I will accompany you,' Mr Darcy said. 'You can explain in the carriage. Let me just get my gun.'
'Well then -'
The three gentlemen left the room.
'So you knew then -'
'And you knew that I knew -'
'I say, Caro, did you think I was the spy -'
'Lou, you must have thought I was the spy -'
'You must forgive me, I thought you were -'
'Forgive me, I thought you were -'
'I do not know about you,' Louisa said, 'but I am not going to stay here. I am going to take my gun and then I want to see how this ends.'
'The carriage then?' Caroline said.
'The carriage,' Louisa confirmed and they both went after the men.
'No way,' Mr Hurst said.
'Under no circumstances,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said.
'None whatsoever,' Mr Darcy added.
'Louisa and I have had a little chat while you were readying the guns,' Caroline said.
'We have exchanged information,' Louisa said. 'And we have decided to accompany you. We are armed, so you need not fear for our safety.'
'We will stay in the carriage if you insist,' Caroline said. 'But we want to see how it ends.'
'We are a part of this just as much as you are,' Louisa said. 'You cannot deny us this now.'
'And remember,' Caroline said, 'my sister and I know things you had rather we did not.'
'Gentlemen, I think we are being blackmailed,' Mr Hurst said.
'We cannot -' Mr Darcy exclaimed.
'I will not -' Colonel Fitzwilliam said.
'I do not think we have a choice,' Mr Hurst said. 'And frankly speaking, they do have a point. Shall we then?'
The gentlemen climbed into the carriage in which the ladies were already sitting, Colonel Fitzwilliam gave directions to the driver and they were off.
'Where are we going?' Louisa asked.
'Some place called Oakham Mount,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'That is were the delivery is taking place - or rather, has already taken place.'
'Has already taken place?' Mr Hurst asked.
'The spy has already deposited his papers there earlier today,' Colonel Fitzwilliam explained. 'I was too late to catch him there, but I took the liberty of replacing them with some fabricated papers of my own making.'
Mr Hurst nodded in acknowledgement.
'The papers were then picked up by some agents of the French,' Colonel Fitzwilliam continued. 'As per orders of Lord Hawkesbury, we did not apprehend them, only observed. They deposited the shipment on Oakham Mount, where the spy will pick it up in about -'
He consulted his pocket watch.
'- thirty minutes, or thereabouts.'
'Why did you not apprehend the French agents?' she asked.
'Elementary, my dear,' Mr Hurst said. 'Now that we have intercepted the exchanges, we can send them false information - that is worth more than simply catching some minions.'
'I see,' Caroline said. 'So nobody was apprehended at all?'
'Oh, there was one apprehension,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said, 'but it will not appear as such.'
'Did he -?' Mr Hurst asked.
'He saw fit to remove himself from the investigations,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'It was decided that it would be treated as an accident.'
'Who?' Caroline asked. 'Was it -'
'The person whose possible involvement I mentioned to you, yes,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said.
'Oh,' Caroline said. 'And he -'
'Shot himself,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said curtly. 'A terrible accident.'
Mr Hurst said nothing, but Louisa saw him grimace.
'Who?' Darcy asked.
'Later,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'We will be there any minute.'
'Oh, this is all so very exciting, is it not?' Caroline asked.
'Horribly exciting,' Mr Darcy said. 'Would you mind not stepping on my foot?'
'I do apologise,' Caroline said. 'It is rather crowded in here, is it not?'
'Yes,' Mr Darcy said stiffly. 'Now, Fitzwilliam, would you care to explain who has stolen my identity?'
'Actually,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said, 'I think it will be more interesting for everyone if I keep this surprise to myself a little longer.'
'Colonel, I do not quite think -' Mr Hurst began.
'With all due respect, Colonel,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'I think it is better if you see this for yourself.'
The carriage stopped at the foot of Oakham Mount and Colonel Fitzwilliam made them exit. He signalled to the driver to drive on and began marching upwards. The gentlemen followed him easily; the ladies had slightly more trouble in their thin slippers.
'I should have brought something more substantial than this shawl,' Caroline whispered.
'Do not worry, if we continue at this pace, you will be warm soon enough,' Louisa answered.
'Will you be quiet!' Mr Hurst hissed.
