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Action Lizzy and the Four Thieves Chapters 13-17

March 03, 2023 10:58AM
Chapter 13

Jane, who was up early, was the first to see the express rider arrive. She met the express rider, and rushed up to her mother’s room. Mary, who had woken from the commotion, met them in Mrs Bennet’s room.

Mrs Bennet, still groggy, indicated to Jane to read it out. Jane quickly opened it. “It is from Mr Darcy to you, Mama! It says:

Dear Mrs Bennet

Do not be alarmed by this, I've been instructed to send this by your brother, Mr Gardiner. My cousin, Lady Victoria Broderick, had also been attacked by the same highwaymen who attacked your family. As such, I was requested by my cousin to assist him in his search for these criminals and to bring them to justice. In our travel to Matlock, we were informed of the search in the area for your daughter and we, of course, leant our assistance to the search.

Please rest easy, madam, Miss Elizabeth was found alive, though injured, around midday. She has been treated by the doctor for a leg wound, a minor head injury and a broken arm. The doctor expects it will take her six to eight weeks to recover fully, and between two to three before she can safely travel home.

“Oh, thank goodness, Lizzy is alive!” exclaimed Mrs Bennet. Jane and Mary hugged each other in relief. The worry of the last day in not knowing what had happened to Lizzy was over.

In Lutterworth. Mr Bennet and Kitty broke their fast, packed their bags and went to leave the inn. As Mr Bennet paid the inn-keepers wife, he asked “Do you know if anything more has occurred to the North. Do you know if the roads are clear?”

The inn-keepers wife, a round, red faced, middle aged woman with greying hair was more than happy to start gossiping with the latest juicy story she had heard only that morning. “There are brigands on the road up North, leading to Matlock. Three carriages have been attacked in the last three weeks, with the last one only two days ago. But that is a remarkable story.” She leaned over the counter. “I heard a couple and their niece were travelling whens they get attacked and their driver killed. So the horses take off and the carriage rolls. But the niece, with a broken leg and bleeding all over the place, goes and runs off into the forest with twenty of these brigands chasing her down. But she outruns them and their shooting at her. I think she got hit, but still she keeps running till she's good and proper lost. So she walks twenty miles, sleeps out there over night, and close to death, her lover, whom she'd agreed to meet secretly to marry up North, sick with love he is, searches the forest alone for her, stumbles upon her near death and carries her out five miles all the way into town.”

Mr Bennet nodded. “Her lover, you say. Do you know who it is?”

“Oh, he's a fine man, very rich. I can't quite recall the name. Mr Derny, or was it Denny?”

“Darcy?” suggested Kitty.

“Yes that was it, Mr Darcy.”

“Well that is quite the story. I hope the young lady survives for her wedding, else I imagine this poor man will spend his days grieving by her grave.”

“To be sure. Safe travels to you both.”

“Good day to you,” said Mr Bennet, and taking Kitty by the arm, they walked with composure to their chaise. After climbing in and closing the door, Mr Bennet and Kitty could no longer keep in their mirth. They both started laughing. Mr Bennet was the first to draw a breath. “Walked twenty miles on a broken leg! I know our Lizzy is a good walker but even she could not walk on a broken leg!”

“And what about the secret lover!”

“And Mr Darcy, no less, who never looked at her but to find fault! I think this story will get better with each retelling. Mark my words, by the end of the week, she will have hopped all the way to Scotland, whilst being chased by a hundred brigands on horse, on one leg!”

They continued to laugh all the way out of town. “But this is the best news possible,” said Mr Bennet. “I imagine less than half the rumour is true, however it does mean she's been found and she's alive. Our Lizzy is alive.” Mr Bennet leaned back against the seat and let out a great sigh of relief.

“She’s alive,” he whispered to himself.

Chapter 14

A bang, then blood. Lizzy woke with a start from the nightmare the next day without a headache. “Good morning, Miss, how are you feeling today?” asked the maid who had just brought in some breakfast. “Do you feel up to getting changed today?”

The maid helped her use the chamber pot and change. Lizzy had learnt from the previous night's mistakes, and was glad for the maid’s help as she felt her vision swim as she rose. As she finished her breakfast, Dr Brown entered. ”How is the patient this morning?”

“My head is less sore, but my body aches more than yesterday.”

The doctor went to inspect her leg wound. “That is to be expected. Today will probably be the worst day for pain. Also, don't think that you are done with your headache; it will return as the day progresses. Have you tried standing?”

“Yes, the maid helped me and my head felt very light, as though I could faint.”

