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Along The River.

Volume Four.

Part 13.

Dear Mr Younge,

I am sorry to inform you, one more time, that although acquainted with the profits of your business, I must once more decline your offer of marriage. And I report I do not wished to regard myself nor yet to be regarded in that bony light.

Yours with sincerity,
Pleasant Jenkinson.

After receiving such disappointing news, the last thing Younge wanted to do was sit in the very business which had earned this rejection for the rest of the day. Recollecting a certain request from one of his clients, he collected one of the bones which Miss Jenkinson had objected to, wrapped it in brown paper and string, and exited the shop, closing the establishment until the morrow.

He arrived at the Reynolds's dust yard just as dusk was arriving upon the city, clouding the deserted heaps and house in a dim foggy light, lending an added eerieness to an already seemingly supernatural scene.

Mr Wickham was there to greet him, with a large bright lantern with which to guide his way into the simple, ramshackle dwelling, and paid him the amount agreed for the leg, before inviting him to stay for a drink. With the mood that Mr Younge was in, one drink was not enough, and nor was his companion used to such a limit being employed.

In hindsight, Mr Younge is fully aware that such a mood when mixed with a liberal quantity of liquor, is apt to prove dangerous to one's moral compass.

"So, Mr Wickham, you mentioned some further business?" Mr Younge sought to confirm, recalling their last conversation during which a time and place for this meeting to sell and buy the bone had been agreed upon.

"When I first visited your establishment, we were talking of Old Mr Darcy as being a friend of yours," Mr Wickham began.

"Not friend exactly," Younge corrected with a slight chuckle. He gestured to the bottle in his hand with another similar exhale. "He was a very inquisitive spirit."

"And would you say secretive?" Wickham inquired eagerly. "About what was found in the dust for instance?"

"Why? What do you mean?" Younge asked, leaning forward in his seat, curious.

Wickham said nothing in reply, but instead made an effort to stand up, before half hobbling, half stumbling outside, beckoning his guest to follow with one of his crutches, into the valley of the dust heaps.

"Did Old Darcy ever mention how he found things?" Wickham added as they tramped their way up and over the mounds, taking care not to lose neither their footing nor a drop from the bottles of gin in their hands. "Whether he started at the top of the mounds or at the bottom? Whether he prodded or scooped?"

"And might you have prodded or scooped a little by yourself and found your physical deficiency too difficult to overcome?" Younge gathered astutely.

Wickham let the reference to his physical deficiency pass by in order to continue stating his business proposition. "Now Younge, here is my friendly proposal. If there is anything to be found on these premises, be it money, or jewels or papers, let us find it together. We agree to share the profits, we agree to further the cause of right."

Had Younge been sober, he might have listened to the doubts that his moral compass served to create in his mind. As it was, soured by drink and in matters of love, his curiosity overwhelmed his conscience, causing him to inquire further. "You've found nothing yet?"

"I've only skimmed it," Wickham informed him. "Skimmed," he repeated, gesturing at the vast expanse of mounds with his hands and the objects they clasped, a walking stick and beer bottle, taking great care not to lose his grip of either, nor his footing.

Younge took a drink from his bottle as he considered the proposition. "I scarcely know what to say to your proposal, Mr Wickham," he murmured after the liquid was swallowed, silencing some of the doubts from his moral compass.

"Say yes," Wickham suggested.

"If I wasn't so soured in the matters of romance..." Younge sighed as just the mention of that word brought back the full misery he felt when first reading Pleasant Jenkinson's rejection letter. "I've told you of the lady?" he added, waiting for a nod before he continued, as he was too drunk on both rum and misery to recall whether or not he had. "But being soured, and driven to reckless madness and desperation, I suppose its yes."

The two conspirators, now comrades in arms, clanked the bottles in toast of their new business proposition, before returning to the Bower, where their celebration continued to drain the owner's supply of gin.

It was several days after the death of the child that Elizabeth felt unable to neglect seeing her family any longer. Or more to the point, Jane would pay call on their mother and sister, for she had the patience to humour their ways, while she would visit their father. Making use of the carriage, she took her allowance and set off in the direction of his work, at the offices of King, Lucas and Foster, situated in Mincing Lane.

The clerks of said drug-house were very surprised to see a fine and elegant carriage draw up outside their window, and for a moment believed it to contain one of the illustrious owners come to pay inspection, or secure a new deal. But no, it was Mr Bennet's daughter, much to their amazement. Their surprise was such, that, when it was applied for, they happily granted him the rest of the day off to spend with her, without the lost of pay, charmed as they were by the beauty, grace and manners of the young lady.

"Well, Papa!" Lizzy cried as she embraced him outside the drug-house, once they had exited the offices to begin their amusement.

"My dear!" Mr Bennet replied, as he returned the embrace, pleased to see her. "I am glad to see you." He bowed his head for a moment. "I'm sorry I have not written. How are you and Jane?" He glanced around. "Come to think of it, where is Jane?"

"We are both well, Papa," Elizabeth replied. "Jane is visiting Mama and Kitty."

"Are we bound for Holloway then?" Her father asked.

Elizabeth shook her head. "No, I have something I want to give you, but its not in Holloway." She gestured for him to climb into the carriage.

"Its a surprise," she added, then ordered the coachman to be off to the nearest elegant tailor's.

Behind them, unseen by their eyes, and indistinguishable from the other vehicles of its kind who traversed the streets of Victoria's capital, another black Hansom cab followed at a more sedate pace, as though the occupier of that vehicle was curious as to where this handsome chariot was bound.

Mr Bennet stepped out of the tailors looking a great deal smarter than when he went in.

"Thank you, my dear," he remarked to his waiting daughter. "To have a new jacket and hat at the same time, is wonderful." He handed her the change out of the money she had given him.

Elizabeth closed his hands around the amount. "No, now you're going to treat your lovely young woman to dinner."

"And where shall we go, my dear?" Mr Bennet asked her, meeting her laughing eyes and smile with the same emotions within his own.

"Greenwich," Elizabeth informed him. "And make sure you treat me to everything of the very best."

They stepped back inside the carriage, and again the vehicle and horses off into the city, this time for the salubrious destination of Greenwich, where Society's finest and noblest whiled away their idle hours touring the extensive gardens and house, or dining at the many restaurants happy to capitalise on such pleasing countryside.

Hurst, who had been travelling in the Hansom cab which had followed them all this while, stood at the threshold of a side alley which led to the elegant tailor's, long enough to catch Miss and Mr Bennet's next destination, before returning to vehicle and directing the driver to follow the yellow chariot once again.

Mr Bennet was content to indulge his favourite daughter in all her whims for the rest of the day, so happy he was to see her and so pleased to see her happy. He recited speeches from their favourite play, which they used to read for hours in Longbourn's library, at the staircase to the entrance of Queen's House. Afterwards, as they walked past the river to the restaurant, he let her bang his walking stick along the black railings which protected the fine houses from those who could not afford them, as well as those who could. Before they turned into the street where the restaurant was situated, he taught her to skim stones along the water, with middling success. When they had entered the fine restaurant and ordered the food, Mr Bennet inwardly marvelling at the prices, and Elizabeth not caring a jot for the extravagance, he asked her amuse her imagination and his by telling him stories about all the boats they could see before him in the river. Elizabeth had always been a great storyteller, and this occasion was no exception.

"What about that one, my dear?" He asked, gesturing to a large trading ship which was temporarily stationed at one of the docks opposite, as the crew unloaded the goods it had carried from all corners of the empire for the imperial cardinal city.

Elizabeth smiled as she let her imagination run wild. "That one belongs to a merchant of immense wealth, who has married a very lovely young woman," here she gestured to indicate that the woman was herself, "and who is so wealthy that he actually owns all the boats you see on the river before you."

The food arrived, causing a break in conversation. Words between course were confined to what her sibling and parents had been occupying themselves with during hers and Jane's absence. It was not until the desert course that her father touched upon a more serious subject, such as what Jane and she planned for the future. "I suppose we may come to conclusion at home, my dear, that we've lost you and Jane for good."

"No, you can not conclude that, Papa," Elizabeth assured him. "But the Reynolds's have supplied your lovely young women with everything they need in the most handsome way. And they are such very good people, Papa." She paused to take another mouthful of the sorbet before her, wondering how best to broach the next subject, for it was one which her father would not like. Eventually she decided to just be honest. "Papa, I have a confession to make. I am the most mercenary little wretch that ever lived."

Mr Bennet was much surprised such a confession, for she had never given credence to such a characteristic, even when they had enough to afford to indulge in such a sin. "I should hardly have thought that of you, my dear."

"It's not that I care for money to keep as money, but I do care so very much for what it will buy," Elizabeth explained.

"I think most of us do, Lizzy dear," Mr Bennet pointed out to her. "About when did you feel this coming on?"