Soon, they had reached a flatter part of the way and Colonel Fitzwilliam made him stop.
'The hollow trunk of this oak is where the shipment will be picked up,' Colonel Fitzwilliam explained. 'I suggest that you two ladies hide in that shrubbery over there, whilst we will wait behind these oaks.'
Grumbling, Caroline and Louisa made their way to the other side of the path.
'And no talking!' Mr Hurst admonished them.
They did not have to wait long. With much wheezing and panting someone soon made his way up the path and stopped in front of the hollow oak. He looked around to see whether he was alone, then stuck his arm inside the oak and pulled out a small parcel.
'While I am sure the brie in that particular parcel is excessively delicious,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said, leaning nonchalantly against the trunk of the tree behind which he had been hiding and calmly pointing his gun at the stranger, 'I would welcome it if you let go and be so kind as to raise your hands.'
He was pointing his gun straight at the stranger's back. The stranger turned around and, upon seeing the gun pointed at him, gave a little squeak and dropped the parcel.
'Ne m'abbatez pas, s'il vous plaît!' he cried. 'Je vais vous dire tous!'
'I had rather hoped you would,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said.
'You're English!' the stranger squeaked.
'Of course I am,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'And so, it would seem, are you.'
The first rays of the sun came out from behind a cloud and Caroline and Louisa could see the stranger's face.
'Mr Collins!' Caroline exclaimed.
'The fat clergyman!' Louisa said. 'Why, I would never -'
'What was that?' the stranger squeaked.
'Nothing,' Colonel Fitzwilliam groaned. 'You can come out now, ladies. I think all danger has passed.'
Caroline and Louisa stepped onto the path as Mr Hurst did the same.
'For heaven's sake, drop that gun, Louisa!' Mr Hurst said. 'You will hurt somebody!'
'Yes,' Louisa said meekly and handed the gun to Caroline, who was about to give it to Mr Hurst when she noticed something.
'It is not loaded, Louisa!' she said.
'It is not?'
'Ladies -' Mr Hurst said.
In that moment, Mr Darcy stepped out from behind his shrubbery. Mr Collins, upon seeing Mr Darcy, gave another squeak and genuflected.
'Mr Darcy,' he whimpered. 'Mr Darcy, I had no idea - Lady Catherine never - if I had known you were French -'
'What on earth is he talking about?' Mr Darcy asked, frowning.
'I have no idea,' Mr Hurst said.
'Lady Catherine -' Mr Collins panted again.
'So, it was my aunt who persuaded you to spy for the French?' Colonel Fitzwilliam asked pleasantly.
'The French? No, no, this is a mistake!' Mr Collins exclaimed. 'I am an English spy!'
He puffed out his chest as far as it was possible for a man in his circumstances.
'My dear Mr Collins,' Mr Hurst said, 'we are the English spies. You have been spying for the French, I am afraid.'
'No, no, I never - introduced by Lady Catherine herself - no question - '
'I hear you mention Lady Catherine time and again,' Mr Hurst said. 'Was it she who set you up to spy for the French?'
'Of course not!' Mr Collins squeaked. 'My noble patroness would never - that is, I was not spying for the French, I tell you. I have been spying for England.'
'Then explain, please,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said, 'how the information you gathered, Mr Collins - using my cousin Mr Darcy's name, by the way, which was rather bad style - ended up with the French.'
'But - he said they were English!' Mr Collins said. 'Their English was so good - they had no accents.'
'Indeed,' Mr Hurst said sharply. 'Who said that?'
'Why, Sir Horace, of course!' Mr Collins said with not a little pride. 'The head of the British Secret Service - an eminently important person. I was introduced to him by Lady Catherine herself - a very valiant member of the community - asked me for a little favour -'
'And that favour was, to gather information by pretending to be my cousin?' Colonel Fitzwilliam asked.
'Only - only to confuse the French!' Mr Collins said. 'It was not meant in any disrespect to you, Mr Darcy, sir -'
He bowed again in Mr Darcy's direction.
'Sir Horace said you knew all about it - I meant to tell you this night at the ball how distinguished I felt to be allowed to use your identity - such an honour -'
'And all the information you needed to pretend to be him, you gathered from Lady Catherine,' Caroline suddenly said.
