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Death at the Netherfield Ball, Chapter 13

May 21, 2022 04:50AM
Author's Note (DNA): Apparently I forgot how the days of the week went and posted last chapter after work on Monday, rather than Tuesday, and add to that it was the big cliffie. Sorry! To make up for it, here's the next, half a day early.

Chapter 13

When Elizabeth burst into her father's study without warning, her breath coming in labored gasps, Mr. Bennet looked up with a startled expression on his face. When she couldn't say anything for lack of air, merely leaning her hands on her knees, fighting for every breath, he smirked and set down his book. "What, has your mother found you a new suitor? Come, you needn't be quite so distraught. He cannot possibly be worse than Mr. Collins."

"Mr. Darcy!" Elizabeth managed.

Mr. Bennet sat back, genuinely surprised. "I do believe I have been proven incorrect. I didn't think Mrs. Bennet had any kind sentiments toward the man at all, but I daresay money and status can overcome quite a lot in the eyes of a marriage-minded mama. Perhaps her latest successes have gone to her head."

Elizabeth shook her head, trying to calm her breathing, and only succeeded in choking and beginning to cough. Running the entire way to the house in the chill of the winter air had stripped her throat, and she struggled to breathe through it. "Mr. Wickham," she wheezed at last.

"Mr. Wickham!" Mr. Bennet echoed, his humor assured. "Well, which is it? They are quite opposite in terms of eligibility, I daresay. If it is Mr. Wickham, though, I shall have to have another word with your mother. She obviously did not take the warning I had given her as to that young man's worthlessness."

"No, papa," she said, finally gaining the chair before his desk and leaning on it heavily. "They've arrested him!"

"Who?" Mr. Bennet asked sharply, his interest now caught. He pulled a glass from his drawer and unstoppered a decanter.

"Colonel Forster, he--" again, she coughed.

He paused in the act of pouring a finger of brandy, his eyebrows nearly shooting past what hairline he had left. "The colonel? Of what did they accuse him?"

"No, papa!" she gasped. "The colonel arrested Mr. Darcy! For killing Mr. Wickham!"

Mr. Bennet's mouth rounded into a perfect "o", and he blinked a few times before shaking his head slowly and muttering, more to himself than to anyone, "I did not anticipate that." After a moment, though, he shook off his surprise and slid the small glass to Elizabeth, who sank onto the seat and took a small sip of the liquid gratefully. Her father watched her until she nodded, and he leaned back in his chair again, lifting his hands up in a gesture of defeat. "Well, if the deed is done, it is done. I should have advised the young man against it, but I dare say it is, indeed, one way to deal with such a problem. I suppose I should congratulate him, in fact. But it is out of my hands now. If they need me to transport him to the Assizes, I shall arrange it, but if the militia has taken charge of the matter, I daresay it has its own way of settling these matters."

"Papa!" Elizabeth cried, leaning forward. "Listen to me! He didn't do it -- I simply cannot believe he did it. His horse would not have stood there, untethered, where it was when the gun was fired. Mr. Wickham's horse certainly didn't, and Mr. Darcy's horse was far too calm to have just had a gun fired so near him. He had to have come afterwards, after the shot. It doesn't matter he had the gun -- that could have been left there; he could have picked it up afterward. And why a pistol when he had his own rifle? There had to have been someone else there, and we just didn't see him! I thought about it all the way home!"

A sad, sympathetic look came into Mr. Bennet's expression as Elizabeth spoke. He stood up slowly and made his way around the desk to draw a chair beside her, reaching out to take her hands. "Lizzy, my Lizzy. Colonel Forster may not be the most intelligent man I know, but he is also not the kind of man who would arrest someone without just cause. I can take a look into it, but I cannot promise anything."

"Colonel Fitzwilliam is counting on you," she said, the stress of the past hour and her inability to make her father see reason bringing tears to her eyes. "He sent me to fetch you. He said you were the only one who would be able to figure this all out."