"That's the terrible part of it," Elizabeth replied. "See when I was at home and only knew what it was to be poor, and only knew the memory of Longbourn and its comforts, I'd grumble, but I wouldn't mind so much. But when I was disappointed of my splendid, albeit married, fortune and now see it daily in others hands and see what it can really do, I am now always avariciously scheming. I have made up my mind that I must have money. And as I can't beg, borrow or steal it, I must marry it."

Her father knew not what to say at this. Elizabeth had been his confidant for so long, that he knew not how to treat this piece of news. "This is most alarming at your age, my dear," he eventually settled for.

"Isn't it shocking?" Elizabeth mused, in a tone which belied her belief that such was indeed the case of her opinion of this course of action.

"Well, it would be if you fully meant it," Mr Bennet replied, still incapable of accepting that she did. "I thought you swore to marry for nothing but the deepest love?"

His daughter leaned forward in earnest. "Oh but I do, Papa. Talk to me of love and...." She sighed, her heart heavy within her. "All I see is Jane's happiness. But talk to me of poverty and wealth, and there we touch upon the realities of life."

"But, Elizabeth, what of your happiness?" Her father asked. "I know you could never marry a man unless you truly esteem him. Unless he looked upon you as an equal. If you choose to follow through with this, your other half may not be so charitably inclined to let you reap the benefits of an advantageous match."

"Tell me, Papa, did you marry money?" Elizabeth asked him gently.

Her father sighed, knowing now that she was serious in her present course. "You know I didn't, my dear."

"And are you happy?" She asked him, and upon him paling in pallor, immediately wished she had not. "Oh, Forgive me."

The visit ended on this rather sad note. Mr Bennet was not inclined for conversation and Elizabeth felt she had gravely disappointed her father by voicing such a frank indictment concerning her view of her father and mother's martial bliss, or lack there of. The both of them silent, perhaps each a little sad, she saw him back to the house, and did not follow him in to see her sister and mother, choosing to wait in the carriage until Jane was ready to leave as well. Tears slipped down her face as the pale yellow chariot carried them away, back to the Reynolds's townhouse.

She had gone to Holloway intending to do a good deed, and to see her father and family whom she dearly missed. She sent them what of her allowance she could spare, but the only notes she received were from Jane, who had always been a diligent corresponder, and now that her eldest sister was living with her, she had none. She knew her father hated letter writing, but she had hoped he would at least send something to her. Instead she had decided to visit and this was the result. After this she feared she had disappointed him beyond all of hope of a letter from Holloway.

Her tears were still in evidence when she entered the marbled hall of the Reynolds's house. Jane had inquired in vain for an reason as why she was so withdrawn and sad, and her father, when he entered the house, equally so. Anxious for none at the house to see her in such a sad state which would only provoke further inquiry, she darted to the stairs.

But it was too late. Mr Hurst was stationed with Mr Reynolds in the study below the staircase, the door opened enough for him and the master of the house to hear her return and subsequent hurried walk to the stairs. Turning round, he confirmed the information to his employer, before excusing himself to come to her side.

"I trust you had a satisfactory morning shopping, Miss Bennet?" He asked of her, not observing the state of her manner or tear stained features until he was immediately before her. Receiving nothing in reply but a sniff, he changed his tone. "Are you not well, Miss Bennet?" He asked her, handing her his handkerchief.

"I'm quite well, thank you," Elizabeth replied, though her tears were in plain evidence, disputing such an assertion, even as she wiped her eyes with the handkerchief that he offered to her from his coat.

"Well, perhaps you better stay indoors tonight," he suggested, thinking that given the time it was unlikely that she would be recovered sufficiently to enjoy the evening's soiree to which they had been invited. Catching her frown at him, he hastily added, "I simply meant that perhaps an evening of dancing and socialising would not be wise if you are out of sorts."

Offended, Elizabeth finished attending to her face and folded the handkerchief. "I'm not a child!" She cried, a petulant protest. "I think an evening's marauding and attracting is just the thing to raise my spirits."

She returned the proffered material comfort to his hand and he was left to watch her ascend the stairs, knowing he had angered her once more, on a day when her emotions were already greatly disturbed by other events much closer to home.

Jane had entered the hall by this point, in time to witness her sister's departure, and hear what Mr Hurst had said to her, and Elizabeth's response. Gently she sought to ease one person's suffering, knowing that he inquired with the best of intentions. "Do not be too alarmed, Mr Hurst. I was just as unsuccessful as you in my endeavour to make her confide in me. Though I have an idea of the reason behind her sorrow."

"Do you, Miss Bennet?" Mr Hurst remarked, turning finally from the now empty staircase to face her. "Might I be allowed to learn the reason?"

"She misses our father," Jane informed him, causing him to incline his head in empathy, perhaps even understanding. "Since her removal here he had refrained from writing to her, even though there exists no difficulties in the conveyance of such correspondence."

"Indeed, I would be glad to deliver them from him to her and vice versa," Mr Hurst assured her. "And any from yourself as well."

Jane nodded. "I have no doubt that you would. Our father loathes letter writing, but Lizzy and I had hoped he would write something to us at least. Yet he has not. And that makes her uncertain when she goes to see him, causing her to profess certain opinions which may not be her own."

"Even though he does not write, I do try to keep him and your mother and sister informed of your welbeing while you are here, Miss Bennet," Hurst explained. "I told your sister that I do as much only a few days ago."

"I have no doubt that you do, Mr Hurst." Jane smiled at him. "But my sister and my father have always been particularly close. And now they are apart, and she feels lost to him. And unsure that she could ever be close to him again."

Part 14.

Days passed, and life returned to normal at the Reynolds's house. Soirees were attended, with much marauding and attracting, admirers encouraged or rebuffed. Young and old of society amused themselves by such entertainment, either observing or involving themselves in these frivolities. Elizabeth recovered her equanimity over time, heartened when her father wrote to her, the letter followed by one for her and Jane from Kitty and then their mother. During the evenings when invitations or society was scarce, they received and entertained callers, gentleman and female, though the former rarely stayed as long as the latter, who were anxious to make themselves available for callers of the same sex.

When Charles Bingley departed the Reynolds's townhouse one evening after paying just such a call, he had no idea his departure was being observed, not just by the Miss Bennets, one with fond affection, the other with something deeper and more profound, but also by another seemingly gentle man who had called upon the ladies just after Jane had joined her sister as a fellow ward.

Mr Collins had retraced his steps to the cousins of his pupil Philips' elegant household, arriving just in time to see Mr Bingley departing. Suspicious as to the nature of his visit, Mr Collins had glanced into the elegant windows of the elegant drawing room, to find the elegant cousins receiving music tuition from a smart and elegantly dressed music master. The ladies' pleasure and enjoyment achieved from the lessons could easily be descried through the glass of those sash panelled panes, along with the tutor's contentment at their progress, taste, musicality and intelligence.

Collins returned to his school ashamed for his thought and Charlie's scheme that he could endeavour to fill the gaps in the cousins education which were clearly already being filled by Mr and Mrs Reynolds's resources. He was angry by their presumption, and Mr Bingley's presumption, for who else could have arranged it? Deep within him his passionate nature threatened to flood into his anger, causing him to seek Charlie Philips out when he returned to the school, and inquire if he knew the location of Mr Bingley's lodgings. His temper was such that his pupil received the details of what he had seen through the sash windows when he asked for it, a confidence which, if he had been in a more rational state of mind at the time, Mr Collins would probably have refrained from bestowing, for fear that the pupil would imitate the master.

Pupil and schoolmaster both however agreed upon one thing. Mr Bingley would be made aware of his presumption, the reasons why it was to be called thus and he would be impressed upon to correct that presumption at once.

Elizabeth stared into the elegant mirror of her boudoir trying to compose her thoughts as well as her composure, and appearance for another evening of frivolity which lay ahead of herself, her sister and Mr and Mrs Reynolds. But the events of the hours spent with her father continued to haunt her, despite the passage of time, and the letter she had since received from that quarter, along with the ones from Kitty and her mother, addressed to herself and Jane. She could not forget the sight of his face as he heard her words with regards to her future, and the unkind question she had asked him in order to justify her belief that she was right in her decision. She had been unjust, unkind and unfair, selfish even in her manner to him, which was particularly cruel, as she had not seen him in such a long time. Remorse and guilt set in the moment the question was spoken, and the kindness of her sister's and Mr Hurst's inquiries into her sorrow were more than she felt her due, as well as that letter from her father, which had been long and full of such details as he used to write to her, as though nothing had occurred between to upset or disturb him.

A quiet knock on the door delivered at this moment sounded unnaturally loud in the unnaturally still room. Hurriedly she pinched her cheeks and wiped away the stain of her tears, before calling aloud, "come in!" in as joyful a tone as she could presently muster.