She thought she understood the case now.
'Y-yes,' Mr Collins said. 'Lady Catherine takes delight in talking about her most esteemed relatives - the connection between Rosings and Pemberley -'
'You?' Mr Darcy suddenly roared and, making one step towards Mr Collins, he grabbed him by the collar and lifted him up. 'You have been stealing my identity, you hapless little miscreant - worm - odious, vile -'
'Please, cousin,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'Let him live.'
'But he stole my identity!' Mr Darcy cried. 'Disgusting, despicable -'
'Yes, yes, we know,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'He will not do so again.'
'He will not?' Caroline interjected.
'He knows that if he comes within a hundred yards of information that is not meant for him, we will know,' Mr Hurst said. 'It is my guess that we shoot rather better than him - and faster.'
'Yes, sir, yes, sir,' Mr Collins panted, still breathless from Mr Darcy's firm grip. 'Everything you ask, sir.'
'Let him go, Darcy,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said.
'Get out of my eyes,' Mr Darcy snarled, dropping Mr Collins. 'Get away from me.'
'Not one word about this to anyone, do you understand?' Mr Hurst said. 'Not a single word.'
'Yes, sir, yes, of course,' Mr Collins said. 'But - Sir Horace -'
'You do not need to trouble yourself about Sir Horace,' Mr Hurst said.
'What - what do I do now?' Mr Collins asked Colonel Fitzwilliam.
'Whatever you like,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'Get married, plant a garden, have bees - whatever you like, provided you do not spy anymore.'
'No, sir, never, sir, not ever,' Mr Collins wheezed and, bowing and curtsying, tottered back down the path.
'Well, then,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said, picking up the parcel Mr Collins had dropped. 'So much for that. Anybody care for some French wine? I believe the one in this packet is rather good.'
'That is all?' Caroline asked. 'That is it?'
'Yes, that is all,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'Do you believe I would have taken you along had I not known it would end like this?'
'You knew?' Mr Darcy asked. 'You knew it was him?'
'Only since this morning,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'I definitely did not have him on my list of possible culprits. Shall we go back? I believe there is a carriage waiting for us at the foot of the mount.'
'Yes, let us go,' Caroline said. 'I cannot believe this is it.'
'Why did we have to trudge up the hill for this?' Louisa complained. 'You could have told us at Netherfield.'
'If I recall correctly,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said, 'it was you who wanted to come along. As for me, I needed to hear his confession in person, with witnesses present, to close my case.'
'The case is closed then?' Mr Darcy asked. 'There is no one else around trying to steal my identity, trying to discredit me so he can marry my aunt and inherit her fortune?'
'None of whom we know,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'This group will continue for a little while longer perhaps, until they realise they are not getting any good information any more. Since, however, the man who insisted on setting you up is no longer involved, I believe there is no more danger for you.'
'Good,' Mr Darcy said.
'You see,' Colonel Fitzwilliam explained, 'what I could not understand all the time, was why someone would want to pretend to be my cousin in the first place. It is true, Darcy knows some people and has good connections, but there are many people who are much better connected, whose identity would be worth much more - no offense, Darcy.'
'None taken,' Mr Darcy said.
'However, if someone had a personal motive to get Darcy out of the way on top of getting their information -'
'Of course,' Mr Hurst said and inhaled sharply. 'I cannot believe I did not see that earlier.'
'Well, I suppose it made sense for Sir Horace,' Mr Darcy said, 'but for anyone else -'
'It does sound rather ridiculous,' Louisa said. 'Are you quite sure this is it?'
'I promise, it is,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'And if I recall correctly, Miss Bingley, there was something we meant to discuss, was there not?'
He offered his arm to Caroline and they began walking down the path. Mr Darcy, still cursing, followed them.
Chapter XVI - Louisa Hits The Road Again
Posted on 2012-02-07
'A wonderful morning, is it not?' Caroline said and beamed at the Colonel. 'If a bit chilly, perhaps.'
She shivered slightly.
'My dear, you should have said something,' the Colonel said and shrugged off his great-coat. With great tenderness, he helped Caroline into it and waited for her to button it before he took her arm again.
'My, I feel quite dashing,' Caroline said. 'So many capes -'
'I cannot help it,' the Colonel said. 'I am a man of fashion.'
