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Along The River.

Volume Seven.

Part 27.

We open upon a series of wakings throughout our tale, as morning conquers the fearful and violent events of the night before, the sun and blue sky casting a warmth over the green grass, country villages and estates, even the dusty, smoked filled towns of the industrial ventures, permeating through all realms of society, rich and poor, high and low, for it does not necessarily follow that one is the other, or vice versa.

No rain, either of a meteorological or metaphorical nature threatened to blot the landscape, ensuing a gentle calm after the torrid events of the night before. Up and down the rivers of Victoria's great imperial headquarters, dawn was calling people from their beds, noting who was absent and who was not, calling attention to what would face them today, what new trials lay ahead to bring torment or pleasure to their lives, or hinted perhaps at the portents to come.

Church bells from the numerous churches which occupied various areas of that aforementioned regal sovereign's great capital, greeted one of the lawyers who inhabited the quarters otherwise known as Lincoln's Inn, Grey's Inn, and Temple Bar, their chimes penetrating through the window panes into the rooms behind, calling him to rise and attend to his metaphorical lightly covered legal piece of furniture, also answering to such a descriptive name as the third of those aforementioned boroughs.

Richard Fitzwilliam abandoned all thought to attend to his usual morning ablutions, instead rising from his bed and wandering from his room to that of his friend's still in his nightshirt. A sight which he had observed for several days now, once again greeted him this morning. Crisp white sheets which adorned the bed belonging to his friend lay undisturbed, the pillows freshly plumped, without any indentation as to betray evidence that the piece of furniture had been occupied during the course of the night.

His friend had yet to return from his sight seeing jaunt. Richard's features grimaced, as his mind was forced to speculate once more on the whereabouts of his friend. Bingley had not given him a reason as to his motive for leaving the city, causing him such trepidation within his mind, a feeling which only worsened as the length of his absence continued to increase.

Richard knew that there was nothing of a legal nature which required that Bingley leave his lodgings for a time, as his friend had not been called to the Bar since before the Darcy romance, as he had taken to calling the circumstances surrounding his cousin's death. That left only matters of a personal nature calling Bingley away from the city, and since it was customary for Mr Bingley Senior, or 'most generally respected father' as Charles referred to him between themselves, to visit his son rather than summon his son to visit him, Richard was left with only one explanation as to why Bingley had left.

Jane Bennet. As the name of the young woman entered his mind, Richard's expression darkened a little further. Barely a week of her absence passed before his client Mr Reynolds called on to cease in his efforts for searching for the sister of his ward, his late cousin's intended bride, as the ward had received news from sister that indicated she was staying with their Aunt and Uncle in the country. He had informed Charles of this, thinking that to be the end of the matter. That was, until a strange visit was paid them some nights ago, by a drunken carriage driver, that Bingley had piled with three penny after three penny worth of rum until he revealed the location of that Aunt and Uncle to be Lambton, Derbyshire.

Lambton. Richard counted himself fortunate as to be familiar with the likely destination of Bingley's sight seeing jaunt. By a strange stroke of providence, Lambton was not five miles from Pemberley, the estate that belonged to his late cousin's family. He remembered running from the boundaries of that country home to the great chestnut tree by the village Smithy every morning when he and Darcy were boys, when Darcy's grandfather was alive and his father, Richard's Uncle, let him visit the estate.

Lawrence Darcy loved children, particularly his father's namesake, and generously allowed the offspring of his and his brothers in law free rein to visit Pemberley whenever the whim took possession of them. Many a delightful summer had Richard passed, sometimes with his siblings and cousins, sometimes just his siblings or just his cousins, rambling up and down the valleys which surrounded the estate, or the villages that bordered it. Even now he could claim as intimate a knowledge of Lambton as he possessed of the villages bordering his father's estate in Matlock, or the streets of London.

Thus, if Bingley's absence continued, it would pose little difficulty as to finding him, supposing him to be in Lambton. Richard did not have to ask for directions as to the Gardiner's address, and therefore acquire the concern of Mr Reynolds, he could easily travel into the village and ask one of the inhabitants that were mutually acquainted with him and the Gardiners for the whereabouts of their niece and thus his friend. Or even just seek a room at the local Arms and wait for Bingley's return, as doubtless it was the only place where his friend would seek lodgings for the duration of his stay.

Yet, even as his mind pondered the practicalities, Richard could not help but feel a certain dread as to what might await him in Derbyshire. His mind continued to recall the disturbing evening when Bingley bribed and imbibed the carriage driver, and the hunt which followed. He could not help but think of the man who preyed upon them, the schoolmaster, following them down every street, goaded into madness by his friend, who claimed such deeds were his only solace. Richard feared that Bingley had not taken care to shake off the dogged pursuit of that schoolmaster, and that Mr Collins had followed his friend to Derbyshire.