Her sister opened the door, attired in a gown of the finest pale green silk. "I thought you would not be ready yet," she remarked, stepping inside. "My poor Lizzy," she uttered, descrying the evidence of grief upon her face and knowing immediately the nature behind it, for she knew her sister was still haunted by the visit, though it was over days ago. "What did father say to upset you so much?"

"It's not what he said, it is what I said to him," Elizabeth at last confided to her. "I was too frank with him, Jane. I told him what I planned to do with my life, and asked him many impertinent, nay cruel, questions to prove the rightness of my scheme."

"You mean your plan to marry well?" Jane sought to confirm. Her sister nodded silently before rising from her chair to choose her gown for the evening. "Lizzy, father knows you mean well. That you mean to endeavour to provide for our family, now that the Will which covered such a scheme is rendered null and void. But I am sure Mr and Mrs Reynolds would not begrudge us money if the men that we loved were, I shall not say poor, but unequal to Mr Reynolds's wealth."

"We cannot be certain of that, Jane," Elizabeth protested. "Already I have noticed alterations within their characters, which has not been to their benefit, or to others. Who is to say what six months, or even a year, of comfort and security will do to them?"

"It may change their manner, but I dare say it will not change them in essentials," argued Jane. "And whose to say that your opinion or plans will not change in just such a passage of time?"

"Perhaps you are right," Elizabeth conceded, though not as fully with her plans as her sister wished. "Who is to say or predict what the future may hold?" she sighed as she stepped into her gown of the finest cream silk, before turning to let her sister tie the fastenings. "Oh, Jane, I wish I could think as well of people as you do."

Jane was not completely satisfied, but accepted her sister's compliment all the same. Having helped her make ready, they exited the bedroom and joined Mr and Mrs Reynolds in the hall. The four exited the townhouse and stepped into the pale yellow chariot which awaited to take them to the home of the Lucas's, whose fine and elegant soiree they had been invited to attend this evening.

As Elizabeth mounted the carriage steps, a light from one of the upper windows caught her fine eyes. She turned, just in time to see the curtains fall to meet each other behind the glass of the window belonging to Mr Hurst's study. Her expression turned thoughtful as she entered the vehicle. She had endured the mysterious secretary's surveillance of her long enough. The situation needed resolving and she was determined to resolve it tonight

In the Temple, at the lodgings occupied by many scholars and practitioners of law, the gentlemen attorneys Fitzwilliam and Bingley were also dressing themselves in formal white ties and black evening jackets with dress waistcoats and long, dinner trousers for the evening soiree at the home of the Lucas's.

"Charles, if I could find you in a serious mood for once, I'd like an earnest word with you," Richard began as his friend assisted with his white tie, grateful to catch his friend alone for a time. It had been a while since Bingley was so long in his presence, as he had been frequently absent from the apartment of late, far more than his legal affairs usually tended to warrant. His friend was so rarely inclined to anything requiring such energy, and normally, took the habit of telling him when something arose which called for that resource.

"An earnest word?" Charles echoed the phrase with some amusement. "The moral influences are beginning to work. Say on."

"For some time now you've been withholding something from me," Richard continued, now brushing lint from his friend's jacket. "I don't ask what it is, you have not chosen to confide in me." Indeed, there had not been an opportunity until for such a confidence to be voiced. "But there is something, isn't there?"

Charles raised his hands to return the favour, adjusting Fitzwilliam's tie, then brushing the dust away from the jacket. "I give you my word of honour, Richard, I don't know."

"You have some design maybe?" Richard tried, knowing full well that contrary to his oath, his friend did know. "Or some new interest?"

"Richard, you know how susceptible I am to boredom," Charles replied.

Seeing he was not going to get his friend to admit whatever it was he was hiding from him, Richard settled for offering his opinion on the mysterious business as neutrally as he could. "Well, I hope it may not get you into any trouble."

"Trouble?" Charles echoed. "That sounds interesting."

"Or anyone else," Richard remarked as there sounded a knock on the door, causing them both to turn in the direction of that panelled barrier.

Fitzwilliam forestalled his friend from answering the sound. "I'm on duty tonight," he said, before going to open it. He returned with two visitors, whom he presented to his friend. "You recollect this young fellow, Charles?" He asked regarding the younger.

"Let me look at him," Charles replied as he took in the stern expressions of Charlie Philips and the stranger. "Yes, I recollect the young fellow."

"He says he has something to say to you," Richard informed his friend.

Bingley frowned, confused. "Surely it must be to you, Richard," he protested.

"So I thought," Fitzwilliam agreed, "but he says no. He says it is to you."

"Yes I do say so," Charlie arrogantly asserted. "And I mean to say what I want too, Mr Charles Bingley!"

Bingley moved his eyes from the boy and with consummate indolence turned his gaze on the stranger. "And who may this other fellow be?"

"I am Charles Philips' schoolmaster," Mr Collins replied.

"You should teach your pupils better manners," Charles advised. "Mr....?"

"My name does not concern you sir," Collins responded sternly.

Charles Bingley was unmoved. "True. It does not concern me at all. I shall call you schoolmaster, which is a respectable title."

"And in some high respects, Mr Charles Bingley," the schoolmaster remarked, "the natural feelings of my pupils are stronger than my teaching."

"In most respects I dare say," Bingley returned, as he carelessly lit a cigar and proceeded to lean upon the mantelpiece above the fire, "though whether high or low is of no importance."

"Mr Charles Bingley, I want a word with you!" Charlie Philips interposed with cry. "And I am glad to speak in the presence of Mr Fitzwilliam, because it was through him that you ever saw my cousin. And since then, Charles Bingley, you have seen my cousin often. You've seen her oftener and oftener."

Richard glanced at Bingley in surprise for such a revelation was the last thing he expected his friend to conceal. As for Charles, the moment Philips uttered the word cousin, he looked to Fitzwilliam to see how he took the discovery, before returning his gaze to Mr Collins with almost taunting perfect placidity, that Mr Collins soon found himself well-nigh mad from the received contempt and disdain.

"Was this worthwhile, school master?" Bingley asked Mr Collins in a tone of such complete indifference as to do nothing else but deepen the madness within the schoolmaster. "So much trouble for nothing."

"I don't know why you address me," Collins uttered, perturbed by the apparent insinuation against his intelligence.

"Don't you?" Charles queried, almost bemused. "Then I won't," he decided, the languid fashion of his voice causing yet more anger.

"Mr Collins and I had a plan for my cousin's education," Charlie Philips continued. "He's a far more competent authority than you. And what do we find? Why we find that she's already being taught! And without our knowledge. And we find, Mr Fitzwilliam, that your friend, this Charles Bingley, pays." Charlie was wrong in that account, for it was Mr and Mrs Reynolds who paid the masters to furnish the gaps in his cousins' education, but his master was right in supposing him to be handling it for Mr and Mrs Reynolds. Yet, although it was a perfectly legitimate form of business, the way Philips spoke suggested that the motive was something far darker, possibly even scandalous.

"I ask him what right he has to do this and how he comes to be taking such a liberty without my consent. I will not have any darkness cast upon my prospects, or any slur upon my respectability through my cousins." Philips' voice rose even further as he concluded his weak defence and went on to relay his demands. "Now I'm telling Mr Charles Bingley, that I object to his acquaintance with my cousin, and I request him to drop it altogether. As I raise myself, I intend to raise her. My cousin is an excellent girl, but she has some fanciful romantic notions about my father's death and other matters. Mr Charles Bingley encourages these actions to make himself important, so she feels she must be grateful towards him. I don't chose her to be grateful to anyone but me and Mr Collins! And if Mr Charles Bingley doesn't heed what I say, then it will be the worse for her!"

Bingley did all he could to appear unmoved by this threat, as indeed he was by the boy's immature and arrogant manner throughout his delivery of it. "May I suggest, schoolmaster, that you take your pupil away."

Collins ignored him, as did Philips. "Mr Fitzwilliam, you've witnessed what I have said, and I think your friend has heard me," he uttered in a more composed tone, but still full of arrogance and contempt. "Now, Mr Collins, as I have said all I wanted to say, and we have done all we wanted to do, we may go."

Collins kept his eyes on the lawyers. His pupil may have said his peace, but he had something further to add. "Go downstairs and leave us a moment," he ordered Philips.

Waiting until the boy had left, Collins addressed Bingley contemplatively. "You think no more of me than the dirt under your feet."

"I assure you, schoolmaster, I don't think about you," Charles replied easily.

"That lad could put you to shame in a dozen branches of knowledge and yet you cast him aside like an inferior," Collins declared devoutly, more at home in classroom where such displays were exulted than in the ways of gentleman scholars, who dealt with their knowledge more maturely. "But I am more than a boy and I will be heard."

