Hello Dear Readers,
An early Valentine from me to all of you because I love you so much. Thank you for all your feedback on chapter 27. But no. Thank you. I say it every time, but you truly have no idea how impactful your encouragement has been for me. I grew up full of ideas. As a kid, I wrote all the time - but I never completed any of my stories, or projects, and I'm now on my third attempt at college after dropping out twice.(I was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, not shockingly) Finishing things has not been my strong suit. But this story, this idea I had, and the broader questions I wanted to ask myself and my readers, I just felt very passionately about it. I also knew exactly how it would end. That sense of having a fully realized arc in my head has helped so much in propelling me onward in writing this story over the years. But what has done the most has been your words - knowing there are so many people engaged with what I'm writing, that thinking this story is well written enough to be published. Wow. The confidence you are instilling in me that I have a story worth telling and a voice that people want to listen to. That's invaluable, guys.
I noticed a lot of readers didn't like how much I used "Master of Longborn" in the last chapter. I have used it previously to describe both Bingley and Darcy at varying points, as well as Mistress for Jane and Miss Bingley. There's three reasons I do this in the last chapter, one I won't reveal here, but the other two is that; 1) it gets very repetitive reading Bingley said, Darcy thought over and over again in the text. 2.) I feel in many ways that in this society of manners, there is a public persona and the private person, so this is another way to differentiate that...when I describe a character with that language I almost trying to convey that they are presenting themselves as their public selves to the characters they are addressing.
I am so happy that you guys felt I gave you a properly romantic proposal for ODC. I've made you all sit through a lot of angst in this story (honestly it became heavier than I expected it to as I wrote it) so it is very important to me that you feel the happy and romantic scenes have satisfying pay off. Elizabeth And Darcy have been through enough in these chapters, I wanted their love to feel playful and dreamy. They deserved something truly sweet and pure. And I really wanted Elizabeth to throw Darcy a bone after he put himself out there so many times!
I am beyond excited for you guys to read this next chapter. A very large question which many of you have theorized on is about to be answered! I can't wait for your reactions!
John Gantry, a young man who had dedicated his adult life to solving riddles and unraveling mysteries, did not often find himself surprised. Yet on this crisp November day, he had found himself shocked not once, – but now twice, and visiting hours had only just begun. He had not anticipated a pleasant morning's call at Longborn, but leaving that house a gentleman's second in an illegal duel was about the last thing he might have expected to occur. He had not imagined anything could have rattled him quite so much as that, yet only quarter of an hour later he found himself absolutely gob smacked by the delightful vision before him.
Mary Bennet stood on the side of lane toward Netherfield – her small hands folded neatly before her in brown, dirtied gloves, straw bonnet quite askew, bits of leaves clinging to her chestnut hair. Her simple dress was positively caked with mud and accented with dried pine needles. Never had he seen a gentlewoman quite so dirtied, and never had he been so uniformly charmed by any member of the fairer sex. What adventures Miss Bennet must have had in their absence! Bingley cracked the reigns, hastening their approach. Gantry quickly noted the becoming flush in Miss Bennet's cheeks – followed by the rhythmic, and rapid, rise and fall of her chest. Why, she was catching her very breath!
Gantry colored, embarrassed that he had been so busy admiring Miss Bennet that her present distress quite slipped past his notice. He was here as a professional in the art of observation and deduction, and clearly Miss Bennet's present state of untidiness had been due to a distressing circumstance. No proper young lady would willingly sully her clothes in such a manner! Why, Bingley had already come to the same conclusion, pulling the phaeton to a sharp stop, and nearly leaping from his seat as he exclaimed, "Miss Bennet! My goodness! Are you well?" while approaching her.
Gantry followed his host with alacrity, his dark eyes round with wonder as he drank the spritely woman in. Now that he stood before her, he could see flecks of mud that sprinkled her cheeks and was splayed across the glass of her spectacles. Splatter from running through a puddle, the detective quickly discerned…pixie dust, his romantic heart whispered. Far too overcome to know how to act, Gantry found himself dipping into a bow before her.
With a twitch in her plump lips, Mary returned with a curtesy…pine needles shook from the various folds of her skirts with the movement. She looked toward Mr. Bingley, and with a slight breathlessness spoke, "I am uninjured Mr. Bingley, only quite thoroughly chilled, and eager to change into a dry frock."
But of course, she was cold! The sun shone brightly, which was fortunate, but it was still autumn and the ground wet and cold from the storms that had passed through. Another deduction the detective should have made immediately! At least this slip of the mind he could rectify with a gallant gesture. He quickly divested himself of his great coat. "Miss Bennet, please." He gestured for her to put her arms through the sleeves of the jacket.