The doctor nodded. “The wound looks like it's healing well with no sign of infection.” To the maid, he said “be sure to apply the salve to the wound.” The maid nodded her head in response.

“Doctor, can I go and see my uncle?”

“Certainly not! You are in no shape to walk there.”

“What if Mr Darcy were to help support me? I did walk ten miles in the last couple of days, I'm sure I can manage ten steps with assistance.”

The doctor indicated to the maid. “Please fetch Mr Darcy.”

The maid disappeared and the doctor looked at Lizzy. “If Mr Darcy and I both said no, you would still try after we left?”

“You understand me, doctor.”

“Stubborn mule,” said the doctor under his breath.

Mr Darcy soon returned with the maid. “Miss Bennet believes you will help support her to see her uncle.”

Mr Darcy bowed his head. “Of course, it would be my pleasure. If I don't, she will find some other way there.”

“Hmm,” said the doctor. “Well, if Mr Darcy is willing to support you, and carry you if need be, then you can go see your uncle. But at the first sign of weakness, light-head, fainting or headache you are to return to your room to rest."

Lizzy and Darcy nodded obediently. Darcy wrapped an arm around her and under her arm, helping her to stand. “How does that feel, Miss Elizabeth?” he asked.

Lizzy nodded and took a deep breath. “It is strange. Give me a moment.”

They stood and then Lizzy indicated for them to move ahead. Slowly, they made their way to her uncle’s room. “Is it painful to walk?”

Lizzy shook her head. “Overall my body aches everywhere, but my leg doesn't hurt any more or less than anywhere else. I imagine if the wound was on the ankle or knee it would hurt to walk, but as it’s on my thigh, as long as nothing brushes up against it or touches it, I can almost forget it is there.”

They entered Mr Gardiner’s room. He looked up and smiled at seeing his niece. “Lizzy, you look terrible.”

“I could say the same for you, Uncle.”

Mr Darcy helped her to a chair next to the bed. “I've been directed to take her back to her room and to carry her off, if need be, the moment she starts looking unwell. Mr Gardiner, be sure to instruct the maid to fetch me the moment she starts to develop a headache, become fatigued or faint.”

Mr Gardiner acknowledged the instruction and Mr Darcy left the room with a final glance at Lizzy. She herself followed him with her eyes as he left.

“How are you feeling?” asked Lizzy, taking her Uncle’s hand.

“Every breath hurts,” replied her uncle with a raspy voice. “My ribs and wrist broke in the crash. I must have landed on my hand. How bad are your wounds?”

The two talked about everything they could remember about the crash and all that has occurred in between. Lizzy told him the full story of her adventures.

“They've looked after me well here. The Earl has called on me late each afternoon for a brief chat and to check on how I was doing. It was very decent of him, I am a mere tradesman.”

“The Countess also stopped by last evening in my room,” said Elizabeth.

They spoke of Madeleine and the crash. “I keep expecting to see her come into the room, or to find her in bed besides me. I had the laudanum last night and I was certain this was a bad dream and she was sleeping next to me. What am I going to do without her? How do I bring up the kids without her?” The two grieved together.

Eventually, Mr Gardiner could see that the sitting up and talking was stretching Lizzy. Her mouth had started to show grimaces of pain and she had started rubbing her forehead. Mr Gardiner had Darcy called in, and despite her protests, Darcy unceremoniously picked her up and carried her back to her bed.

Meanwhile, five miles away, Sir Riley, his eldest son Andrew, Richard and Bingley, along with Officer Johnson, gathered and reviewed the evidence at hand. Sir Riley summarised it. “We have witnesses that say they saw a group of three men on horses that match three of the horses used by the highwaymen, heading towards Duffield. Another man travelling alone on the leader’s horse was seen travelling North-West to Winster, but we've not been able to trace where the man has gone from there.”

“The three that went to Duffield, they may further split up,” said Officer Johnson.

They talked it over, with many of the men being sent towards Duffield and to split the search on the roads out, whilst Richard and Bingley volunteered to search out the leader from Winster.

Chapter 15

Lizzy had slept after her talk with her uncle. She woke just before a knock on her door. Expecting to see the maid come in, she was surprised to see the Countess enter instead with her lunch tray. “How are you doing today, Miss Elizabeth? I saw the maid coming with your lunch and I told her I'd bring it in, as I was coming to check on you. William told me that he helped you to visit your uncle today?”