Bingley tapped what remained of his cigar against the mantle of the hearth. "Judging from what I see, you seem to be rather too passionate for a schoolmaster," he observed.

"Sir, my name is Bradley Collins," Collins began again.

Charles returned the cigar to his mouth for another ingestion. "Your name does not concern me." He saw the man become disconcerted, and hesitant, causing him to prompt the teacher into conversation. "Come come, schoolmaster, speak up."

"I say what you are doing injures the boy and his cousin," Collins stated, though his words contained passion rather than conviction.

"Are you her schoolmaster as well as her cousin's?" Charles asked. "Or perhaps, you would like to be?" He sought to confirm, seeing the barely withheld untamed fervour in Collins' expression.

"What do you mean?" Collins asked, having no idea that the nature of his intentions towards Miss Bennet were so visibly apparent upon his face.

"A natural ambition enough," Charles remarked. "Far be it from me to say otherwise. Miss Bennet - who is something too much upon your lips, perhaps - is so very different from all the associations to which she has been used, and from all the low and obscure people about her, that is a very natural ambition."

"Don't you cast my background at me now!" Cried Collins.

"That can hardly be, for I know and care for nothing about you, schoolmaster, nor seek to know nothing," Charles replied.

"You may cast scorn upon me, but I have worked my way upwards and have a right to be considered a better man than you!" Collins cried.

"I have no knowledge of, nor interest in, your background," Charles returned. "I have only just learned your name. Now is that all?"

Collins felt the moral high ground slipping from his grasp and attempted to take hold of it once more. "No sir, if you imagine that boy..."

"Who really will be tired of waiting," interposed Charles.

Collins persisted in carrying his point. "If you imagine that boy to be friendless you are mistaken. And I promise you, you will find me bitterly in earnest against you."

"Is that a threat, schoolmaster?" Charles queried mildly. "In the presence of two gentlemen at law?"

"I make no threat," Collins replied. "I only wish to warn. Goodnight, sirs." He bowed slightly and withdrew from the lodgings.

It was not until they were within walking distance of the Lucas's residence that Richard had a chance of speaking to his friend privately; not only did he need to prepare his inquiries, Charles was quick to call a carriage and take them away from their lodgings after that rather strange and revealing interview, and just as quick to exit the vehicle when it came to halt at the end of the queue for entry to the soiree.

"Charles? Charles, Charles, to think I have been so blind," Richard began as they walked up to the house, now he realised the truth behind Bingley's recent unusual behaviour. He remembered well what Charles had said to him that night of Philips' death; that he felt like a dark combination of a thief and a pickpocket with regards to Jane Bennet. Now to have heard him dismiss the presumptuous concern of the cousin and his schoolmaster so carelessly indicated a far deeper concern that hitherto was never mentioned.

Bingley briefly ceased walking to turn round and look at him, as though he were insensible to revelations discovered in their lodgings only a carriage drive ago. "Blind? How, my dear fellow?"

"Charles, will you please be serious for one moment," Richard implored. "Now, the boy's cousin, what do you think of her?"

"There is no better woman in London than Jane Bennet," Charles declared. "No better among my people at home, among your people."

"Granted," Richard Fitzwilliam allowed. "So what now?" He asked. "Charles, are you in communication with this girl? Is what these people say true?"

"Yes and yes to both counts, my learned friend," Charles answered in much the same way as he had the schoolmaster's questions, only with much more warmth and sincerity.

"Then what is come of it?" Richard asked. "Charles, are you planning to seduce and then desert this girl?"

Charles turned round and halted outside Lucas's house, shocked and perturbed by his friend's almost casual assumption of his future actions, alittle saddened that his mysterious nature this past season caused him to speculate thus. "No, Richard, no."

"Do you plan to marry her?" Richard asked.

"Of course not!" Charles protested.

"Do you plan?" Richard persisted.

"I don't plan anything!" Charles replied, before resuming to climb the steps to the grand entrance of the house, where the door stood open, and a footman ready to take their coats. "I am incapable of anything so energetic."

Richard rolled his eyes in exasperation before moving to catch up with his wayward friend. "Charles, Charles...."

"Stop this mournful catechism, it really will not do," Charles beseeched.

"What is to come of this, Charles?" Richard asked. "Where is all this going?"

"My dear, Richard," Charles remarked, "I haven't the faintest idea."

Inside Lucas's, the wards of Mr and Mrs Reynolds reclined elegantly on a sofa together, talking quietly, entirely unaware of the conversation which had just taken place between two gentlemen of their acquaintance. Their attention was occupied with observing the other guests of the Lucas's, and the select circle which these Sir and Lady 'Empire' had gathered about them, or rather those who had flocked to pay court to these new illustrious personages of patronage and wealth.

The circle included Mr Reynolds, who was eagerly expounding the particulars of his previous profession, to less eagerly listening personages.

"First, there is the fine dust from which the bricks are made," Mr Reynolds was saying, to Sir William, and Lady Lucas, Lady Metcalfe, and Mr Harrington. "Secondly, there are the cinders which are used to burn the bricks into shape."

"What a complicated business," Lady Metcalfe remarked in a dismissive, imperious tone, anxious for that to be an end of the subject.

Mr Reynolds was oblivious to her superior disdain. "Then we have the rags and bones which are sold to marine store dealers," he continued.

"So much money to be made from rubbish!" Lady Metcalfe commented in the same tone once more, with the same anxious wish.

"Old boots, sold to Prussian shoe manufacturers. And lastly, though not leastly, any jewellery which may be found nestling in the ashes," Mr Reynolds finished, causing his young companion to clutch fearfully at the diamonds which surrounded her neck, lest the handsome jewels were suddenly snatched from their setting and buried in the dust mounds for others to find and make a fortune with.

In another group, Lady Catherine de Bourgh held court with a number of equally imperious and superior ladies and gentlemen, her nephew upon reluctant attendance, his arrival having been noticed by her from the moment the footman escorted him and Bingley into the room.

"So, there is your Reynolds, nephew," she observed to Fitzwilliam, in a manner suggestive of having a personal hand in setting up the establishment of the Reynolds's entry into the cream of Society. "Your golden dustman."

"Really! The Lucas's would invite anyone," a Miss Morris-Pope, one of the young debutantes of the Season, commented scornfully.

"Anyone with over twelve thousand a year," Richard reminded the young woman, who flicked her fan huffily. "The Reynolds's are very good people. They aim to make much good use of their money and enjoy themselves at the same time. I hope I would have the good-hearted grace to do likewise."

Lady Catherine tutted. "Really, nephew, I think you're in love with these Reynolds's. What does Charles think?" She asked, only to turn and find her nephew's friend nowhere within her view. "Where is Charles?" She asked, shaking her head. "He'll be skulking in some corner somewhere," she judged.

Richard refrained from replying, even though from his position by his Aunt he could see his friend, a cigar in his hand, talking with Miss Jane Bennet by one of the open doors as the Lucas's had invited too many people for them all to occupy more than one room comfortably.

Miss Bennet was smiling and listening to his friend, and Charles in turn was smiling and listening to her. Their conversation was full of things of interest to none other than themselves, and their position in the room was as such as to permit none to join or overhear their conversation. Richard's eyes remained upon them for but a moment, as his attention was soon caught by the movement of Mr and Mrs Wickham, as Sir William Lucas introduced them to the Reynolds's. The son of his late Uncle's steward had obviously invested wisely the four thousand pounds left to him by his godfather's will, and his late cousin's generosity before he departed for the Cape.

Charles too had his attention captured by the sight of these newlyweds, as he observed his sister and her husband bow and curtsey to Mr and Mrs Reynolds.

"Who are those people, Mr Bingley?" Jane asked him as she turned to see what had caught his eyes. "Do you know them?"

"The lady is my sister, Miss Bennet. Caroline Wickham. The gentleman is her husband, George Wickham," Charles answered.

"Why do they not acknowledge you?" Jane inquired curiously.

"We are estranged," Charles replied, and she turned to him with a sympathetic gaze. "My father resented my sister for being my late mother's favourite," he explained. "Upon her coming of age, he cast Caroline out of the house and forbade me from ever having contact with her. I do not wish to cause him hurt, even unknowingly, so I obey."

"How terrible, for both you and your sister," Jane remarked. "Were you close?"

"As close as a brother can be to a sister, in youth. But as we grew, Miss Bennet, we altered, in both disposition and vocation. My father expected both of us to earn the money he would endow us with; I by employment in some worthy profession, she by a wealthy marriage to a gentleman of noble pedigree. Simple enough, if she chose the man he intended for her. But she did not, and in the ensuing argument, my father cast her out of the house and his life, leaving her penniless, and impressed upon me that the same would happen if I tried to contact or assist her. Caroline refused all my help, proclaiming that she was quite capable of making an advantageous marriage by herself, and we have not spoken since." He paused, musing on the memory for a moment. "I was my father's favourite, she, her mothers' and my father resented her for it. I suppose the distance was inevitable."