She gave him a grateful smile. "Thank you, Mr. Gantry. I hate to dirty your coat with my muddy dress, but in truth the breeze of an open carriage ride might be more than I could bare without it in this moment." She glanced again in Bingley, "Come, sir let us make haste back to Netherfield. I shall tell you both everything at once, but I do not want to linger here on the lane."
The gentleman heeded her advice, and in a few moments the trio was making their way back to Netherfield. Both men were so alarmed by the typically stoic young lady's anxious manner that for the moment their own dramatic scene at Longborn estate was forgotten. Mary's monologue began immediately – in an apologetic manner she explained the scene she had witnessed, still frustrated she had not been close enough to hear the conversation between her guardian and the unknown lieutenant, and that their presence had prevented her access to the servants stair way to attempt to retrieve the mended slippers. This was disappointing to them all yet – perhaps providence had intervened in preventing her from entering Longborn, for what she had witnessed instead could play a truly pivotal role in achieving justice for Reverend Collins.
Mary was finishing her recitation when they pulled into the drive of Netherfield House.
" – And as you see," Mary spoke calmly, dropping a rueful glance down toward her sopping hemline, "I did not feel that it was safe to be seen alone in the woods by those gentleman, whether they were involved with business at Longborn or not…and rapidly losing time with their approach….I did what a lady must and concealed myself beneath some brush."
Gantry released a delighted laugh. "Miss Bennet – you are a remarkable woman. Your intrepid spirit has given me my very best lead yet. Madam, I now have names of the conspirators in this sorry affair, thanks to your efforts."
Mary's cool gaze locked on Gantry with a look full of wonder, "Thank you," she said warmly, almost demurely, dipping her head. "I was sorry not to retrieve the slippers, but I felt I must follow my instincts and keep watch over the lieutenant."
Bingley was handing the reigns over to his groom when a nervous Mrs. Nichols stepped out the door. "Good morning, Sir. If you please Mr. Gantry, Dr. Barringer wishes you to attend him in the sick room immediately. Mr. Collins has awoken and is refusing all treatment until he can have an audience with you."
A heavy feeling set in Gantry's gut – something was coming. Reverend Collins had something important to say.
It was Bingley who replied. "We shall not detain you a moment Gantry, please go on without us." He turned toward the housekeeper. "Mrs. Nicholls, Miss Bennet slipped in some mud when walking the grounds, will you see a hot bath is drawn for her?"
"Of course, sir." Replied the older woman, dipping into courtesy.
"Mrs. Nicholls, perhaps you could lead me in by the kitchens? I should hate to distress Miss Bingley by bringing this mud into her halls."
Gantry looked toward his companions, dark eyes shining. "Excuse me," he said gravely. "I will not keep the good Reverend waiting another moment."
The Londoner took off, bounding through the many corridors of the estate. He stopped only once, to retrieve his case notes and writing instruments and took the stairs to the living quarters two at a time. In his haste, he threw open the sick room door without ceremony – revealing an extremely pale, Reverend Collins propped upright by many pillows, his normally round face gaunt, eyes sunken. Beside him sat his stepmother, the truly radiant Mrs. Collins. She had refreshed her toilet and wore a becoming morning dress with a pattern of yellow flowers. Her brow was creased slightly in concern as she looked over her charge. Dr. Barringer was standing in the middle of the room looking cross.
"At last!" he exclaimed in exasperation seeing Gantry enter the room. "Our obstinate friend would speak to you of his attack today and will take nothing for his pain nor his cough until he has had his audience with you."
Gantry hastened his way to the bedside. "I am terribly sorry to have kept you waiting, Mr. Collins. I hope we can soon relieve some of your suffering. I am quite delighted to speak with you."
Collins turned his head tiredly in Gantry's direction. "No apologies are necessary." He wheezed, quietly. "Mr. Darcy…Colonel Fitzwilliam…they are here too?"
"Yes." Gantry replied, eyebrows knitting in confusion. "They are also staying here at Netherfield."
"Summon them." The Reverend whispered. "Please."
"If that is your wish, sir." Came the concerned response. He glanced toward Dr. Barringer, who rang the bell pool and sent a servant off with instructions to retrieve the cousins.
"William," Jane spoke in soft soothing tones, "Why must Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam hear what you have to say?"
He tried to reply, but his coughs came through heavily. "Lady Cat's" was discernible, as well as "more witnesses."
"Please, Mr. Collins. Do not overexert yourself. You have been very unwell, and I would have you conserve your strength. You need not say anything until we are all gathered."
Collins rolled his head in a grateful nod, even as more coughs wracked through his chest.
Soon enough Mr. Darcy and his cousin arrived in the room. After giving them her courtesy, Jane spoke in a pleasant but firm tone. "Thank you both for attending us here. Mr. Collins is still quite ill, and speaking is a laborious task for him. He wishes to speak to Mr. Gantry about what happened to him and has requested that the both of you attend. I am respectfully asking that you both reserve any questions you may have until after William has said everything, he wishes to tell us in order to preserve his breath."