Lizzy squirmed to raise herself on her bed. “Thankyou, my Lady. Yes, his assistance was greatly appreciated. It is difficult enough to be injured and relying on the generosity of strangers, but to also be separated from loved ones and treasured travelling companions is considerable, especially knowing the distress my Uncle is going through. I believe it eased both our minds to see each other and to mutually assess and talk of our conditions...and our mutual loss.”

“I see you are in your mourning clothes today?”

“Yes, thank you for organising it, my Lady.”

“How are you feeling today?”

“I did not have a headache when I awoke, though I did develop one whilst talking with my Uncle. I feel better though, now, after a rest.”

“As the doctor said, rest is most important to your recovery. Does the leg or arm give you any pain?”

“Not as much as one might think, my Lady. The plaster is inconvenient to sleep in, however, I think my body has been so drained of energy it affects me little. I imagine it will feel like a hindrance once I'm stronger.”

“The story of your achievements is spreading. I've now heard it being said you hopped thirty miles on one leg!”

“I must have been hopping in circles all that time. Wouldn’t thirty miles get me almost to Derby?” joked Lizzy with a smile.

“We have had to shoo away journalists. One even claimed to be your brother! The nerve of some people.”

She knew that the Countess knew of Darcy’s proposal. She figured she might as well broach it, rather than pretending she did not know of it. “Mr Darcy told me that the Sheriff gave you a letter discovered in my baggage, my Lady. You know it’s content.”

Lady Eleanor's face dropped the smile it had. “Whatever misunderstandings have passed between yourself and my nephew are in the past. He must respect your discretion and judgement highly to reveal the unfortunate events of last Summer. Not even Lady Catherine knows of it and the circle of those who do is very small indeed.”

“I had not imagined the letter ever being found out. I brought it along as I thought it safer in my possession than left at Longbourn whilst I was not there. I never thought it to be discovered due to an accident. I have consented to Mr Darcy destroying the letter, my Lady.”

“Yes, well, we can't allow the chance of more people finding out and ruining the reputation of my niece.”

“Of course. I am grateful it ended up in your hands and did not cause any damage, my Lady.”

“I shall leave you to your lunch,” said the Countess before departing. Lizzy considered the visit as she ate. The Countess did not appear to disapprove of her; the fact she used the term ‘misunderstanding’ indicated a more positive future relationship, but did not confer any expectation. It was a very diplomatic visit.

Meanwhile, whilst interviewing people in Winster, the townsfolk identified the rider of the black horse with a star as a local farmer. Richard and Bingley went to the farm and came across a young man in his barn.

“Good afternoon, good Sirs, how can I help you gentlemen today?” greeted the farmer cheerily. The man, of average size, certainly did not have the deep voice that Miss Elizabeth indicated the leader had.

Richard introduced himself and Bingley. The man responded saying his name was John Black. “We’re assisting with the Sheriff’s investigation of the murder of a carriage driver. We had some leads indicating a man with the same sort of horse as one of these men, had travelled this way.”

“I was coming back home from Alderwasley, from my sister’s farm. I've been helping her as her husband broke his leg coming off his horse. So yes, I travelled up from Alderwasley yesterday to return home. I've been helping them out for the last fortnight. Would you like to see my horse, to confirm this animal was the one that was sighted?”

They agreed, and he led the men to the open field, where a lovely black horse with a white star and socks grazed. Richard turned to the man. “As you travelled North, you might have spotted the group of highwaymen. We’re uncertain whether they travelled as a group of four or split up to travel in smaller groups so as not to draw attention to themselves. It would have been only a few miles from Bolehill.”

“I do vaguely recall a group of three men travelling South, but I can't recall the colour of their horses or what they themselves looked like. But I do remember seeing a man travelling South, maybe a mile or two behind the group of three on a horse like mine. I recall because had I not been on my own horse, I would have thought that it was my own. I nodded a good day to him and he responded with a nod of his hat.”

“Did he speak at all?” asked Richard.

“No, just a nod and nothing more.”

They got details of what the man was wearing and a description of his appearance which coincided with Elizabeth’s reckoning of a man in either his late fifties. They wished John a good day and a thankyou for his assistance, then left.

As they grabbed some lunch in the inn at Winster, they discussed what they had learnt. “I don't believe this fellow is the leader of this gang of highwaymen,” said Bingley as he munched.

“I agree, else he’s an exceptional actor. We should check out his alibi and visit his sister, so we can rule him out. This means that the whole group travelled South, probably to Belper.” Richard finished his lunch and wiped his mouth. He rose. “Come Bingley, let's ride to John’s sister’s farm, and we should be back in Matlock in less than three hours.”