'I am glad you are here,' she said.
'As am I, my dear, as am I,' the Colonel replied and patted her arm.
'How is London?' Caroline asked.
'Boring without you,' the Colonel said. 'It has quite lost its splendor.'
Caroline laughed again.
'And how is your sister?' she said.
'As usual,' the Colonel said. 'Nagging everybody around her - she thanks you for your letters, by the way, which she said were most illuminating.'
Caroline looked down in slight embarrassment.
'Confess it, you were worried about me, were you not?' the Colonel said.
'Well, Darcy said they had guns!' Caroline exclaimed. 'I only did not want to have to identify your corpse, you know.'
'And neither would I have liked having to identify yours,' the Colonel said.
'Such a dreadful business, corpses,' Caroline agreed.
'Indeed,' the Colonel said. 'Incidentally, speaking of dreadful businesses - I recall there was some unfinished business between us, was there not?'
'Well, Louisa,' Christian said and put an arm around his wife's shoulders. 'This is it then. Give it another twenty-four hours and you will be rid of me.'
'Really?' Louisa said, looking up at her husband and blinking in the early morning's sun.
'You sound disappointed, my dear,' Christian said.
'Well, I had gotten used to being married to you,' Louisa said. 'It will be difficult to suddenly not be married to you.'
'Now, now, come, Louisa,' he said. 'We were never truly married, now were we?'
'Yes, but -' Louisa said. 'I shall miss you all the same. And Matthew. I do not suppose I can see you again once you are gone?'
'Not for a while, I suppose,' Christian said. 'In a couple of years, probably, nobody will recall what Hurst looked like, especially if I grow a beard - there can be no harm in us seeing each other once I have returned to this country.'
'You do not plan to stay in England, then?' Louisa asked.
'No, I do not think so,' Christian said. 'We will probably go to Ireland for a while, until London has all but forgotten the hapless Mr Hurst.'
Louisa did not say anything.
'What is it, Lou?' Christian said softly.
'I do not want to say goodbye,' Louisa said. 'You are my friends, both of you.'
Christian was obviously slightly taken aback.
'Why, thank you, Louisa,' he said. 'I consider you a friend as well - a true friend even, which is much rarer.'
Louisa gave a weak smile.
'Still,' Christian continued. 'You know that today must mean goodbye. For your reputation's sake, Louisa - for the security of all of us - it would be too suspicious if just after your husband's tragic death, you were seen with someone who so closely resembles your deceased husband in all but name and behaviour. In a few years, people will have forgotten about me, but these days they know me as the idiot Hurst.'
'Of course,' Christian said. 'Fitzwilliam knows who I am now and unless I am much mistaken, that means your sister will know it as well -'
'I already told her while you were getting the guns,' Louisa said sheepishly. 'I hope you do not mind, but I had to tell her! I said nothing about Matthew of course.'
'That is quite alright then,' Christian said and laughed. 'I never wanted to estrange you from your sister, Louisa, truly.'
'I am so glad to have her back,' Louisa said.
'You two will probably have a lot to talk about,' Christian said.
'Oh, yes,' Louisa said. 'I must explain my behaviour to her and I want to know what she did the last months. And I want to tell her -'
'Tell her,' Christian said. 'Tell her everything, she has a right to know. Only -'
'Do not worry,' Louisa said. 'I will keep your secret. Always.'
'You are one in a million, Lou,' Christian said.
He kissed her hair.
'I love you, Louisa, I really do.'
Louisa said nothing, but allowed her husband to help her into the carriage. Nobody spoke during their short drive; Mr Darcy was still scowling and Caroline, who had seated herself next to Louisa, seemed somehow flustered and too embarrassed to talk, much like Colonel Fitzwilliam. In silence, they rumbled back to Netherfield, where they were informed that Charles had left for London just minutes previously.
'There are still some questions I would like you to answer,' Mr Darcy said to the two Colonels.
'Yes, please,' Caroline agreed. 'I do not think I have yet understood everything full well.'
'In due course,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'In the meantime, I have here with me what I presume is French cheese of a particular quality - it would be a shame to let it rot -'
'Shall we have breakfast?' Louisa suggested. 'We could discuss everything over a nice full table of breakfast.'