Both gentlemen were confused at being summoned to this conversation, the Colonel cast his cousin a bewildered glance, but agreed with Mrs. Collins' demand. Sitting down again, she took William's large, clammy, hand in her own. "We are all here now, William," she said gently, "are you ready to speak?"
The invalid shifted restlessly against his pillow throne. He first looked toward Mr. Gantry. "Will you take note of all that is said this morning?"
"Indeed, I will, Mr. Collins, "the Bow Street Runner said with gravitas. "I will make an accurate account."
Collins' focused shifted toward his doctor. "My good man, when did you last administer any medicine to me?"
The doctor frowned, "Nearly seven hours ago now, it is high time for your next dose."
Collins coughed. "I apologize. But it is very important that it is clear to everyone present that my mind is not under any sort of influence. I have no fever. I am not feeling the effects of your medicines?"
"No indeed," Barringer replied. "If you still had a fever, I should hardly have allowed this meeting. You are perfectly lucid, and any hallucinogenic effects of my prescriptions would have worn off many hours ago while you slept."
The Reverend's eyes shifted back to the bow street runner. "You have made a note of that, sir? The Doctor has attested I am speaking from a clear mind."
"I have, Mr. Collins." Came Gantry's steady reply. He could see that this matter was gravely important to the reverend. He would offer the poor man what peace of mind he could.
Collins took a steadying breath, his chest constricting in a shallow, uncomfortable manner. His eyes closed for a moment. His audience watched him with a varying mixture of concern and rapt fascination.
After a long moment, the Reverend pulled himself into a higher sitting position. He looked Gantry directly in the eye and said in a pained, breathless whisper, "Constable Gantry, I need to make a confession. I have aided and abetted in crimes of a most grievous nature. I have long had knowledge of a man committing fraud, bigamy, and I now believe…attempted murder."
Another shock – and still many hours until tea. Jane dropped the hand she had been holding in her surprise, and Gantry sputtered, his mind traveling from one fact to another with rapidity. "I must own I am surprised to hear that, sir." He finally answered, "I was hired by Mr. Darcy to investigate a grievous crime which has been committed against you, yet you wish to turn yourself in for your own misdeeds?"
Mr. Collins looked past Gantry's head over to their mutual benefactor. "I am deeply indebted to noble Mr. Darcy for all he has done for me. Indeed, from the notice of all his great family. You can not know what the security of the Hunsford Living has granted me sir…" He spoke with such fervor on the matter that the Reverend brought on anther coughing fit, this one taking some few minutes to recover from. The worst of the danger had indeed passed with the fever, but the gentleman was still in a very weak state.
Darcy bowed to the sickly man; his cheeks flushed. "Mr. Collins, it is an honor to be of service to you sir. But please, save any thanks for when you are fully recovered. You are straining yourself even now, so other conversations must wait."
Collins nodded, head dipped and hand on his chest as he caught his breath.
When he was sufficiently recovered, he addressed Gantry's question. "I know exactly what happened to me." He told the runner, in calm tones, "what I do not know are the names of the poor boys Mr. Collins hired to attack me on the lane to Longborn." His voice cracked then with emotion, and he turned toward Jane with a desperate look. "Jane…oh good, kind, steady Jane. How many of us have gazed upon your sweet face and seen the very picture of an angel? But those of us who have been graced with your presence in their lives, who have known you as friend or kin, know even better – that your angelic quality comes from the pure heart within. Jane, until I had you in my life…. the only people I knew on Earth were devils. Your very sweetness, your soul, Jane, just knowing you made me see that life on Earth wasn't Hell. You made me believe in more. I fear you will despise me after all is told."
Jane gasped. Rivers of tears flowed freely down porcelain cheeks, unnoticed.
"You were meant to be my wife. Jane, you haven't forgotten?" He asked with earnest tones.
"No William," Jane whispered, "I haven't forgotten."
Gantry nodded, remembering something. He shifted through his stack of notes, breaking the spellbound silence of the other occupants in the room. He was an energetic, disorganized sort, so he shuffled around for a few uncomfortable moments before saying with some energy – "Ah yes, Signore Forelli's investigators informed us of the same. After the death of Mr. Bennet, Gardiner and Phillips had affianced Jane to William Collins, believing that the negotiation was tying Jane in marriage to the son. Your father caused some uproar with the Miss Bennet's uncles when he decided to marry her in your stead, did he not? Tell me, we have not been able to ascertain... was your fathers plan premeditated, or did he merely act upon the convenience of sharing your name when he decided to marry her himself?"