Chapter 16

Late in the afternoon, the chaise carriage rumbled up the drive of Matlock estate. Kitty had her head out the window gawking at the magnificent house. “My goodness, this must be ten times the size of Longbourn. We get to stay here whilst we look after Lizzy and Uncle?”

Mr Bennet, who in his time at university, had seen his share of magnificent estates owned by richer friends, looked up from his book, gave the house a quick glance, and said “probably only eight times larger.” He put his book down and looked at Kitty. “Try to get all your gawking done whilst in the carriage. It will appear unseemly to continue to do so once you exit, and you certainly don't want the Earl or Countess to see it. We’ll be staying here unless you make a scene of yourself, or spend too much time admiring all the furniture. You do recall the etiquette of being presented to a Countess?”

“Yes Papa,” said Kitty whilst her head was still hanging out the window.

“And you won't make a scene of yourself like you do with Lydia? No squealing, running, talking too loudly or excitedly.”

Kitty put her head in. “I'm only like that when I'm with Lydia.”

“Hopefully with her separation you'll remember your deportment. We are the guests of the Earl and Countess. Take the Countess as your model of behaviour.”

“Of course, papa,” said Kitty, sitting demurely in her seat with her hands in her lap. However, she still admired the large sandstone house before them.

The butler showed them in where an elegantly dressed woman awaited in the parlour, and to both of their surprise, Mr Darcy as well.

Mr Darcy stepped forward. “Aunt, may I perform the introductions? This is Mr Bennet of Longbourn and his daughter, Miss Catherine Bennet. Mr Bennet, Miss Catherine, my aunt Lady Eleanor Fitzwilliam, the Countess of Matlock.”

Kitty performed her best curtsey in front of the Countess, who then invited them to sit to refresh themselves. “I'm sorry for the Earl not being here to greet you, but he is currently overseeing some matters with his tenants. I know you are most eager to see your family members, but I have been informed by the maid that both your daughter and brother are sleeping.”

“How is my daughter? When we received the express yesterday, it only had word on my brother and sister," asked Mr Bennet.

Mr Darcy stepped in to answer. “We found her yesterday around midday. She has a wound in her leg and a broken arm from her fall from the carriage.”

“It is good to know the truth. When we set off today, we were told she had walked twenty miles on a broken leg.”

The Countess smiled as she indicated for tea to be served. “She only walked ten miles, which is still a remarkable achievement in her injured state.”

“I thank you for your kind offer of hospitality to look after my family and the offer to myself and my daughter to assist with their recovery. I hope their recovery is as swift as possible to allow for them to return home. My brother needs to return to London and to get his family back together to grieve properly.”

“Mr Bennet, Miss Elizabeth may need to remain or potentially return. She was the only witness to the murder of the carriage driver - when these men are caught, she will need to testify at their trial,” said Mr Darcy.

“She is welcome to stay here. These men that attacked your family also attacked my daughter when she was returning home for a visit. None of her party were harmed, but the stress of the event caused her to miscarry her baby, which only had another three months before reaching term. She was incredibly distraught, so when we heard of the other attack and the remarkable courage of your daughter, we had to do all we could. We, too, wish for nothing more than justice,” replied the Countess. She then turned her attention to Kitty. “How was your journey, Miss Catherine?"

Kitty tried to reply politely and hoped dearly she would not stammer. “Long but interesting as I've never travelled so far to the North before, my Lady.”

“It must have all been very sudden and distressing for you. We’ll organise a seamstress to come and fit your properly for mourning clothes,” said the Countess. They all finished their tea and food.

Mr Darcy offered to show them to their rooms to refresh before they visited Lizzy and Mr Gardiner. Kitty was shown her room first, leaving Darcy and Mr Bennet alone. “There are rumours surrounding my daughter and her discovery, Mr Darcy, that I must address with you. I have heard it said that you are her lover and that she came North to meet up with you. That the two of you are secretly engaged. Is there any truth to this? Do you have an arrangement with my daughter?”

Mr Darcy’s hand paused on the door knob and his face turned red. “No, there is no arrangement in place, Mr Bennet. However, I did carry her out from the forest after I discovered her, and to her room here. If you consider the rumours so damaging to her reputation, I'm more than happy to marry her with her consent.”

Mr Bennet had been mulling over the rumours they had heard since their departure that morning. Lizzy had been different, quiet and distant since her return from Rosings. Mr Darcy had also been at Rosings. On her return from there, there had been no further abuse of his character and she had clearly turned from any prior attraction to Wickham. In fact, he was certain he had seen an involuntary sneer when he watched Lizzy look at Wickham.