Mr. Bennet's smile held a touch of pride, but it was more melancholy than not. "I cannot work miracles, child. If Mr. Darcy shot Mr. Wickham, there is not much I am able to do. He had reason for it ten times over, and you saw the temper the man has. I can hardly argue against a man with a grudge standing over a dead body with a smoking gun in his hands."

"But you have done it before!" she said, gripping his hands. "You told me, yourself, of the man in your past who was sent to death, the one who was innocent. Mr. Darcy was only there because Mr. Wickham had sent him a note, had asked to meet him there. He cannot have been there to kill him. It wouldn't be like him. He is not violent. I know he is innocent! You know he is, Papa! Even you have been mistaken before."

His expression grew slightly rigid. "Elizabeth--"

"And besides, he wasn't standing over the body with the gun. He was standing by the river. It was just him and his horse I saw. Colonel Forster thinks Mr. Wickham was washed downstream and he has his men searching for him, but all he has found is the torn sleeve and his hat--"

Mr. Bennet stood suddenly, his eyes wild. "What did you say?" he said, taking her by the shoulders.

Elizabeth startled. "I said it was just Mr. Darcy and his horse in the clearing. Colonel Forster thinks the body might have been washed away, and he has his men searching--"

But her father had already released her and dashed behind his desk, pulling out drawer after drawer and throwing rolled papers on the already cluttered surface. "Hill!" he boomed in a voice louder and more commanding than she had ever heard him employ.

The wiry frame of the butler appeared almost immediately in the open doorway of her father's study, and a portion of Elizabeth's brain wondered how long the man had been standing there, waiting to be summoned. "Yes, sir?"

"Send a boy after Murray. Tell him to Hue and Cry. Gather the men and provisions, send for horses, and meet me in the stableyard. Tell Murray: 'I do not know what forewarned him, but he's on the run.' Go!"

The old retainer disappeared faster than Elizabeth could ever remember seeing the man move, and a moment later Mr. Fletcher's curious face popped around the door frame. "Mr. Bennet?" he asked. "What has happened?"

But her father didn't answer. He was unrolling his brand new ordnance maps and examining them. "Lizzy. Here. Show me where this took place."

She came forward quickly, spurred by his urgent tone. "There," she said, pointing to the bend in the river, just east of the crossroads. "It had to have been there; I saw the steeple of St. Mark's to the west, just over the trees."

He nodded, still studying the maps, and then suddenly rolled them up haphazardly and thrust them into a stachel he had pulled from a bottom drawer.

Mr. Fletcher came further into the room. "Mr. Bennet...what has happened?"

Mr. Bennet looked up now at the coroner and stared at him for a few seconds, then nodded sharply and thrust the satchel into the startled man's arms. "Get your warmest cloak and your horse and meet me at the stables," he said, grabbing a pistol from his desk and examining it briefly before shoving it in his pocket. He looked up at Mr. Fletcher, his face as serious as Elizabeth had ever seen it. "I raise the posse comitatus. We must hunt down a murderer."

The coroner stared at him for a moment, mouth agape, then turned on his heel and rushed out into the hall, calling for the housekeeper. Mr. Bennet, meanwhile, had grabbed a sheet of paper from his desk and his quill, then cursed when the nib immediately broke. He thrust it away and began digging in his desk for another, but Elizabeth calmly reached over and grabbed the spare quill from its holder and handed it to her father. "Papa, what is it? Who is it?"

He stopped writing immediately and regarded her with wide eyes, head cocked to the side like a curious bird. "Do you mean you haven't figured it out yet, Lizzy?" A smile curved his lips, and he shook his head, clucking. "Tsk, tsk, my dear. Well, you shall have time to puzzle it out, I'm sure." He dashed off the rest of his note, blotted it and then took it with him to the front door, where a maid was already waiting with Mr. Bennet's outer things. He handed her the note and told her to give it to Hill to be sent immediately, then turned back to Elizabeth, who had followed him into the hall, as he shrugged into his greatcoat. "Tell your mother we shan't likely be home before dark. Hill will know to have everything ready for us, so if we are not back by morning, not to worry. We have a lot of ground to cover, and he has had quite a head start."