"It was a plan of convenience." The Reverend wheezed. "When Collins first came to Longborn to claim the inheritance, he did not realize how close some of the girls were to leaving the school room. He agreed to give Jane over to me with Gardiner and Phillips before he had ever really looked at her. A few months as his ward, and he decided he wanted her for himself. Perhaps…" Collins frowned heavily. "If they had promised Jane to Collins from the very beginning, he might have been convinced to allow her a few more years to grow up, or at the very least a proper mourning period for her father. Instead, he stole her from his own heir, with no regards to the feelings of any parties involved. In fact, he delighted in the cruelty of the act toward me, that marrying Jane would wound my feelings only increased her appeal as a bride. In a way, it might have been a kindness if Gardiner and Phillips had recognized what he was from the start and bargained with him as such."
"Mr. Collins." The Londoner leaned forward and spoke with kind, yet firm tone. "In investigating your case, along with another at Mr. Darcy's behest, I have learned much of the history of your father, William Collins. And in that history…I have seen a pattern of violence and abuse committed toward his family, most especially toward his only son and heir. Please, I implore you. Why is it that it seems your father has a vested interest in hurting you?"
The long-suffering Mr. Collins did not flinch in the face of the question. He looked the detective squarely in the eye and said with deliberate calmness. "It is simple, Mr. Gantry. It is because I am not Mr. Collin's son."
The runner released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. That the Reverend was not Collins' son had been one of his principal suspicions. Jane gasped again. "Did he take you from your family as a child so that he might surpass my own father by claiming he had sired a son?"
Despite himself, Collins chuckled slightly at her question – he was sure it would not be above that man's scruples to kidnap a child if he deemed it necessary. "No, Jane." He shook out between the shaking of his chest. "It is not I who am the outsider, but my father – your husband. I am William Collins III, parson of Hunsford parish in Kent, and rightful owner of Longborn estate. The man you have married…is an imposter who has been living as William Collins II for the last 10 years."
Gantry grinned as the room erupted in noises of surprise. Of everything that had surprised him on this autumn day, this revelation was the least shocking. He had many theories of why there was so much animosity between the master of Longborn and his heir, that the master was a usurper who had stolen Collins identity among the most fantastic of them – what fun to be correct!
It was Colonel Fitzwilliam and his military mind who first calmed enough to address the parson. "I am sure that you would not make such a claim without evidence to substantiate it." He said questioningly.
"Indeed, you are correct, my dear Colonel." Came an energetic wheeze. "I have been trying to uncover the identity of my father's imposter for several years. It is only when Lady Catherine so graciously bestowed the living to me and I was able to move to Kent that I could act on much of what I had put together over the years. And you see…this visit to Longborn…I did not come at Lady Catherine's urging. Her ladyship was kind enough to grant me some time away and I made what excuse I had to come to Longborn. I knew that Collins had a collection of letters, and other documents here which would help me to prove the connection to his former identity in the court of law." He looked around the room at their varying expressions of surprise, doubt, and concern. "Yes. I attempted to steal them from the study. He was suspicious of my arrival and watched me, while he never caught me red-handed, he decided it would be appropriate to whip me like he had when I was child. He felt I was getting out of line and wanted to instill some of the same terror in me at 5-and-twenty he did at five-and-ten. I knew that if I refused to accept his "corrections", I would not be allowed to remain on at Longborn, and so I took the beating."
"Oh William!" Jane released a strangled cry and wrapped her arms around him in a fierce embrace. With a sad smile, the Reverend returned Jane's hug with a soft part on the arms.
"Unfortunately, that beating did not satisfy…. did it?" Gantry asked gently.
"No sir. Mr. Collins realized that he had allowed me too much time out from under his thumb, and that he could not make me fear him in the way I had in the past. I can not be sure if he has realized that after all these years of doubt, I have finally proven that he is not my father. However, it is clear to me that Mr. Collins choice to release me from the carriage that afternoon was a premeditated plan, and that the ruffians who accosted me were laying in wait and acting on design."
"He is wicked enough to plan it." Jane said plainly, her lovely face twisted in distress. "But I cannot understand what he intended to result from it."
Collins looked at his lovely cousin from sad sunken eyes. "Oh Jane. You know him better than anyone. I think you do understand." He paused, collecting his thoughts, and stilling the rumble in his chest. "It is very simple. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley were never supposed to rescue me that day. The gang the imposter conscripted into service were charged with incapacitating me to the point that I would not make it home before the storm was over. I would be returned to Longborn beaten, most likely ill, and thoroughly at the mercy of the man who would be my father. I cannot be sure if his end goal would have been to kill me, or to threaten me once again…but Mr. Darcy…" He coughed and shook his head. "Jane has told me it was you that noticed my expulsion from the carriage, and you who decided to chase after me in the storm. Sir, your actions may very well have saved my life."
Darcy shifted uncomfortably, "I am one of many hands that has played a part in keeping you safe and seeing to your recovery, Mr. Collins. I am pleased I could be of service to you."