Why would Mr Darcy be offering so easily for Lizzy but only with her consent, when he could have any woman be chose? “You've already proposed to her and have been rejected?”

“How did you find out? I didn't believe that E.. Miss Elizabeth would tell you.”

“So it’s true. None told me, I worked it out from her changed behaviour after her visit to Rosings.”

“As I said, I’m happy to marry her to ensure her and your family’s reputation.”

Mr Bennet hesitated in his reply. “There’s no reason to be hasty. She's in mourning for the next two months, so no engagement can be entered into. The gossip will die down and it will all be forgotten whenever a more salacious scandal occurs that whets society’s appetite.”

Mr Darcy merely bowed. “I thank you, Mr Bennet. But I do mean to pursue your daughter. Only her refusal will deter me.”

“Only after her mourning period is over,” said Mr Bennet, entering his room to refresh and to consider.

Kitty was ecstatic about her room. It was larger than the room she shared with Lydia. She went to sit on the bed to find it soft and she was tempted to lie down on it. The view from the window overlooked the side of the estate and she could see horses grazing in the paddock. She refreshed herself then went to be shown to Lizzy's room.

Lizzy sat up and smiled weakly, groggily. She must have just woken up. “Kitty, I'm so glad to see you!” said Lizzy. Kitty had never seen Lizzy looking so white or ill before.

“Oh Lizzy, we're so relieved to see you alive.” Kitty raced over to give her a tentative hug.

“Where Papa?” asked Lizzy.

At the very moment she said it, the door opened and a relieved Mr Bennet came in. He looked as though he was trying to find something witty to say, but the shine in his eye gave it away and he merely came over to come take her right hand in both of his. “We were all so worried to hear you were lost.”

“Despite how it looks, I'm doing better than Uncle. He's broken his ribs and shoulder and wrist, not to mention he’s lost his wife.”

“Tell me everything that happened,” said Mr Bennet, and Lizzy told him the real story, with a blunt assessment of her condition. Mr Bennet just squeezed her hand reassuringly during the telling.

He rose and gave Lizzy a kiss on the forehead. “Kitty and I should go and see how your uncle is. Kitty, I'm sure an update on his children will be the most welcome news. You can return to Lizzy soon.”

The two left. It was only twenty minutes later that Kitty returned. “You weren't wrong about Uncle Fred. His breathing sounds terrible. It must be very painful. So tell me everything.”

Lizzy looked amused. “I have told you everything. What more is there to tell?”

“Do you know what the rumours are saying?”

“Colonel Fitzwilliam and the Countess have shared some.”

“We heard that Mr Darcy searched for you, rescued you as you were close to death, and carried you all the way to the doctor. The rumours are also saying you had a secret agreement to marry him and that was the reason you were travelling up North.”

Lizzy sat up more but seemed lost for words. “That’s preposterous.”

Kitty giggled. “If it weren't for Mr Darcy, it would certainly make for a fine romantic story. But that is what is being said.”

“I do not have any agreement in place with Mr Darcy. We are just friends. He was part of a search party of twenty men. He did happen to carry me out about a half mile to the waiting carriage, and he probably thought that as the person who knew me best he should be the one to do so. That is all there is to the story.”

“Friends? I thought you hated the man."

Now Lizzy stammered. “We became friends at Rosings. I was wrong in my original assessment of the man, based off a bad first impression.”

“So how bad is the leg wound? Do you think it will get infected and that they'll need to chop it off?”

“Kitty! Are you only interested in lurid gossip and gore?” laughed Lizzy. “You can see it if you like when the doctor comes to check on it this afternoon. It clipped an artery so I lost a great deal of blood. They had to plunge a hot iron into it to stop the bleeding.”

Kitty shivered at that. “Agh, that must have hurt terribly.”

“Not as bad as my headache – from the blood loss.”

Lizzy asked after the news of Longbourn and of her travels, feeling a little better for having a sister with her. After a while, as Lizzy started to weary, she asked Kitty if she would read from her book to her. Kitty, not particularly fond of books not written by Ann Radcliff became absorbed in reading ‘Paradise Lost’ out loud. Lizzy observed it and smiled. Kitty continued to read out loud even after Lizzy had drifted off to sleep.

Meanwhile, at Longbourn, the Bennet carriage arrived carrying an out-of-sorts Lydia. She was greeted by Mrs Bennet and her remaining sisters, all dressed in black. She immediately started to whine. “I can't believe that Papa commanded me home just because Aunt Madelein has died. It is so unfair and I was having so much fun! And having to wear mourning clothes.”