"But who, papa?"

He chuckled and patted her cheek. "It will come to you soon enough," he said, and with no more than that he was out the door.

Elizabeth remained where she was, her mind whirling. Mr. Fletcher, dressed in his outerwear, bustled out of the parlor and nearly ran into her, apologizing offhandedly as he hurried out in Mr. Bennet's wake. Through the open door of her mother's favorite salon she could hear Mrs. Bennet calling for Mrs. Hill and bemoaning everyone's lack of compassion for her nerves. A maid rushed past carrying a bottle of vinaigrette; the housekeeper hurried to her mistress. But Elizabeth was still there, still staring at the front door in the same pose as before, when it opened again to reveal Mr. Bingley and her sister, who leaned heavily on his arm.

Shaking off her confusion, Elizabeth hurried forward and helped Jane into the nearest empty parlor and onto a settee by the fireplace. Mr. Bingley turned his back and set to work prodding the banked fire into more warmth as Elizabeth aided Jane in removing her boot. "I am so sorry, Jane!" Elizabeth cried as she examined her sister's swollen ankle. "This is far worse than I imagined when I saw you sitting on that log. I should have stopped to help you, but the colonel had sent me to find Father, and you said you were well, and Bingley--"

Jane stopped her with a gentle hand. "No, Lizzy, you did what you needed to do, and I had Charles with me. He was well able to assist me home." She blushed a deep red at Elizabeth's considering look and confessed, "He carried me nearly all the way here. It was only when we neared the house, and saw the commotion, that he allowed me to walk on his arm, for propriety's sake."

"But what has happened?" Bingley asked now, having added fuel and brought the embers in the fireplace to a blaze. "When you stopped, you said only that Mr. Wickham was killed, and that the colonel had called for your father. We heard the shouting and the gunshot, but I'm afraid I do not understand why Mr. Bennet should need so many men to examine the scene, if the colonel is already there. There were nearly a dozen men or more out there in the yard, and half of them on horseback. If I hadn't had Jane to bring into the house, I should have stayed to listen to your father direct them, but your sister was near frozen through from the cold. That blasted horse, coming through and knocking her down. I should have protected her."

Elizabeth shook her head, sitting back on her heels, and then accepted Mr. Bingley's assistance to rise from her position kneeling in front of the settee. "There was nothing you could have done better, Mr. Bingley," she said, helping her sister to arrange her swollen foot on a pillow and cover herself with a blanket. "And as to the furor in the yard, I confess I do not know. What little I can tell you is that Mr. Wickham has been killed and presumably thrown into the river, and your friend Mr. Darcy has been accused of the crime." She nodded at their cries of dismay and denial and said, "My father does not believe it was Mr. Darcy, either, and said something about tracking down the real murderer. He said he is on the run."

"But has Darcy been arrested?" Mr. Bingley asked, and at her nod added, "Where is he?"

"I can only presume he has been given over to the constable in Meryton, but I do not know for sure. Colonel Forster led him away, but I had to leave to fetch my father, so I heard nothing more. Colonel Fitzwilliam might know where he has gone."

"But why did Colonel Fitzwilliam do nothing to stop him from being arrested?"

Elizabeth shook her head. "I think he was helpless to prevent it. The evidence was very strong against Mr. Darcy -- he was there at the riverbank, with the gun and a piece of Mr. Wickham's coat in his hands, and blood at his feet. And they found Mr. Wickham's hat downriver, so it is thought the body must be, too."

Mr. Bingley looked grave. "I cannot believe he would do such a thing. Darcy would never be so violent, so reckless, so foolish--" He broke off and gazed into the fire for a moment, then turned and knelt at his betrothed's side. "Jane, I must go to him. I do not know if I can do anything to have him released, but I can see to his comfort and that they are treating him well."

"Only be sure to avoid the men in the yard," Elizabeth said, "or you should be compelled to join them. I shan't tell you what my father has called for, but from what I remember him telling me once, I believe by law every able-bodied man would be obliged to be a part of it."