"Mr. Collins this is astonishing information, and I have many questions for you. If you feel you need to rest, please inform me. Your health must come first or Dr. Barringer will be offering me up to the surgeon's school for demonstrations."
The initial adrenaline of confessing such a secret starting to wear off, the Reverend felt all the pain of his broken ankle and the congestion in his chest. He was rather tired, at that. Yet this interview was vitally important, and if he was going to correct the sins of the past he must push through a little longer. He gave Gantry a deep nod of understanding.
"I suppose we must start at the beginning. How did you come to believe that your father had been replaced?"
"My father was not raised with any expectation that the Longborn inheritance would ever reach his branch of the family. Though he was poorly educated, he did know his numbers well, and eventually made his living working in a mill. He was the foreman there. My father was not a kindly sort of man. My early years are mostly remembered living in fear of disturbing him while he rested. He drank too much and was cold to my mother. But he was not cruel, not purposefully malicious…he was a hard man, but there was no great evilness in him. As I aged, the likelihood of Longborn coming to the Collins line began to grow more and more likely. My father began to become boastful and hold himself superior to the other laborers at the mill. He wasn't a well-liked man. While my father's interest in Longborn grew, my mother inherited a tidy some of money. Enough to send me away to school, for a gentleman's education. My mother passed away the first winter I was at school. Without the tempering influence of a wife and child in the home, my father's drinking increased. When I did come home – I avoided him, we spent very little time together in those two years….and then the fire came."
He paused, taking a long drink of water.
"Ah yes, the fire at the mill." Gantry musingly said. "Your father continued as foreman there until the mill burnt down, is that correct?"
"Yes sir. The fire happened while I was in my third year. The pastor from the village wrote to me that my father had been injured but was expected to recover. After a time, I received a letter that was from my father in an unusual hand and in a manner of speaking that sounded somewhat unnatural for him. He wrote that we were moving to a new town as the rebuilding of the mill was taking far too long, and I was to return home to a new address. I was confused by the difference in his manner, yet he wrote of varying incidences I had written to him of in previous letters. Perhaps he had hurt his hand in the fire?"
"And so, when you left school, instead of going back to the village you where you had been raised you joined your new father, at a new address. I wonder, was your new home very far from where you had grown up?"
"Nearly on opposite sides of the country." He replied with a quiet anger.
"But surely you recognized that the man was not your father when you arrived? Even if you spent little time with the man, surely you recognized that this was a stranger with a different face?" The Colonel asked in a shocked tone.
Collins wheezed through a rueful chuckle. "The imposter was clever. He wrapped more than half his face in heavy bandages, telling me that his wounds from the fire were still healing. The pastor had not mentioned my father's injuries being as extensive as this! But who was I to question him? Yet I could not shake my uneasiness. The man was built like my father, wore his clothes comfortably, and spoke as little and as joylessly as the father I remembered. Yet it never felt right. I left that autumn with his face still in bandages."
"And when you came back?" Jane asked in a tearful whisper.
"When I returned the following year, I could not mask the shock on my face meeting with my father the first time. The man was a stranger to me. And because I, a boy of fifteen, could not conceal my surprise…the imposter realized I knew him to be a fake, and began a campaign of violence against me to silence my tongue. The village around us all believed this man to be William Collins, and I was a teenage boy, sent away most of the year…why should they trust my accusations? Speaking against the man was most likely to end in me losing…. well, everything." He stopped then and sighed heavily.
Collins turned his whole body toward Jane, looking at her beautiful, tear-stained face with the most earnest, heartbroken expression Gantry had ever seen a man wear. It pulled on him, impartial though a detective was supposed to be…for he has realized now why Collins would live in fear of Jane's hatred. He looked over at Mrs. Collins, the glowing nurse, and realized she had realized the truth as well.
"Ah," He coughed. "I see you are thinking over the years…how old was I when we met Jane? Yes, sixteen when our guardians made the engagement between us. For nearly a full year I had known that an imposter had stolen my father's identity….and then your own father mysteriously died not 18 months after your mother's passing in childbirth. I had spent a year in school recovering from a summer of terror…only to be sent to another new home…Longborn…. a fine estate full of sweet pretty young girls to be the sisters I had never had. And there…. I arrived there and was told that as the heir to this pleasant place, it was my duty to marry the eldest daughter of the deceased owner and combine our family lines. I was full young to think of the responsibilities of marriage, but I had certainly started thinking about pretty girls. The idea of being engaged was not so burdensome….and so to Longborn and my fiancé I went."
"Oh Jane…. Jane I am sorry. But you must understand. After all the confusion and pain of my life so far, I was being told that I would be rewarded with you, sweet Jane, as my wife. There is no one that can deny your beauty, Jane. But it was so much more than that. You were so kind, so welcoming to me, so interested in how I felt and what I might think about. I had spent all year thinking that when I arrived in Hertfordshire, I would explain the whole story of the imposter to the adults and tell them I suspected foul play in Mr. Bennet's death. That I had realized taking my father's place had been a long con to gain Longborn from the very beginning."