'Please,' her husband said. 'I am starving.'
'I assure you,' Christian said and laughed. 'This time it is not a part of my persona. I am really hungry.'
'Well, then,' Caroline said. 'Let me see what we can serve you, Mr Hurst, in addition to whatever cheeses we are to sample.'
'If you will excuse me for a moment,' Mr Darcy said. 'I am going to change.'
'Actually, that sounds like a good idea,' Christian said. 'I will do the same.'
A little while later, washed, brushed and in morning dress, they reassembled around the breakfast table where Caroline was pouring coffee for everyone. A footman came and brought a couple of letters for Mr Hurst and Mr Darcy as well as the London papers from the previous day. Caroline gave a signal to the footman to retreat again and Louisa noticed Caroline had already sent the other servants away.
'I am sorry, sir,' Caroline said when she handed a cup to Christian, 'I am not quite sure how I am supposed to address you. Is it Colonel, or -'
'You will find,' Christian said and took the cup, 'that I answer to Christian.'
'Oh,' Caroline said, surprised. 'Well, then, Christian. Call me Caroline.'
Colonel Fitzwilliam seated himself next to Caroline.
'May I have a cup of coffee as well?' Mr Darcy asked.
'Of course,' Caroline said. 'What about you, Colonel? Coffee?'
'Yes, thank you, Caroline,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said and took the cup she offered.
'Do you mind if I -' Christian said and gesticulated towards his letters. 'Only this looks sort of important.'
'Please, do go ahead,' Caroline said. 'Is there anything of interest in the newspapers, Mr Darcy?'
'Not really,' Mr Darcy said and frowned, turning a page. 'Oh, this is surprising - the Earl of Gloucester died -'
'The man was born in the reign of Queen Anne,' Christian said genially. 'No offense to the old gentleman, I quite liked him, but the only surprise to me is that he was still alive.'
He folded up his letter and put it in his pocket.
'Yes, but still,' Mr Darcy said. 'I met him at Lady Grace's just a couple of weeks ago. Such a personage - oh, well.'
'I suppose there is nothing in there about Sir Horace?' Colonel Fitzwilliam asked.
'There would not be in either case,' Mr Darcy said. 'It is yesterday's paper.'
'Of course,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'Not that I think that much more than his obituary will make it.'
'Well, he was in a rather elevated position,' Christian added. 'His death, accidental though it will appear, is going to cause some interest.'
'Why did he do it though?' Louisa asked. 'That is what I do not understand.'
'Saw no way out, I suppose,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said, 'and had no intention to be beheaded on Tower Hill.'
'Fitzwilliam,' Mr Darcy said pointedly. 'There are ladies present.'
Caroline rolled her eyes.
'Do they still behead traitors on Tower Hill, Colonel?' she asked eagerly.
'The last one was Lord Lovat, I suppose,' Christian said. 'And that was quite some time ago. But I suppose Louisa meant rather, why did Sir Horace decide to become a traitor in the first place?'
'Yes, indeed,' Louisa said.
'The reason is as old as mankind,' Christian said. 'Or very nearly so: money.'
'Lived above his circumstances for years,' Colonel Fitzwilliam explained. 'Always liked to ingratiate himself with those who he thought counted and imitated them. He had to get into difficulties at one point.'
'I suppose he had been approached by foreign agents quite some time ago,' Christian said. 'They seem to have offered rather a lot of money, but at first, he refused.'
'Why?' Louisa asked. 'If he was in financial trouble, surely that must have seemed like the perfect solution?'
'Well, he claimed it was because his conscience forbade him to do so,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'But in view of the fact that his conscience was perfectly agreeable with the situation when more money was offered, I suppose it was rather that the incentive had not been high enough.'
'Or, that he had not yet found a way to see the whole thing through without incriminating himself,' Christian added.
'In either case, when he first refused them, he also had plans to marry our aunt,' Colonel Fitzwilliam explained. 'Lady Catherine de Bourgh. It just so happened that his estate in Kent was bordering hers and he had an idea of uniting the two.'