"I am sorry for you," Jane uttered sympathetically. "I would hate anything to come between Lizzy and me."

"I am sure nothing could, Miss Bennet," Charles remarked earnestly. "You are both so alike in your dispositions, so devoted to protecting each other's feelings and passions, that nothing could ever come between you."

"Miss Bennet," a voice said now, causing Jane and Charles to notice the sudden appearance of one of the liveried Lucas footmen. "If you will excuse me, Miss, but a gentleman wished to talk with you for a moment. He is waiting outside."

"Tell him I will come directly," Jane replied. "Excuse me, Mr Bingley."

Jane was very surprised to discover that the gentleman waiting outside for her, was Mr Bradley Collins, and her heart and mind began to worry about her cousin whom she had left in his care.

"Don't be frightened of me, Miss Bennet," he began as she came towards him.

"Mr Collins. Is Charlie well?" Jane asked.

"Your cousin has confronted Mr Charles Bingley," Mr Collins revealed. "This very evening quite ineffectually. So I came here to ask you to think again. Do not take help from a mere stranger, but rather from your cousin and your cousin's friend."

Jane replied kindly to him. "The help Charlie objects to, was considerately and delicately offered, Mr Collins. Mr and Mrs Reynolds welcomed myself and my sister into their home, and offered to fill any gaps in our education which we may feel were lacking. Mr Bingley was intrusted to arrange the masters we asked for."

Collins sighed, overwhelmed by her beauty once more. "I wish that I had... Have I said these words?" He asked more himself than her. "I wish that I had the opportunity of devoting my poor experience to your service. But I fear I would not have found much favour with you." He paused, trying to control himself. "I am a man of strong feelings, Miss Bennet. I don't show what I feel. Some of us are obliged to keep things down. I only have one thing to say, but it is the most important. There is a personal concern in this matter which might make you feel differently," he began, but something in his countenance or manner made Jane draw away alittle, causing his courage to fail from revealing anything further. "But I see that to proceed under the present circumstances is out of the question. Will you please accept that there will be another interview on the subject?" He asked her.

Jane knew not what to say. There was something in his countenance and manner at the moment that truly frightened her. "Mr Collins, I don't...."

"There will be another interview!" He cried, in such a way that she had no choice but to accept the information for warning in the future. "Good God there is a spell on me," he murmured. "Goodbye," he added, before walking away.

Jane watched him go, a shadowy figure, dissolving into the night, his outline some times dimly breached by the street lamps. It was a while before she could tear herself away from the sight, fearing that if she did so, the foreboding she felt would only worsen. Even so, as she turned to go back inside, she felt his features and his words continue to haunt her for the rest of the evening.

Part 15.

Inside Lucas's House, Elizabeth had no idea that her sister had just attended the most disturbing interview of her life. She was more pleasantly occupied, as pleasantly as one can be that is when one is sitting alone upon a sofa, eyed eagerly by every personage in attendance, hosts included.

"You seem to attract the attention of all the young men, my dear," Mrs Wickham remarked to her as she joined her. "You will have many suitors, I dare say, and some of them must be agreeable to you. Surely, someone like Mr Fitzwilliam?" She inquired.

Elizabeth shook her head. "Dear me, Mr Fitzwilliam is pleasant enough, but...." she trailed off, allowing Caroline to guess the end of the sentence.

"His fortune is not sufficient?"

"You misunderstand me," Elizabeth protested. "I only meant I shall choose my husband carefully. I'm prepared to wait, as you have, find an equal match."

Caroline smiled falsely. "Oh yes, you can be sure George loves me as every bit as much as I do him." She rose, having learnt all she could at this juncture. "You need another glass of wine, my dear, please, let me."

Mrs Wickham walked away to the serving tables, where her husband was awaiting her company and the nature of her discoveries.

"So the beautiful Miss Bennet, the dustman's ward, what did you find out?" George Wickham asked his wife quietly.

"She will be more than a match for their fortune," Caroline replied, disappointed by her investigations. "For a stupid young girl she has uncommon...."

"Good sense?" Wickham finished. Caroline almost sneered at him, for there seemed to be in his comments a plan to remind her of her past folly regarding such schemes to acquire fortune, but she restrained herself, returning to the beautiful Miss Bennet instead. After all, everyone possessed a weakness of some sort that was susceptible to various methods, they just needed more time before they were revealed, however unwitting or intentional.

It was nearly midnight when Mr and Mrs Reynolds and their wards returned to their elegant townhouse from the Lucas's later, full of wine and sugared delicacies, which had been proffered to them all by those illustrious and superior personages anxious to court their favour and patronage.

"No need to ask if you had a successful evening," Mr Hurst observed to Miss Elizabeth, who took her time to ascend, or perhaps more accurately, stumble up the entry steps, while he waited for their return by the open front door.

"Very successful, thank you," Elizabeth answered, emboldened by the fine champagne which the Lucas's had served enthusiastically to their guests. "I'm engaged five times over," she teased as he took her cloak. "Hurst, I would speak to you inside," she added, before walking towards the drawing room, leaving him no choice but to follow.

She was standing before the fireplace when he entered, staring at the flames which a servant had lit to warm them upon their return. She turned as he closed the door and advanced to stand before her.

"Mr Hurst, you provoke me to speak to you," Elizabeth began. "I've been meaning to speak to you for some time. You must stop watching me. Stop judging me."

Hurst was not entirely surprised, having descried she would say something for a while now. "I admit, I do watch you, Miss Bennet. You must forgive me," he apologised, though not in shame of his actions. Neither her expression nor her stance changed, which he considered encouragement enough to admit something more. "Miss Bennet, I think I must tell you, that I think I am becoming...." he paused before rephrasing his confession. "That is I fear that I'm becoming profoundly interested in you."

Elizabeth looked at him, not sure whether to be offended or touched. She settled on the former emotion. "You know how I am situated here, sir. It is not generous or honourable of you to conduct yourself towards me as you do."

"It is dishonourable to be interested in you? Or even fascinated by you?" Hurst inquired, incredulous at the idea of disguising himself even further when in her company.

"Mr Hurst!" Elizabeth cried, annoyed by his presumption.

"I hope, Miss Bennet, that it is pardonable, even for a mere secretary, to declare an honestly felt opinion of you. A truly felt devotion." Hurst raised his eyes to her fine dark gaze. "Forgive me, but I cannot, I will not retract my feelings."

"I reject them sir," Elizabeth declared.

Hurst breathed deeply as he received the response which he had long suspected would be forthcoming if he ever admitted to her how he felt. "I should be blind and death were I not prepared for the reply."

"I beg you may understand Mr Hurst, you must put an end to this now and forever," Elizabeth entreated.

"Now and forever," Hurst echoed, almost desolate in both feeling and tone. "Have no fear for the future, it is over."

"I am relieved to hear it," Elizabeth replied. "I have plans for my life," she added. "Why should you waste yours?"

"Waste my life?" Hurst echoed, surprised. "Miss Bennet you have used some harsh words. I have been ungenerous, dishonourable, in what?"

"You know every line of the Darcy Will," Elizabeth replied. "Was it not enough that I should be willed away like a horse, or a dog, or a package?" she asked him. "Now knowing every penny of my worth, you feel yourself bold enough to speculate on me? Am I to be forever the property of strangers?"

"You are wonderfully mistaken," Hurst replied, yet refraining from revealing to her why she was, for he knew the attempt would make her more resistant to his feelings. He watched her turn to the fire, and took it as his signal to leave. "Good night, Miss Bennet. Of course I shall conceal all traces of this interview from Mr and Mrs Reynolds and your sister. Trust me, it is at an end forever."

Elizabeth turned as he reached the door. "Mr Hurst, I am glad I have spoken. You may not believe me but it has been painful and difficult and if I have hurt you, I hope you will forgive me. I'm really not as bad as I dare say I appear. Or you think me."

Hurst did not reply to her, silently exiting the room.

Elizabeth did not linger by the fire after his departure. The effects of the Lucas's fine champagne were fading away, making her feel alittle sorry for her manner when she spoke with him just now. But she was not sorry for the words. He had to stop, or it could lead to his ruin, and she did not wish that. She did not love him, but she did not wish to hurt him, or endanger him, either by direct or indirect action. But really did he think that he had ever stood a chance of her returning his interest? He was just a secretary. She was a ward of the Reynolds's, and she planned to use that connection to what advantage she may, for herself and for the betterment of her family. None of which would be achieved by such a match.

She left the drawing room and sought her sister upstairs, finding her within the privacy of her bedroom.