Darcy knew what the minister would tell them about a moment before the others. He shook his head sadly. "But you said nothing." It was blunt but spoken with kindness.
The patient took a long sip of water and cleared his throat.
"If I said nothing," he said, "then Jane Bennet would be my wife. I had fallen desperately in love with her like any awkward, downtrodden boy of sixteen would in the face of her beauty and kindhearted nature. I tried to convince myself that after Jane and I were married, I would tell her all and we would work together to take the usurper down from his throne. Perhaps…. I would like to think I would have saw it through. But we must acknowledge that my motives were both cowardly and selfish. I took the action which I thought would guarantee me my cousin's hand. Not what I knew was the right thing to do."
Jane's features were pinched, her complexion drawn. "We were engaged, and when the fall came you returned once more to school. I was married to this so-called imposter before the start of the winter term. You had one opportunity to speak out against him where your testimony might have been seriously considered….and you chose to stay silent due to….to…lust!" She shot up in her seat, twisting away from the eyes of all the gentlemen gathered in the room. "And if I hadn't your favor you would have acted more honorably? If I was pox scarred or had a crooked nose…. then you would have spoken out against this villain…. but because you found me to be pretty and kind you did not? I had thought better of you than this William!"
He sighed with resignation, the rumble soon turning to a cough deep within his chest.
"I feared that you would hate me. I swear, I have striven every day of your marriage to that villain to uncover the truth about him. You need never forgive me for trapping your family in this nightmare with me. I only hope that you will allow me to support you in the future. We are still family, regardless of that man."
Jane stood; her hands were trembling. "William, you are long overdue for your next rounds of treatments, and I'm sure Dr. Barringer is more than ready for us to conclude this interview. Mr. Gantry, do you have enough information for the present?"
Following suit, Gantry stood and bowed to the room. "Indeed. I thank you most sincerely for your testimony Mr. Collins. We will have a great deal more to speak about in the next few days, but for now you must continue to focus on recovering your health. I thank you for speaking so candidly to us today."
The Colonel and Darcy made their bows as well. Without another glance toward the charge, she had so diligently tended to this past week or more, Jane turned on her heel and marched out the room, chin turned high, and shoulders squared with all the poise of a Duchess.
After this long as a guest of Netherfield Hall, Jane had been confident she was familiar with all its drafty halls. She swept out of the sick room, allowing her feet to guide her where they may – all her will was controlling the serene smile she directed toward the footmen she passed in a hurried pursuit to put as much distance between herself and her cousin as possible. She had thought for a second to go to her room…to release the dam and let all her bottled emotions flow freely…whether screams of rage and frustration or tears of sorrow…but it was simply too close. They had obviously put the dutiful nurse as close to her patient as was possible and respectable, but what was formally a kindness now felt unbearably stifling to Jane. She needed space – she needed air. However, she desperately needed privacy, so neither the gardens nor the principal rooms of the house were suitable choices, as Miss Bingley and the Hursts all remained within the house. Surely, somewhere in this proud country manor, there was a place that could afford a lady a true moment of peace.
Truly, all she needed was a moment. Just one to moment to herself, a private hour she might consider no one's feelings but her own. A stolen moment in time where she might not be a nurse, wife, sister, even…a lover…but simply, Jane. She needed to breathe. She needed to breathe so very badly. Hadn't Elizabeth's accusation been enough? What was a woman supposed to feel, exactly, upon being told that the man she is bound to for life by the will of God and the laws of England had murdered her own father in cold blood? But now…William's confession…it was too much! By far too much! Not only had she spent seven years sleeping beside a killer, but a thief and imposter as well! By God – the story of her life read more like the plot of bad novel or a cheap play.
This person had connived to steal Longborn estate for the rightful heir by assuming the identity of the boy's (one could only presume) dead father. He had taken William away from his childhood home and place in a neighborhood where no one knew him, so that if William complained that Collins was not his father, he would be more likely to be considered mad than any other outcome, especially with no evidence. What's more, Collins took a strong hand with young William, and both beat him so violently, and taunted him with the promise of Longborn that William was terrified of speaking out against the man. Jane knew that in her heart, even if William had been unwilling from either guilt or embarrassment to speak so plainly in front of the room at large.
William had spoken truly. Jane did know Collins better than anyone. After all, her very survival and the immediate happiness of those who depended on him had counted on Jane to be a good wife. To make him…happy…so that he would continue to support her unmarried sisters. She had applied herself most diligently to being a good wife, she hadn't just gotten to know her husband, Jane had studied him. So she believed William when he spoke of the man's cruelties, and understood why he did not wish to talk on that subject in greater detail. Jane had realized very early in her marriage that Collins was unkind to his "son", that sometimes he beat the boy because he felt it would toughen him up. She had imagined things had been worse for him before they shared a house so full of wagging female tongues…but she now imagined the year before her father passed must have been very dark for her cousin indeed.