Mrs Bennet, for once, was shocked by her youngest. “Goodness gracious, Lydia Bennet. That will be enough of that attitude. Be thankful that you’re not mourning Lizzy’s death, as she was found and rescued yesterday. Your poor cousins will grow up without their mother, and your uncle, seriously injured, is left all alone with them. Now go up to your room and get yourself refreshed before you go and see your young cousins.”

Lydia looked around. “Where's Kitty?”

“Gone with Papa to look after Lizzy and Uncle Fred,” replied Mary shortly.

“That's so unfair that she gets to travel!”

“It's hardly a trip for pleasure, Lydia. She’s there to spend the time helping, not sightseeing or going to parties,” said Jane calmly.

Lydia huffed off to refresh. She had never had a very close relationship with her aunt, but had liked her well enough. It was so very inconvenient for those men to attack when they did. If only it occurred a few days later, she would be Mrs Lydia Wickham, though it would not be fun having to grieve as a newly-wed.

After changing into the new black mourning dress, she went to the nursery where the children were being tended by their nurse.

The youngest child, three year old Susan, came and tugged on Lydia’s dress. In a lisp, Susan asked “can you take me to heaven to see Mama. Alfred says he won't and that I'm not allowed to go. But I want to see Mama.”

Lydia swallowed, and tried to control the tears. She picked up little Susan and cuddled her. “Your brother’s right. Heaven is not a place you can go yet.” She held onto Susan as tightly as Susan held onto her, as she buried her face in Susan’s hair and cried.

Chapter 17

Mr Bennet entered Lizzy’s room after a long discussion with Mr Gardiner. It had taken so long that Lizzy had napped and woken again. He took a seat by his daughter and ran his hand through his hair. “How is Uncle Fred?” asked Lizzy.

“Terrible. There’s no easy choices for the funeral. Do we have it here, however we then need to bring the whole family up, which is not easy with four young children. Do we have two services, one here then one in London? Your uncle insists the children are with him for the funeral. Do we wait till he is fit to travel, however we are holding off the funeral for a good month. Though the local pastor came and visited your uncle yesterday, he didn't speak about funeral arrangements though he did offer. And then there are the burial arrangements. Your uncle insists she is buried in London so he and the children can visit her grave.”

“What do you think is the most likely solution?” asked Lizzy.

“We bring the family up here for the funeral, then I will travel down with the body and see to Madeleine’s burial. I've sent off half a dozen letters on your uncle’s behalf to London. I also need to organise the transport of the carriage driver’s body.” He turned to Kitty. “We’ll be dining with the Earl’s family tonight. Can you go and make yourself ready, and we can go down together in ten minutes.”

“Why do I need to make myself ready? I can only wear mourning clothes which I'm already in.”

“You can make sure your hair is neat and you are refreshed. Run along now Kitty, I wish to speak with Lizzy alone.”

Kitty left and Mr Bennet turned to her. “The stories we heard about you and your rescue astonish me exceedingly. As they concern you, you had best be aware of what is being said. I have heard it said that you were rescued solely by you lover, whom you had travelled to the North to secretly marry. And that that man’s Mr Darcy! I could not have pitched on any man in our acquaintance, whose name would have given the lie more effectually to what they related. Oh, Kitty and I laughed a full ten minutes once we were in the carriage. Mr Darcy, who never looked at any woman but to see a blemish, and who probably never looked at you in his life!”

He watched Lizzy very closely as some colour came to her exceptionally pale face. She gave the most reluctant smile. “The real story must not have been interesting enough, and it has been significantly improved at each retelling.”

“I was astonished that there was some truth in the rumour when I got here to find Mr Darcy here in the house and that he was the one to find and carry you out. From such a small seed a far better story grows. Are you not diverted?”

“Excessively so.”

“You are not going to be missish about an idle rumour? It will be forgotten quick enough after the next scandal.”

“I'm surprised at how far the story has changed from the reality.”

“I certainly thought it amusing enough to confront Mr Darcy. You could not imagine my surprise when he offered to marry you if you consented to it.”

Lizzy had been wondering where this was all leading and now knew her father knew more than he was letting on. “Ask what you intend to ask, Papa.”

“I then recalled that you spent some months with him at Rosings and that you returned changed. Nary a word of condemnation you said about him, and any favouritism for Wickham was completely gone. Why would Mr Darcy, who could have any woman, care for your consent, Elizabeth?”

“Then you already know the answer to that. He asked and I refused. There was not more to say than that. You did not need to know of it as he would not be coming to gain your consent.”