"Jane, are you well?" She asked her, upon observing her sister seated at her dressing table, seemingly emotionally exhausted by the events of the evening. "Mr Bingley told me that a gentleman had asked for you to meet him outside, and that afterwards you were not your usual self. Is anything the matter?"

"Oh, Lizzy, I've had a trial of an encounter," Jane confided. "And I see that you have also had such similar end to this evening. What did Mr Hurst say?"

"He confessed to possessing a 'truly felt devotion' to me," Elizabeth replied, sitting down on the bed. "To being 'interested' and 'fascinated' by me."

Jane joined her, chuckling at her sister's expression. "Oh, I think I could have told you that, Lizzy. Ever since I came to live here, I have observed him watching you."

"I am not surprised," Elizabeth replied. "Rather I am astonished that he should presume to think of me, and to follow me."

"But, Lizzy, he is a good man. A gentleman," Jane protested.

"I will not deny that he may be good, but a gentleman?" Elizabeth queried. "Jane, he is but a secretary. How would Mr and Mrs Reynolds react to such a confession? They would have him cast out of the house, I am sure."

"They would not," Jane protested.

"Still, the attention would not be welcomed," Elizabeth asserted. "Anyway, it is at an end now. I have spoken to him, and he has promised that he will no longer watch me, or profess such an interest in me. And this is not what I came to talk about with you."

"I know, Lizzy," Jane relented, letting go of her attempts at misdirection. "It will seem like nothing in the telling, but Mr Collins was waiting, to say something to me. He wanted to offer his services as to my education."

"As to your education?" Elizabeth echoed. "Why the nerve of the man!"

"He seemed in earnest, unselfish, disinterestedness," Jane murmured.

"But?" Elizabeth prompted.

Jane sighed, uncertain as to how phrase the feelings she felt whenever her cousin's schoolmaster was near. "He is a very strange man," she finished.

Her sister nodded, understanding the feelings behind the word, as any close sister would. "Well, I wish for your sake that he were such a strange man as to be a total stranger. Now, let us talk about a much happier subject. Let us talk about Mr Bingley."

"Mr Bingley?" Jane echoed. "Why do you wish to talk about Mr Bingley?"

"Because I am of a humour to talk about him," Elizabeth replied. "He is a gentleman. Do you suppose he is rich?"

"He said to me that his father wished for him to earn the fortune he would inherit," Jane replied.

"An unusual attitude," Elizabeth observed. "But perhaps a prudent one in such uncertain times as these. Do you think he is interested in you?"

"In me? Why would he be interested in a poor girl who used to row her Uncle Philips on the river?" Jane asked her sister. "I was so shy that first night I saw him I wished I could disappear," she confessed.

"That does not answer my question," Elizabeth commented.

Jane thought for a moment before replying. "Well, he has his failings. But I think its for a want of something to trust in. And if I were a lady, which I'll never be, I would hope that maybe I could help him become more..." she sighed, unable to think of the word, as she recalled his searching, tender expression whenever he looked at her. "Even though I am so far beneath him as to be at all worth the thinking of beside him," she added softly.

"I will not allow that," Elizabeth protested. "You are his equal, if not his superior."

"And I will say, that I do not think such a devotion as Mr Hurst has for you will be so easily quitted." Jane insisted.

"Then we shall part tonight in agreement to differ as to our opinions concerning these three gentleman," Elizabeth proposed, before kissing her sister goodnight and retiring to her own room.

Indeed, if Jane and Lizzy could see Mr Hurst now, they would both think that opinion. For the man was as laid low as anyone could be by the outcome of the evening's interview. The sanctuary of his study had been sought after his withdrawal from the drawing room, but the room, once comfortable and soothing to his often tormented thoughts, now seemed a prison as deep as the river which he was sickened at the mere sight of.

"Ah well, William," he murmured to himself as he placed his hands upon the desk, letting them support his weight, "you would find out. And now you know it absolutely. She has consigned you to the grave once more. And now you'll stay buried forever. For you have no chance of happiness in this life."

Any onlooker might consider his words strange, if they happened to hear them, and indeed, Mrs Reynolds was no exception. She chanced upon him as she came up the stairs, his room being in full view of said stepped elevator. She happened to glance at him as she walked by towards her rooms, hearing his words and watching him sink slowly into the confines of his chair, laying his head upon the palm of his hand upon the desk. There was something so mournful, so desolate, so lost in his expression, that the countenance was suddenly and instantly familiar to her, causing her to halt before the threshold to his study. At that moment the entire key to the mystery surrounding their secretary was laid open to her.

"William," she cried out, causing him to look up.

And then he had to dash out of the room, in time to catch her as she fainted away.

Part 16.

When Mrs Reynolds came to, she found herself in her husband's arms, her head resting on his lap, and the mysterious secretary standing before them. Only he was the mysterious secretary no longer, as she recalled from what she had seen and what she had heard before she swooned. Still surprised by what she had learned, she spoke in order to clear the last vestiges of doubt from her mind.

"William, is it really you?" She asked him.

Hurst nodded. "I am sorry I deceived you," he apologised sadly. "But I did not know what else to do."

"I hardly know what to say," Mrs Reynolds remarked, as her husband slowly helped her rise to sit upon the sofa. "How did this come to be?"

"It is a long tale," William replied. "And an ugly one at that."

"But you no longer seem unable to bear it alone," Mrs Reynolds observed. "It is time to tell us, everything, William."

He sighed and relented, then took a chair across from them and began his tale. "I came back to England shrinking from my father's memory, from my father's money and my father's choice of bride. Mistrustful of everyone and everything.

"I'd become aware over the course of the voyage that a third mate bore a similarity to myself that occasioned me to be mistaken for him. We gradually formed an acquaintance, it being known by general rumour that I was making the voyage to England to claim my inheritance. He, by degrees, came to know of my sad history, and my uneasiness of mind as to my future, and in particular, my future wife. So we hatched a plot that on landing we would change identities to buy me a little more time before reporting to Mr Fitzwilliam. We would watch Miss Elizabeth Bennet, as she accuses me of watching her now.

"As part of our plan, I left the ship alone. When we stopped at Jenkinson's I was still not suspicious, although I remember him taking a twist of paper from one pocket to another before we set out for our lodging. We cannot have gone a mile from that shop before we came to the house. It was a terrible, windy night. I'll never forget that roaring, it echoes in my head everytime I so much as glance at the river.

"'Why don't we exchange our disguises now?' my sailor companion was so full of helpful suggestions. We celebrated the start of our plan with a drink. The drug must have been powerful, for it took effect immediately. The next thing I knew, I was looking at myself as if I was a spirit hovering outside of my own body.

"The third mate stole my identity and the sum of money he had betrayed me for. And then suddenly there was the sound of an axe; a woodcutter felling trees, a crashing of wood. Intruders burst into our lodgings. They were attacking my attacker. My double-crosser, was being double-crossed. The irony was, their blows did not rain so hard upon me. The next thing I was aware of, was being thrown into the river.

"I do not know how long I was in the water. I do not know which side the river spat me out of. I do not know how long I lay there. I do know that I was choked to the heart.

"With the little money I had somehow concealed from the murderers, I wandered the city until I found the notice wall of a nearby public house. The police poster described myself, William Darcy, being found dead and mutilated in the river. Described my dress and the papers in my pocket and stated where I was lying, waiting to be identified.

"A brush with death has a profound effect. The heart is terrified and the mind has cold reason. I decided to stay in this half-death limbo. Why shouldn't I try my plan after all? Having mysteriously disappeared, I could still test Elizabeth. It seemed to my frozen mind, an excellent plan.

"The inquest pronounced me dead. William Darcy died. Frederick Denny, the name I used to see the body formally identified, disappeared. And William Hurst was born."

Silence- a nervous yet comfortable silence, one which comes from a person having confessed a matter which was a heavy burden to him, to another, the action giving him relief that he was no longer the only one who knew it -reigned the room when he finished speaking, as Mr and Mrs Reynolds took in the tale they had learned. Across from them the now non-mysterious secretary anxiously awaited their reaction, his eyes moving from gazing at them to the flickering flames of the fire in the hearth and the candles adorning walls and tables around the room.

Eventually a sound penetrated the nervous yet comfortable silence. A soft sound, an unexpected sound. The sound of joy combined with tears.

"Lord be thankful," Mrs Reynolds cried. "Here is our dear Fitzwilliam Darcy come back to us!"

William looked at her puzzled, not by her words, for they were true, but by her reaction. He had not expected them to cry for joy at this discovery. He felt ashamed for the thought, for he knew they were good, unselfish people, who would welcome him back to their home and their lives without a second thought for the legal and monetary consequences which would inevitably follow, but he had been so used to depending on no one but himself, being confronted with scoundrels, that this act of kindness seemed alien by comparison.