"I thank you for the warning," Mr. Bingley said with a spark of mischief in his eye. "And I applaud your circumspection. I shall make directly for Meryton, and only once I have seen to Darcy, shall I allow myself to be informed of the call." He turned back to the couch. "You will forgive me for leaving you? I hate to leave you in this state."

Jane offered her hands to him and said, "Of course you must go. I shall be perfectly well here now."

Mr. Bingley brought both of her hands to his lips and Elizabeth rose and went to the other side of the room on the pretext of finding a few more cushions for her sister's comfort. By the time she had collected them, having carefully examined them all to determine which should offer the most proper support, Mr. Bingley had risen and was bowing hastily before leaving the room. A blushing Jane busied herself with the blanket on her lap in order to avoid her sister's knowing smirk.

"So he carried you all the way home, did he?"

Jane launched a pillow at her sister, who then threatened to not replace it until she confessed how it felt to be kissed by the man you loved, and the two fell into giggles and laughter that lasted until the moment Mrs. Bennet bustled into the room.

"Well! There you are!" she cried, stopping just inside the door. "I vow, none of you have any compassion on my nerves. Off your father has gone on some lark, and taken Mary's suitor with him, and now I see Mr. Bingley has abandoned us as well, and the two of you can do nothing but joke and laugh as if there is not a care in the world! You will be jilted, and I shall not be able to hold up my head, and when your father dies we shall all be thrown into the hedgerows. And no one -- no one will tell me what has happened. Oh! How ill I am used by everyone."

Elizabeth rolled her eyes discreetly at her older sister and led her mother to another chair by the fire, where she sat her and explained that all the men had gone out in search of a criminal, and that Mr. Bingley had gone to search out his friend, who had been arrested for murder.

"I am not surprised," Mrs. Bennet said with a huff when she had heard that. "I always knew that man was the most disagreeable, unlikeable--"

"Mama! Mr. Darcy is not a murderer," Elizabeth said with a surprised laugh.

"I don't see that. I don't see why he couldn't be. You must remember what he said about you at the assembly when we first met him, and how he had snubbed everyone in the room as if we were all dirt under his feet. No matter that he is Mr. Bingley's good friend -- I just knew he would turn out to be a scoundrel. And so I said, right from the beginning."

Elizabeth could not think of a thing to say to that, so she was relieved when Kitty and Mary then entered the room, followed by Lydia. They had come in search of their mother, who had left the parlor without any explanation, and to discover what the commotion had all been.

With a sigh, Elizabeth began to describe everything that had happened that morning, from her walk with Jane and Mr. Bingley to the shouts and gunshot and what she had found in the clearing, concluding with her conversation with Mr. Bennet and his quest to hunt down the murderer. This final news set Mrs. Bennet on a fresh wave of hysteria, exclaiming that Mr. Bennet would be killed and they would all be lost, for with her husband dead the madman would surely come to murder the helpless women left unprotected in the house.

A moment later Mrs. Hill came hurrying into the room again at her mistress' cries, the expression on her face clearly displaying the frustration she felt at this new distraction from her duties. It was simple persuasion for Elizabeth to pull her aside for a moment and whisper a suggestion for a drop of laudenum to calm her mother, and Mrs. Bennet was led upstairs to take a rest.

The Bennet girls sat in silence as their mother's complaints faded and then muffled entirely as the door to her rooms upstairs closed behind her, each looking at the other with varying degrees of bemusement and shock. At last, it was Kitty who broke the silence with a brief, "Well! Mr. Darcy, a murderer! Who would have thought?"

Elizabeth passed a hand over her eyes as Mary dryly recounted everything their older sister had said earlier, concluding that she thought it was quite obvious that Mr. Darcy was not the murderer, and instead Mr. Wickham had been murdered by the same man who had done away with Mr. Denny and Mr. Collins. "For surely such evil cannot exist in so many men that there should be two or even three murderers here."

"Then how is it Papa has to take so many people to the Assizes every quarter?" Kitty countered.