“Is there nothing more to this story, Lizzy? He has asked for it now. If there has been no compromise, why is a man whom you refused keen to still marry you?”

Lizzy considered what she would reveal very carefully. “I accused him of dishonourable behaviour towards Wickham, plus many other poorly considered words, which I now regret saying. To the accusations concerning Wickham he defended himself by writing a letter. He revealed that Mr Wickham had not been interested in the living originally, and that Mr Darcy provided him three thousand pounds as compensation for the lost income of the living, which was in addition to the thousand he received in the will.”

“Four thousand pounds In total!” exclaimed Mr Bennet. “That is certainly generous. I wish someone would give me that much and our living would be a little easier. That's a sum that would comfortable set oneself up with an occupation, and with interest to live not uncomfortably. I presume Mr Wickham managed to lose it all.”

“Yes, within the space of only a few years. He came back to Mr Darcy and asked for the living when it became vacant. Not surprisingly, Mr Darcy refused.”

“As well he should. For a man to lose so much in so little time means he is profligate in his ways.”

“Yes, keen to live the life of a gentleman without the income. Mr Darcy also said his behaviour and proclivities did not make him ever suitable to be a man of the cloth. So, Mr Wickham completely took me in with his sad story, all a fabrication based on selective elements of truth. And I was so certain of his goodness, and thought myself so very clever in my dislike of Mr Darcy, all because he made a poor first impression and insulted my vanity. Jane and Charlotte both had much more sense and questioned Mr Wickham’s story. Mr Darcy knew me better than myself. He said that my weakness was a tendancy to deliberately misunderstand him. He was right.”

Mr Bennet looked at Lizzy incredulously. “Do you regret your refusal?”

“No.” Lizzy paused. “I could not accept a proposal where the man disparaged my family. I regret my delivery of it. I also regret my own poor judgement. Maybe had I understood him better.....” Her voice trailed of and she did not finish the thought.

Mr Bennet patted her arm. “I'm certain the rumours will die out as soon as there is a much better piece of gossip.”

“As long a Mama doesn't find out about it.”

“That's true. If she finds out, she will insist and may make more of a fuss than anyone else. But what is the chance she will hear of it?”

“You forget that Mr Darcy holds a place in the Ton. Any rumour associated with him is certain to make the society pages, which Mama reads,” said Lizzy.

“So then there is some chance that you may need to marry Mr Darcy for the reputation of the family.”

Lizzy shrugged. “If it gets to that, then so be it.”

Mr Bennet could not hide his surprise. “Lizzy, do you know what you are doing? There is no cause to rush this. Are you determined to have him? He is rich to be sure, and you will have fine clothes and carriages. But will they make you happy? He came across as a proud, unpleasant sort of man; but this would be nothing if you really liked him.”

“I do not dislike him as I once did” she replied.

“Lizzy,” her father said, “you are in mourning and there is no cause to rush into anything hastily. I now give it to you, if you are thinking on having him. But let me advise you to think better of it. I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know you could neither be happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery. My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.”

“Mr Darcy... there is no question that he is an honourable man. He is intelligent and I respect him. No, there is no doubt regarding respect. I respect him nearly as much as I respect Uncle Fred. I beg you father, to get to know him better, so that I may get your honest and unbiased opinion of him.”

Mr Bennet rose. “I will not force you into anything that you are not willing to enter into and certainly into nothing in the next two months. Think carefully on it, Lizzy. Now I had best go down to dinner.”

Mr Bennet, feeling exhausted over that revealing conversation, collected Kitty and went to the parlour to wait for dinner.

As they entered, a familiar voice from the past called put. “Bennet, is that really you?”

Mr Bennet looked up in surprise to see his old university classmate. He gave a wry smile. “Riley, it's been years since I last heard from you.”

“Two decades to be exact. I haven't heard from you after you announced the birth of your daughter Elizabeth. You never return letters,” accused Sir Riley.

Mr Bennet shrugged. “You know I'm a terrible correspondent.”

Darcy stepped up and introduced Mr Bennet and Kitty. He then introduced the Earl, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Sir Riley and Lady Riley, Sir Riley’s son Andrew, and Sir Riley’s daughters Ava and Julia, along with Officer Johnson. Everyone provided their condolences. Bingley first spoke with Mr Bennet then immediately went to talk with Kitty. Mr Bennet went to catch up with Sir Riley, to be joined by the Earl.