"Now my son," Mr Reynolds remarked, bringing a smile to William's still anxious face, as he used the title he had often addressed him by when he was a child in their house at the dust mounds, "what ever can have occurred for you to be in such a state as my dear wife found you in tonight?"

"Miss Bennet confronted me," William replied, looking away into the flames of the fire, which still warmed the room where only hours ago the event he was now summarising took place. "She rejected my affections for her, and told me to stop watching her, to stop judging her." He paused to blink away the grief which came upon him at the memory.

"You did not tell her the truth?" Mrs Reynolds asked.

"How could I? It would force her into a marriage with a man she has no affection for. A man who does not deserve her, even if she did."

"Now, William, that is not true," Mrs Reynolds protested. "You are a good, honourable man, who clearly loves her."

"I do not attempt to deny that I ardently admire and love her," he replied. "But I have been watching her, judging her character, judging her worthiness. She was right to confront me on it, just as it would be right now for me to leave."

"Leave?" Mrs Reynolds echoed.

"I cannot stay stranded in this limbo between life and death any longer. I shall leave London tonight."

"But where will you go?" Mr Reynolds asked him. "What will you do?"

"I do not know," William replied. "Nevertheless I must go."

"Why must you go, William?" Mrs Reynolds remarked. "It is an easy matter to bring you back to life. We could call your cousin and the Inspector in the morning, and have the whole thing sorted by the end of the day."

William shook his head. "My dear friends, good old faithful servants; you deserve my fortune. I know that you plan to spend it wisely. If I were to come back to life I will inherit that fortune and with it, sordidly buy a beautiful creature who has little regard for me. I would buy her and debase her in her own eyes aswell as mine."

Mr Reynolds turned whiter than chalk at the resolution being formed. "William, you are alive, we cannot keep the property and fortune which is rightfully yours."

"My father wrote many Wills," William replied sadly. "How do we know if he did not intend to leave you the estate after all?"

"We don't because the one which leaves you your rightful estate is legally recognised," Mrs Reynolds cried. However, her husband gasped and turned even whiter, causing her to look to him. "What is it, my dear?"

"I did find another Will," Mr Reynolds replied. "Buried amongst the dust mounds, secured in a metal box. It left your property to us, excluding and debasing you entirely from any claim in such terms as to destroy your reputation completely."

"You must have it legally established," William urged. "And I must leave."

"No, we will not wilfully disinherit you," Mr Reynolds decided. "You will inherit the fortune your father left you."

"I do not want Elizabeth on his terms," William declared. "If I can have her, I want it to be because she wants me too, for love."

"What would content you?" Mrs Reynolds asked. "What would make you stay? Would you stay if Elizabeth cared for you?"

"Why would she care for me?" William asked.

"She's a little spoilt, but that's only on the surface," Mr Reynolds remarked. "She's true golden at heart."

"Oh, if I could but prove so," William murmured.

"What if she was to stand up for you when you were slighted?" Mrs Reynolds asked him. "If she was to be true to you when you were poorest and friendless? And all this against any interest. How would that do?"

"Do?" William echoed. "It would raise me to the skies," he uttered softly.

"Well, make your preparations for it is our firm belief that up will you go," Mrs Reynolds decided.

"But how will we do this?" William asked wondrously.

"Elizabeth was a little frightened of me at first," Mr Reynolds recalled. "She thought me a dusty and brown old bear. What if I was to become that old bear she thought me once? William, prepare to be slighted and oppressed."

William Darcy,- or rather Hurst, as he shall continue to be known until all deception is at an end -looked at his dear friends with a mixture of disbelief, surprise and wonderment as to how all this would be accomplished. "Could we do this?" He asked softly. "Is it right to continue to deceive her?"

"If she does love you," Mrs Reynolds replied. "Then she will gain all that you and she deserve. Fortune and happiness. And when this revealed, she will love you too much to care for the deception."

Part 17.

After a restless night, filled with a troubled and interrupted sleep of concerned thoughts, all occupied with what had occurred the evening before, Jane was the first to rise in the Reynolds's townhouse the next morning. Silently she dressed herself in a simple gown, devoid of finery, and made her way downstairs, determined to find some quiet solitude for more rational reflection.

In the hall she found one of the footmen waiting for her, with a message that her cousin was wanting to see her outside. Puzzled as to why he had come this early, and concerned as to why he was here, Jane had little choice but to thank the footman and step in the cold and slightly ominous foggy morning air.

"Mr Collins, be calm sir," she could hear her cousin saying as she came towards them. "We have everything on our side. Hello, Jane."

"Good morning, Charlie," Jane replied, trying to conceal her increasing worry at the nature of their business with her. "What is it you wished to see me about?"

"Not here," Charlie replied, taking her arm in his firm grasp. "Let us walk to some place quieter."

Still puzzled, but seeing she had no choice, Jane consented and silently let her cousin walk her, himself and his schoolmaster, out of the rich suburbs, until they came upon the deserted graveyard of St Peter's, in Cornhill.

Mr Collins walked alittle away from them on arrival, turning his back on them in order to give the cousins some semblance of privacy.

"Janie," Charlie uttered, turning to her, "Mr Collins has something to say to you. I'll go for a stroll and I'll be back in a while. I know what Mr Collins means to say and I very highly approve of it." He pressed a kiss to her hand before releasing her from his arm. In desperation she clung to his hand, fearing to be alone one more with the man who had caused so much distress only the night before, drawing him back to her, but only briefly. "Now Jane, be a rational girl and a good cousin," he finished, before walking off.

Jane watched him go, the fear rising within her heart, unable to meet the schoolmaster's imposing posture, who seemed to loom over the surroundings as though he were a large memorial to his name, proclaiming the sad news of his state of affairs to the world. She thought to run away, but instantly dismissed the idea, knowing that it would only delay what he wished to say, not dismiss it altogether. Summoning some courage, she stepped closer to him, causing him to turn and face her.

"I said when I saw you last, I said there was something left unexplained," he began nervously. A silent pause followed, as he raised his eyes to her face, and found cause somewhere in her expression to pace the ground beneath him. "I hope you will not judge me by my hesitating manner," he explained. "Most unfortunate for me it is, that I wish you to see me at my best, and know you see me at my worst." He paused, attempting to collect himself. "It is my destiny," he murmured.

Jane knew not what to say to this. There was something so haunting in his manner, in his looks, in his speech. She longed to escape, yet felt unable to leave.

"You are the ruin of me," he uttered, starting afresh, causing her to gasp in protest. "No, you are the ruin of me," he repeated, dismissing any further objection she may have had. "I have no confidence in myself, I have no control over myself when your near me or in my thoughts, and you are. You are always in my thoughts now. Since first I saw you." His voice rose to a cry of despair. "God, that was a wretched miserable day!"

Jane felt obliged to speak now. "Mr Collins, I am grieved to have done you any harm, but I never meant to."

"There!" He interrupted her. "Now I have seemed to have reproached you." He paused, breathing deeply, as if all his energies were being exhausted by this conversation. "There are people who think highly of me," he added. "There is one, a schoolmistress who thinks particularly well of me. I have won a station in life which is considered worth winning."

"Surely, Mr Collins, I do believe it," Jane remarked, unsure what he trying to say.

He continued as he had not heard her. "And I believe if I was to offer her...."

His intentions were unmistakable now. Jane interrupted him, wishing to spare him and herself further pain by having him continue. "Mr Collins, I think I have heard enough. Let me stop you there and go and find my cousin."

"I can restrain myself, I can restrain myself," he resolved abruptly. Taking several deep breaths, he seemed composed once more. "There," he uttered, attempting to smile.

A tense silence arose between them, broken by the sudden intrusion of a street lighter, coming to snuff out the light by the graveyard.

Mr Collins looked at her with an urgent plea. "Please, let us walk awhile," he asked.

Jane wordlessly consented, reluctantly following him deeper into a row of grave stones crypts sheltered by a leafy hedge. Despite the increasing, if alittle foggy, morning light, they seemed to close upon her, preventing her from seeing some way to escape this encounter, forcing her to follow it through to its inevitable end.

"Now you know what I am going to say," Mr Collins began when he came to halt, his imposing posture giving away only a little as to the state of his emotions, by the fiddling of his hands at his cuffs. "I love you," he revealed. "What other men might mean when they use that expression I cannot tell. What I mean is that I am under the influence of some tremendous attraction which that I have resisted in vain." He looked at her, his eyes as haunting as their surroundings in the ghostly, misty dawning light of the coming day. "You could draw me to fire. You could draw me to the gallows. You could draw me to any disgrace." He paused to add in a tone almost of despair, "this confusion in my thoughts is what I mean by you being the ruin of me. But if you were to look favourably on my offer of marriage, you could draw me to any good, every good, with equal force!" he finished with a passionate cry. "My circumstances are quite easy, you would want for nothing," he added, somewhat calmer.