Oh how her heart wept for poor William! Jane could not help it, no matter how much anger she might feel. He had suffered greatly by his so-called father's hand. The Longborn inheritance was perhaps more a curse than a blessing on William's line. But for all that Jane's tender heart felt hearing of William's suffering, it was not enough to compensate for the potency of white-hot rage she had never felt before.
William had known. He had known that a monster had assumed the mantle of his father, he knew that the man she had married had conspired his way into stealing Longborn. He knew that he was a cruel, unpredictable man. He had known and he had said nothing. Her William, the cousin and stepson she had come to love as the brother she never had…he had given away his inheritance to a villain in order to secure himself a pretty bride. Janes steps quickened, she needed air so very much.
He claimed he had been in love with her – had he said he loved her still? A panic filled her breast – she could never feel for her cousin as anything other than a dear relation, they were engaged once, and he would have been a kindly husband, Jane was sure she would have been very fond of him if they had wed. But that was not the hand which fate had dealt them, and Jane had moved on from such ponderings quickly…but it had not been the same for William. A tender-hearted young man, only just ready to head off to university, can hardly know what being in love really means. But to have this first infatuation torn away so cruelly, to be taunted with your disappointed hopes by seeing your beloved married to a usurper, well…it appeared to have deepened a boyish crush into something far more permanent.
This is not love, Jane thought angrily, this is a man holding a grudge. William doesn't care about my happiness; he is tortured that his promised prize for the abuse he suffered was stolen from him! He set aside every proper feeling, every notion of justice, because he wanted to bed me! And it has rankled him ever since that he gave Longborn away for such little reward.
Her confident steps had led her down a corridor that was decorated with a large, gilded mirror. Jane had walked by the same mirror many times during her stay at Netherfield, but now she was arrested by the sight of herself in the glass. Her steps faltered as she gaped at the woman before her. Was she truly so beautiful? She was on the tall side for a woman, with an elegant, willowy figure. She had thick, healthy hair that remained honey blonde into her twenties, unlike other girls she had known whose curls darkened. Her neck was long, her skin unblemished, cheeks still plump and retaining some of the bloom of her youth. Her eyes, she knew, were special, for they were a truly piercing blue, and framed by uncommonly long lashes. A plump set of lips, a long thin nose. An inheritance discarded…for this? For a pretty girl? Surely there were hundreds of other English roses doting the countryside who were equally as appealing if all a man wanted was a pretty face, her features were not particularly remarkable, surely?
Her bright eyes narrowed as she looked at herself. What good had her coveted beauty brought her in life? A bit of favoritism from a mother long dead? Fanny Bennet had always been delighted by Jane's beauty, had told her innumerable times that her beauty would secure the future for their family one day – that Jane could not be so beautiful "for nothing". Well, she had been right, at that, though she had not lived long enough to see how Jane's beauty had secured the attention of a man older than her own father had been. She was not here to hear that her pretty face and pleasing figure had been the means of securing her father's murderer as the current master of Longborn, using prospect of marrying her like dangling bait to still the mouth of the one person who could speak out against him. Cornflower eyes suddenly welled with tears. She could not turn to her mother and ask her if this would ever stop…if society would respect her for her character rather than her beauty. If she would stop being so coveted, if people would no longer feel the need to possess her. Had it been like this for Fanny Gardiner, a famed beauty in her day? She could not ask her mother anything, and suddenly she needed her mother more desperately than she had ever felt since her passing.
Her face crumpled with the realization, and heaving a great sob, Jane lifted her skirts and ran, throwing open a door at the end of the hall and slamming it behind her, hardly knowing what room it led to. She only knew that she had to get away, that she couldn't bear to look at herself for one more second, she needed to get out – to be anywhere but where she had stood that moment before.
She collected her breath from the sudden exertion with an unlady-like gulp, and calming slightly with the air, took stock of her surroundings. It took but a moment for Jane to flush with embarrassment, for she had thrown herself into Mr. Bingley's study like a mad woman, and he was looking up at her from his seat at the desk with an expression somewhere between alarm and sympathy she could not quite decipher.
Her knees dropped into a curtsey reflexively, mind rushing with a thousand different things she wished she might be able to say to him in such a moment but unable to choose the best way forward.
But Bingley was not bowing to her, he was bounding out of his seat, crossing the short distance between them, and cupping Jane's cheek with a touch of such exquisite tenderness, it made Jane's eyes tear anew.