As they went into dinner, Andrew Riley offered his arm to Kitty and was seated next to her in the middle of the table, with Bingley on her other side. Andrew Riley was a young man of three and twenty, of medium height and lanky build. As Miss Riley attempted to monopolise conversation with Mr Bingley, Kitty started a conversation with Andrew. “I never knew our father's were friends. Had you ever heard your father speak of us?”

“I must admit I never heard him raise it, though I did hear him wonder whether your sister Elizabeth was his friend’s daughter. How was your trip North? I heard you only left Hertfordshire yesterday.”

“Long, though I did enjoy it for the novelty. This is the first time I've been more than twenty miles from home.”

“Really? You've not travelled at all?”

“With five sisters? We only have the one carriage and seven squished into one carriage does not encourage long journeys. Though I would have liked to. My eldest sisters always get the invitations to stay with our Aun....Uncle in London.”

“I was sorry to hear about what happened to your Aunt. You must have been worried terribly about your sister. These highwaymen have put everyone on edge here, never knowing when or whom they will attack.”

“How many attacks have there been?” asked Kitty.

“Three in the last three weeks. Three in the month prior further East.”

“Have you been helping your father to investigate these?”

“I've only just started in the last week. I've been working as a steward for one of my father’s friends for the last year, but now I'm out of a job and back at home again.”

“Is it common for first born sons to work?”

“No, but my father didn't want me laying about being useless at home waiting for him to die and spending his money. So he told me to find work.”

“Do you find that harsh?”

“I'll admit I did at first, but I've come to appreciate the value of money after that. I've certainly learnt a lot from the experience, more than university ever did.”

“What happened? Why are you no longer working, if you don't mind me asking?”

“It was only a temporary position. My father's friend went to spend his time with his dying wife in Bath, so I stepped in as steward on his estate. But his wife has now passed and he has returned. I suppose I'll assist my father in his Sheriff’s role.”

They spoke pleasantly through the dinner and Kitty appreciated for once not having to compete for male attention.

As dinner finished, the doctor was announced. Mr Bennet gave Kitty a signal, kindly thanked his hosts for the meal and excused himself, with Kitty excusing herself and following him.

The doctor gave them a very frank assessment on the state of both patients. In the end, Mr Bennet said, “I didn't realise Lizzy’s injuries were so serious.”

“Had she not been found when she was and if she’d spent another night outside, she probably would have died. She was close to going into shock as she was when she was found. Had she tried to remove the stick in her leg, she would not be with us now. There is now very little chance of her dying, however there still is the possibility of losing the leg.”

“Mr Gardiner will probably survive provided he doesn’t develop pneumonia. When he returns to London it would be good for him to have someone to assist him, one of your daughters perhaps?”

They spoke then about on-going care for the patients and timeframes for returning to duties.

They saw Lizzy first and Kitty was morbidly intrigued as the doctor unwound the bandage covering her leg wound. An angry red stitched gash was revealed that ended with charred black skin where the wound had been cauterized. “That's disgusting Lizzy.”

The doctor replied. “That's a nicely healing wound with no hint of infection. You haven't seen disgusting, young Miss, until you've seen a wound with gangrene.” To Lizzy, he asked “how have you felt today? How are the headaches?”

“I don't seem to have one when I wake, but it develops the longer I'm awake for. I'm not too bad after dinner. Though every single muscle hurts.”

The doctor nodded. “You’re past the worst of the pain. Tomorrow it won't feel quite as bad.” The doctor finished his examination, then he and Mr Bennet went to Mr Gardiner’s room.

“Were you scared?” asked Kitty.

Lizzy seemed surprised by the question. “Terrified. I just started running and kept running. I think I was more scared after I'd hidden. I was terrified they would hear me or find me, especially after I heard that they would kill me if they did find me.”

“I didn't know about that! You really heard them say they would kill you?”

Lizzy nodded.

Kitty developed a new found respect for her elder sister. “You were so brave. Though were you afraid of spending the night in the woods? And being lost?”

“What would hurt me in the woods besides being pecked by ravens? And I had kept track of where I’d run. I knew I only had to travel East to find the road. As long as the sun was up and I could see a shadow, I knew the direction I was travelling in.”

“But what about all your wounds? It must have hurt. I don't think I'd have travelled more than a mile and I would have been completely lost.”

Lizzy shrugged. “What else was I supposed to do but to keep going until I could no longer do so? Yes it hurt, but once in that situation, I was committed to my course of action.”

“I suppose so. How apt a description of life, to keep going until you can't.”

“And fortunately, at that point, I was found.”

Action Lizzy and the Four Thieves Chapters 13-17

Anne VMarch 03, 2023 10:58AM

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