"Mr Collins...." Jane began nervously, fearful of what he might say to her.

He forestalled her. "I am in thorough, dreadful, earnest. Now, please, please, don't answer me yet." He turned away from her, gripping the gravestone nearby for support, his body weak from the passionate display of emotion this long speech caused.

Jane stood silently, watching his actions, wondering where her cousin was. Wishing he would return, or someone else she knew would come and rescue her from this dreadful meeting. She felt a darker motive, both behind his speech and the seeming pleasantness of this sheltered gravely patch, as though her suitor were a jailor, and these stone memorials his bars which would leap to his defence and imprison her if she said no. Yet what else could she say? She did not love him, it was as simple as that. Blindly or willingly, she could not walk into the shadow this man imposed. She had experienced its like before, to survive only by mortal release, and she could not help but feel that such an endurance would not end so well a second time.

"Now, is it yes or no?" Mr Collins asked her, breaking her silent reflection.

Jane feared to speak, knowing her reply would only incite his passions once more, but she also knew that she must answer him, and now, before she caused him further harm. "Mr Collins, I am grateful and flattered by your words, and I hope you may find a worthy wife before long and be very happy. But I do not, I cannot return your feelings, so it is no."

"And are you quite decided and is there no chance of change in my favour?" He asked, his hands still fiercely gripping the gravestone.

"I am quite decided, Mr Collins," Jane replied.

Something was wrenched out of him then; a cry of despair and anger, a sudden and violent stroke of lightning in this terrible storm. "Then I hope I may never kill him!" He cried, and with these words pounded his fist against the mournful monument, the movement causing immediate injury. Uncaring of the blood now dripping from the broken flesh of his hand, he suddenly turned and grabbed her arms, pressing her against another grave which resided behind her.

"Mr Collins! Please let me go!" Jane cried, truly terrified now, unable to meet the horrible expression in his eyes, trying in vain to resist the crushing grip in which he held her, almost as if he wished to strangle a different answer from her. "I must call for help!"

"This time I will leave nothing unsaid!" He yelled at her, refusing to let her go. "Mr Charles Bingley!"

"Was it him of whom you spoke with your murderous rage?" Jane asked fearfully, no longer just for herself. "Was it Mr Bingley that you threatened?"

Suddenly he let her go, withdrawing away, nursing his bleeding hand with the unharmed one. "No, I threaten no one," he uttered in a tone which seemed to belie his previously murderous one, while his look seemed to convey otherwise. "Mr Charles Bingley," he repeated. "He haunts you."

"He is nothing to you I think," Jane said.

Collins looked at her, and the expression within his wild, bloodshot gaze made her recoil in fear once more. "Oh yes he is," he hissed. "He is much to me," he added, the meaning frighteningly and deadly clear.

Jane calmed herself. His manner had knocked her usual politeness and will to think and behave with goodness to others, yet her tone and her words were more mild than perhaps they could have afforded to be in such a situation. "Mr Collins, it is cowardly of you to talk to me in this way," she remarked. "But it means that I can tell you, I don't like you, I never have liked you, and that no other living creature has anything to do with the effect that you yourself have produced on me."

Again he seemed not to hear her. "Of course I knew all about this Charles Bingley all the time you were drawing me to you."

"I did no such thing," Jane protested.

"Mr Charles Bingley, with him in my mind I went on and with him in my mind I have been set aside," he continued. "Oh I'm not complaining," he added, "I'm just stating the case. You may imagine how low my self-respect lies now. It lies under his feet and he treads upon it and exults in it."

"He does not," Jane objected.

"I have stood before him face to face and he has crushed me in the dirt with his contempt," Collins asserted.

"You talk wildly," Jane cried, knowing this could be not true.

"Quite collectedly," he corrected, his composure almost within his control once more. "I am quite calm. And I made no threat, remember." He walked away from her, out from the sheltered area, out on to the entrance path once more. "Philips!"

Jane followed him in time to see her cousin return from his 'stroll.'

"I am going home," Mr Collins told him. "I shall walk by myself. I shall be at my work in the morning just as usual."

If he intended to convey no indication of the result of this meeting, the schoolmaster failed utterly, for his pupil would have to have been blind to miss the wound across his knuckles, the fury within his eyes and voice, contrasted with the display of turmoil, fear, and grief upon his cousin's face.

Charlie watched him go, then turned to her, reproachful. "After all my endeavours to cancel the past, and to raise myself in the world, and to raise you with me." He took her hands in his, and continued as though he were the elder, and held some paternal authority over her, when in truth he could claim nothing of the sort. "Come Jane, lets not quarrel. Lets be reasonable and talk this over like cousins. Don't cry. As Mr Collins' wife you'd be occupying a far better place in society than you hold now. You can leave the riverside far behind you. Your ridiculous dust patrons and their patronising charities. Now we can set this straight. I'll tell Mr Collins this is not final."

Jane clutched at his hand, fearful he would tell him immediately. "I cannot let you say any such thing to Mr Collins," she said.

"You shall not bring me down!" Charlie cried at her.

"Charlie, how can you say such words?" Jane asked, puzzled as to how her refusal of marriage to his schoolmaster would ruin him.

"I'll not unsay them," Charlie replied angrily. "You're a bad girl, and a false cousin. And I've done with you. I've done with you forever."

He wrenched his hand from her grasp and walked away, leaving her alone and friendless in the graveyard.

After that distressing encounter, events were somewhat of a blur. Jane would not remember what she did following her escape from the graveyard, conducted as soon as her cousin disappeared from her sight. Nor would she remember how she recollected her bearings enough to walk in the direction of the Reynolds's house. Her mind was in such turmoil over all she had heard and said, that it could not summon up the care for her surroundings until she had formed some resolution as to what to do next.

She was woken from this daze by the appearance of another gentleman, who waited for her at the turning which led into the lane of Portland Place.

"Miss Bennet!" Charles Bingley cried upon seeing her. Then, seeing her distressed expression, added in a tone of the deepest concern, "what is the matter?"

"Mr Bingley, please leave me alone," Jane pleaded, glancing around her to make sure they were not seen together, as she could not shake the feeling that they might be observed.

"Miss Bennet, you know I have come expressly to see you," Bingley returned, falling into place beside her as she continued to walk home.

"Mr Bingley, leave me," Jane pleaded. "And pray be careful of yourself," she added, recalling Mr Collins' murderous rage only hours ago.

"Jane, what is the matter?" Bingley asked her softly, his concern for her overriding any thought to propriety of address.

"My cousin," she replied tearfully.

"Your cousin is not worth a thought, far less a tear," he assured her.

"Mr Bingley, I have had a bitter trial today," Jane replied, anxious for him to be gone far from her, so he might be better protected. "I hope you'll not find me ungrateful, or mysterious or changeable. I am wretched." She swallowed a sob and pressed his hands in farewell. "Remember what I said to you, and take care!"

"Of what?" He asked her. "Of whom, Jane?" He gently clasped her hand. "You will not tell me to go away will you? Jane? You will not send me away from you, will you?"

Suddenly she could bear his caring entreaties no longer. She felt the walls of the houses closing upon her, threatening to jail her, just as the headstones did only this morning.

Jane tore herself away from him and ran the remaining distance to her home. She opened the door, brushing past the surprised footman waiting in the hall, and ran upstairs to her room. Once within, all composure fled and she flung herself upon the bed, refusing to move until she had cried out all her terror and grief.

Calmness returned to her as night began to fall. She sat up, wondering how no one had yet to enquire after her welbeing, but grateful that none chose to disturb her privacy, for somehow, the release of all the grief caused by the morning had created within her the inspiration as to a solution to its end.

Though Mr Bingley may not have intended it, his words had given her a rational, if perhaps somewhat extreme, resolution to her present troubles. Silently she rose from the bed, threw open her wardrobe, and gathered her most durable, simple gowns and shawls, packing them into the large travelling bag she had arrived here with from her late uncle's home in Limehouse parish.

When that was done, she sat down at her desk, drew out some writing paper and pen and wrote a note to her sister and the Reynolds's, saying that she had received a letter from their Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, inviting her to spend some time with them.

Outside Bingley watched the window of her room from his post within the street outside the house, his mind wondering what she doing and how she was. He had no idea of what could have taken place to cause her to be in such a state, but he believed he knew her well enough to wait until she had recovered, when he would have no doubt of being received by her into the house.

"She did not insist upon my leaving," he murmured, trying to convince himself when the delay stretched into the darkness of the evening. "She would not send me away. Charles, Charles, Charles, what a business!"

Her note written, Jane took hold of her travelling bag and left by the tradesman entrance at the other end of the house.

Continued In Volume Five.

© Danielle Atkinson 2010-2020. All rights reserved.