"Never stand on ceremony with me, I beg of you Jane. Not when we have these moments alone, few though they must regrettably ever be. I do not wish to waste a moment on trivialities after having shared such intimacies with you." Seeing Jane's flush deepened, he hastened to add, "Blast! I did not mean…physical intimacies. While I certainly think fondly of your affections, I meant the conversations that we have shared, Jane. I have never met someone with who I have been able to speak to so freely with of so many tender topics. I mean it when I tell you what a kind woman you are, Jane. You do not know how much I have valued knowing you…and even if we never have a chance to speak so candidly with one another again after you leave Netherfield….if all the romance between us must inevitably end, if something should ever happened to me…I…well, I….I just wish you to know that I am your dearest friend, devoted supporter, and fervent admirer…no matter what role I may have in your life, madam. You can depend on me. No matter what." His thumb was still stroking her cheek.
"I….I…see. Thank you." Jane was overwhelmed. By his kindness. By his nearness. By her cousin, by Elizabeth, Darcy, her husband, by everything…everyone. It was too much, far too much. But by God, he touched her cheek so softly, so delicately, his caress felt practically reverent. She closed her eyes, her head leaning slightly into his touch. Her heart pounded; her palms sweat.
"Please, Jane – tell me what it is that has brought you here in such a state. I know that you have been in the sick room for Gantry's interview with Mr. Collins. You seem most distressed. Will you not sit down? Would you like me to call for tea?"
"Well," she replied, opening her eyes slightly, "If you request I be fully honest with you sir, I'd much rather something stronger. It has been an enlightening morning. Perhaps too enlightening, for my own sake."
He poured her a glass of brandy with a small, private smile. Yes, he would cherish every real, honest, moment he could have with Jane Bennet, good or bad. He did not pour a glass for himself.
Jane took a fortifying sip, wrinkling her nose in distaste. She sat in silence for a long moment, clutching the glass. Then finally in a distant, contemplative tone she suddenly said, "I suppose I am not married after all."
Of all the things Jane might have said in such a moment, such magical, hopeful news were the last he might have ever predicted. Yet he was sure he had heard her correctly…was his beloved not truly married after all?...Was she free?
"Jane? Whatever do you mean?" he asked eagerly.
Bingley's voice cut through her fog. "Forgive me Charles, I have learned so much this morning and have hardly had a moment to myself to process all that was unveiled…this so soon after my reunion with my dear sister, and everything she had to say about my poor father. But…if everything my cousin has said today is true….it is quite possible that my marriage to Mr. Collins would be considered fraudulent. I can not know for certain now, but suddenly I feel hope I have not felt before."
He brushed a loose curl from her cheek. "I am sure once all is disclosed to me, I shall understand how such a wonderful possibility exists. For the moment, it is enough to hear you speak so. That is all I should wish for. To see you happy. Hopeful."
She smiled gently at him, and rising, handed him the glass. "You are a very good man, Charles Bingley."
Her gentleman stood as well. "Tell me truly Jane, what do you need, how may I help you?"
For a moment, she hesitated, and then remembering the promise he had extracted for her honesty…she met his eye and said warmly but tiredly, "Truly Charles…. all I need is time to be alone. I was wandering the halls looking for a space where I might have some peace – I was so lost in my own thoughts that my feet led me to intrude upon you here. I have so much I need to think upon. But…well I did not wish to remain in my room. It felt too close to…. all that has happened."
Gently, Bingley took Jane's hand and placed it in the crook of his arm. He escorted the fair lady into the hall she had so recently fled and finding that a footman happened to be passing through, requested that a man light a fire in Netherfield's chapel and to send tea there. Turning his attention to Jane he said, "If privacy is your wish madam, it is in my power to grant you that at least. I will instruct the staff that you have private use of the chapel at present and are not to be disturbed by anyone in the household. I'll station a footman outside the door, so should you need anything, desire anyone to attend you, your wishes can be fulfilled."
"You have been so kind to me, Mr. Bingley."
Charles stiffened, hating the formality of her address. But of course, they were in the halls once more, the stolen moment ended. He did not reply, but smiled at her warmly, and a touch sadly. His head was screaming at him to be as honest with her as she had been with him…he needed to tell her he would dueling her husband on the morrow…and yet…he could not. Charles Bingley would not be another one of Jane Bennet's burdens, he would not add to her troubles.
No. Bingley was determined. He was not going to be a problem in Jane's life, he was going to be the solution. As far as he was concerned, Jane Bennet had been strong long enough. It was time to let those who loved her share the load. Collins had challenged him. The challenge would not go answered. Jane Bennet deserved a hero.
Author's Notes: Well, you all definitely hit the nail on the head that Collins is not William's father. I combed through reviews and I don't think anyone suspected SR was the one lacking Collins' blood though! I can't WAIT to hear what you think. Another chapter will come. I am shooting for this Spring. You WILL get more answers. Until then, thank you for everything. I hope you enjoyed. Stay safe, healthy, treat yourself and others kindly.