'But Anne -' Mr Darcy interjected. 'He must have known that Anne was to inherit - that Lady Catherine could not will it to him -'
'Oh, he knew that,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'But for some reason, as people usually do, he underestimated Anne. He knew that she is sickly and rather withdrawn and - or so he said - came to the conclusion that she would not be a danger to his plans. Unless -'
'Unless Anne married Darcy here,' Christian said bluntly. 'And Lady Catherine was not exactly shy about announcing that.'
'Yes, but Anne and I -' Mr Darcy began, but he was cut short.
'Why Lady Catherine?' Caroline asked. 'Could he not simply have courted Anne?'
'I have no idea,' Colonel Fitzwilliam answered. 'It may be as simple as that he genuinely loved my aunt. Love will occur in the oddest places, you know, my dear.'
'For whatever reason it was,' Colonel Fitzwilliam continued. 'He was determined to marry our aunt and somehow saw his success as depending on getting Darcy out of the way. Not particularly successful, I should add.'
Mr Darcy scowled. 'What did he do?' he asked.
'From what he told us,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said, 'he tried to discredit you through rumours which he hoped would one day reach Lady Catherine's ears.'
'He spread rumours about me?' Mr Darcy asked.
'He tried to,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said, 'but as I said, he was not very successful and he gave up soon again and continued to bide his time until he could come up with a better plan, all the while incurring more and more debts, I should add.'
'How did he change his mind about the French agents' offer?' Louisa asked.
'Ah,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'Fate was kind to him that day. Just when Sir Horace thought all was lost, fate sent him Mr Collins and Sir Horace saw his chance. He realised early on that Mr Collins would be ideal to do his dirty business. He was perfectly obsequious and completely in awe with Sir Horace's title. It helped, of course, that Sir Horace was introduced to him by our aunt, whom Mr Collins seems to hold in complete reverence.'
'I always thought clergymen were forbidden to make idols,' Christian murmured.
Louisa hushed him.
'And then,' Colonel Fitzwilliam continued, 'in a stroke of genius, Sir Horace realised that he could get rid of both his problems at once if only he somehow managed to blame his actions on my cousin and he decided to put you on the case, Colonel.'
'I had been wondering about that,' Christian said. 'He seemed determined very early on that the culprit could be none other than Darcy, even when the evidence was still very circumstantial. Of course he would be.'
'Indeed,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'As he saw it, once this business was over, he himself would be rich again and my cousin either disgraced and executed or exiled to the continent, freeing Sir Horace's way with Lady Catherine and her estate.'
'Why did Collins do it?' Mr Darcy asked.
'I can only guess,' Colonel Fitzwilliam answered. 'Partly the thrill of it all, I suppose. Then, of course, he received smuggled goods as tokens of gratitude - and I have to say the brie is excellent - which for a glutton like him is no small thing. Mainly, I think, it was because he liked the idea of being of service to one whom he perceived as one of the most distinguished persons in the realm. He had high hopes, I suppose, of being recommended for his deeds and maybe even offered more glamorous positions.'
'And why did he follow me here?' Mr Darcy asked. 'How?'
'Again, Sir Horace was lucky,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'When he found out that you had decided to follow Bingley to Hertfordshire, he was afraid he would have to give up his plan. But then, he found out that, most coincidentally, you had decided to remove to the very part of Hertfordshire where his lackey Collins had family - even better, where Collins had hopes to inherit some estate or other. He mentioned the matter of the inheritance to Lady Catherine one day and she, always eager to advise people, urged Mr Collins to visit his family as soon as possible.'
'How did Sir Horace want to end it?' Mr Darcy asked. 'Surely he could not let it go on forever.'
'Oh, he had plans for that as well,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'He hoped that you would be cornered by the Colonel here, who, as a gentleman, would then offer you the honourable way out. He was sure that you would do it, for Georgiana's sake, in order to avoid a scandal.'
'Most ironically then,' Christian said, 'that in the end, it was him -'
'Yes, indeed,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said.
'Was it - did he really -' Caroline whispered.
'I do not want to talk about it,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said. 'It was not pleasant. When Lord Hawkesbury and I confronted him - well, he took to begging rather like Mr Collins - then locked himself in his library -'
Under the table, Caroline reached for his hand and pressed it.
'I am riding into town today,' Mr Darcy announced suddenly, 'and then on to the North. I shall return with Georgiana and my aunt for Christmas. Do you care to join me, Fitzwilliam?'