Mary was scornful. "I did not say that there was not so much evil in the world, simply that it was unlikely there should be more than one person here, now, who would be so depraved."

The two continued to argue, but Elizabeth was thinking furiously about this and commented to Jane, "I do think it likely that it is the same man who murdered Mr. Denny and Mr. Collins, and now Mr. Wickham, too. Mr. Darcy said something about getting a note from Mr. Wickham, that he was frightened -- I wonder if he knew who the murderer was, and was killed before he could reveal his knowledge."

"He must have seen it happen," Lydia said, startling Elizabeth, who hadn't heard her youngest sister speak in more than a week.

Elizabeth shook her head, once she understood the meaning of Lydia's words. "If he saw Mr. Collins be killed, there is no reason why he should not have told my father. What was he afraid of?"

"No, not Mr. Collins. I mean Mr. Denny. He must have seen who killed Mr. Denny. He's coming after all of us, to kill us, too. I just know it."

Her eyes wide, Jane put her hand on Lydia's and said softly, "Mr. Wickham was in London during the ball at Netherfield, Lyddie. He could not have seen who murdered Mr. Denny."

"Oh! But he wasn't in London," Lydia insisted. "I saw him."

Jane gasped softly, and for a moment Elizabeth couldn't speak; her heart began to thud painfully in her chest. "Lydia, what are you saying? Where did you see Mr. Wickham?"

Lydia's eyes darted between her eldest sisters, and she seemed to shrink back into herself, but Elizabeth took her by the shoulders and repeated in a gentle voice, "Are you saying you saw Mr. Wickham at the Netherfield ball, even though he was supposed to have been in London?"

The younger girl nodded, and then everything gushed out: "While I was dancing with Mr. Saunderson, I saw Mr. Collins coming in from outside, and so I wondered why he'd been out on the terrace, and after we were done I went across the ballroom and looked out and saw Mr. Wickham at the bottom of the stairs. But no one else noticed him, and I thought maybe he had come to surprise us, so I thought I'd slip out the doors and sneak up on him and give him a surprise, instead, but when I got to the end of the terrace he wasn't there anymore, and then I went down the stairs, and I tripped, and there was Mr. Denny, and….and--"

Heedless of her ankle, Jane moved to envelop her youngest sister in an embrace as she broke into huge gulping sobs, crying out how she feared being killed, too, even though she hadn't seen anything except Mr. Denny. Hearing the noise, Mary and Kitty broke off their argument and rushed over to comfort Lydia, surrounding her in their embrace. They spoke soothing, nonsensical things, trying to calm her without understanding a word she was gasping out about the horror she had seen.

But Elizabeth sat frozen through it all, her mind whirling as the meaning of what she had heard sank in. The whole of the case suddenly laid itself before her with startling clarity: the murder at the ball, why Mr. Collins had died, all of the motives and motivations and how he had done it, and the events of that very day. Oh, she didn't know everything; there were still things she could only guess at, theorize, but the rest of it was so simple, and she wondered how she hadn't seen it before. But now she did.

She knew who her father sought, and why.

Death at the Netherfield Ball, Chapter 13

KathyMay 21, 2022 04:50AM

Re: Death at the Netherfield Ball, Chapter 13

NanMay 22, 2022 01:21AM

Re: Death at the Netherfield Ball, Chapter 13

Shannon KMay 21, 2022 10:56PM

Re: Death at the Netherfield Ball, Chapter 13

EvelynJeanMay 21, 2022 11:17PM

Re: Death at the Netherfield Ball, Chapter 13

LisaYMay 21, 2022 06:51PM

Re: Death at the Netherfield Ball, Chapter 13

KateRMay 21, 2022 02:40PM

Re: Death at the Netherfield Ball, Chapter 13

KateRMay 22, 2022 04:35AM

Re: Death at the Netherfield Ball, Chapter 13

laurie lMay 21, 2022 11:23AM

Re: Death at the Netherfield Ball, Chapter 13

MichaMay 21, 2022 08:21AM


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