'Much as I would like to see the mater and Georgiana,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said, 'I am afraid that I do not have the time. I shall accompany you, however, as far as London, for I need to be there by tomorrow.'
Louisa could see that Caroline seemed disappointed.
'Perhaps you should go with them, Caroline,' she said. 'Did you not say you longed to see your friends in town?'
'That is true,' Caroline said, 'and there is nothing, really, that keeps me here. But what about you, Louisa, and - Christian?'
Louisa looked at her husband.
'I think we will come with you,' Christian said. 'Unless you would rather stay here, Louisa?'
'No, let us go back,' Louisa said. 'I think we all wish to see our friends in town again.'
'Do you need to take leave of anybody?' Colonel Fitzwilliam asked.
'No, I do not think so,' Louisa said.
'We should perhaps write a letter to Jane Bennet,' Caroline amended. 'She is a very nice girl and I would not want her to feel obliged to wait for Charles' return.'
'No,' Louisa agreed. 'I suppose it would be best for both of them if we ended it now. We should have a word with Charles when we are in town.'
'That seems a bit cruel,' Colonel Fitzwilliam said, 'to just separate them like that.'
'Trust me, it is for the best,' Caroline said. 'If we allowed this to continue, they would only be heartbroken ultimately. Their backgrounds are too different.'
'Yes, but -'
'And besides,' Mr Darcy said, 'I have observed Miss Bennet and I could not detect any sign of affection within her. Her friends would be delighted, of course, were he to offer for her and will be distraught at the loss of him, but I do not think she would suffer very much.'
'Well, if you think so -'
'She will probably be relieved, rather,' Louisa added, 'not to have been obliged to enter into a loveless match.'
'Some people seem to do well with marriages of convenience,' Christian said. 'Would you not agree, dearest wife?'
'Yes, but I do not think Jane Bingley is that type,' Louisa said.
'No, not at all,' Caroline said. 'I do not think she could ever be truly happy with a husband she did not love - she would adjust to it as best as she could, but she would never be happy.'
'So you see,' Louisa said, 'it may sound cruel, but in the end, it will be better for both of them.'
'Charles will forget her soon enough,' Caroline said. 'He always does, with all the girls.'
Louisa only had the chance to speak to her husband when they were back in their room later and seeing to the packing of their belongings. Louisa sent her maid away to search for a pair of slippers and she and Christian were alone in the room.
'Why did you say we would go to town?' she asked him. 'I thought you meant to arrange for your, eh, demise here.'
'I did,' Christian said. 'And I still could, if you wished.'
'I would much prefer, however, to remain Mr Hurst for a little while longer if you do not mind,' Christian added.
'I thought you hated Mr Hurst,' Louisa said.
'I do,' Christian said. 'Passionately, as a matter of fact.'
'Then why -'
Christian took a letter out of his pocket.
'This is the letter I received over breakfast,' he said.
'What is it?' Louisa asked.
'Apparently,' Christian said, 'there is a baronet in Somerset whose finances are very irregular.'
'Well, you know the drill,' Christian said. 'I find their weak point, then I sniff them out. Luckily, Sir Walter would do a great deal for a noble son, and it just so happens we will be travelling with our good friend, the Hon. Mr Aldridge - if you agree to come with me, that is.'
'What do you need me for if Matthew is the bait?' Louisa enquired.
'You would be responsible for the daughters,' Christian said, 'he has three or four of them, that should keep you busy. And besides -'
'Well, apparently Sir Walter loves good-looking men,' Christian said. 'I need you to protect my honour.'
'Dear me,' Louisa said and frowned. 'Please try to behave yourself. I do not want to have to call him out.'
Christian laughed and kissed her on the cheek.
'We need to pack,' Louisa said.
'We already are packing, Lou,' Christian pointed out.
'Have you written to Matthew yet to let him know when we will meet him?' Louisa asked.
'There is no need to,' Christian said. 'We will be in London shortly.'
'If you say so,' Louisa said. 'I only thought it would be best not to delay. Have you seen my gun?'
'Have I told you recently how much I love you?' Christian said. 'Honestly, I do. You are the best wife I will ever have.'The End