Further downstream, in what was then the rural suburbs of Blackheath, a faded redbrick, leafy wrapped cottage with a lovely tended garden greeted the dawn far more contentedly, having no troubles to plague the occupants from the night before. It was by no means a large cottage, but neither was it a small one, possessing adequate means of accommodating a growing family, or a childless couple. The structure was sound, the roof tiled, the windows paned and inside, the walls plastered. Airy rooms, consisting of beds, kitchen, halls and three good parlours, one of which doubled as a study, occupied the interior of this cottage, furnished comfortably by the owner and his wife, with more attention to sustain-ability and warmth that any desire to appear fashionable.

It was into this cottage which Mr Hurst had carried his wife, formally, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, over the threshold after they left her father's house in Holloway. He brought the place with his savings, and the furniture from his lodgings was moved into the rooms, along with a few other pieces which the couple received in celebration of their union, from the Gardiners and the Bennets. For a time they took occasion to become accustomed to living as man and wife inside the cottage, before Hurst sought fresh employment in the city, soon finding himself a job at one of the China Houses. Today was one of the many mornings when such employment called him to rise from his bed and depart from his house and wife.

Inside the house, Elizabeth opened her eyes and turned to see the peacefully asleep figure of her husband, William Hurst, resting beside her. Asleep, he had all the appearance of a little boy, with dark curled locks of hair caressing his forehead, crying out to be ruffled by her fingers. Domesticity had settled upon them since their removal from Holloway to Blackheath, and she found herself vastly contented, both with their comfortable arrangements and all the extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to their new situation.

Though her husband's gainful employment called upon her to spend many of the daylight hours alone in the house, Elizabeth found herself able to occupy and while away those hours, usually with the perusal of a novel or housekeeping or factual, historical book, or some needlework such as mending her or William's clothes, or a piece of furnishing for the house, or embellishing a handkerchief with their initials. She took great delight in the simple tasks of domesticity, such as helping their maid with the house work, cooking a meal for herself and her husband, or baking a delicacy with which to tempt their palettes.

She had never done such tasks before her marriage, for at Longbourn Mrs Bennet had made a point of her daughters being above such menial tasks that families such as the Lucases taught their offspring, before their great grandfather's knighthood and acquirement of an excess of wealth that granted them access to the highest circles of Society. Even in Holloway, Mrs Bennet had insisted that their father hire a maid of all works to cook for them, though it caused them a further stress on their now meagre finances.

Elizabeth smiled as she recalled her husband's reaction when, for the first time he arrived home, to find her putting the finishing touches to a small cake that was to be their desert that night. An expression of heartfelt delight diffused over his face, adding another attractive quality to his already handsome features. That night he had felt no need to ask her, as he usually did at least once a day, if she was happy with marrying for no wealth at all, he had known it from her flushed and delighted features as she presented to him their evening meal.

She often wondered why he felt a continual need to be reassured by her regarding such concerns, for as much as he told her that he did not doubt her word, the daily question caused her to speculate that he must have a motive, but what it was she did not know, nor could she begin to figure out.

Each time she attempted such a thought provoking endeavour, she would be forced to conclude that it was a shade of his character, a solicitousness born from either nature or nurture. She could not help loving him for it, as indeed she loved him for other shades of his character, the kindness, the gentlemanlike qualities, the manners, tenderness and passion with which he loved her each day of their married life. It was no hardship to be contented by such daily, unchanging treatment, to return such loving gestures just as deeply. Over all, she was happy with her life now, able to look back on her past as she to, with a remembrance which gave her pleasure, and to continue to gaze into the future, where she saw naught but her and William's continued happiness.

Closing her eyes, for the time that required them to rise was still some distance off, she joined her husband in the nocturnal realm for another half hour or so.

In the more crowded streets of the chaotic capital, where the dust yards ruled Maiden Lane and its surrounding boroughs, a crippled squaddie woke, not to the chimes of any of London's great churches, but to another canopy of noise that was of a more industrial nature, which caused a sudden and violent awakening, as though it were a storm greeting the quiet calm of the night before.

Scrambling for his supporting crutch, it was with speed and therefore great difficulty that Wickham rose from his bed and hopped his way across the short distance over to the window. He drew back the shard of well worn material to gaze out on the hazard that was greeting him with such a violence of sound this morning.

Outside in the yard below, people were hard at work, shovelling mounds of dust and goodness knows what else into the wheelbarrows brought in to rid the yard of the source of the previous occupant's fortune and move to more salubrious surroundings. Given the state of the yard, along with the sight of many already full wheelbarrows, it was clear that the people had been employed in clearing the mounds for many hours, and, if the quantity employed was any indication, their employer intended for the mounds to cleared as soon as humanly possible.

Wickham was incensed. Ever since he took up Mr Reynolds' offer of keeping guard on the old Bower and the mounds, he had come to view the probable fortune contained in the mounds below as his own. All his life, he had listened to his father's tales of woe, of having been disappointed of his rightful inheritance by the son of his godfather, forcing him to take a commission in the army. How such misfortune tallied with marriage to a woman who was the younger sister in law of this son was unclear, but Wickham never bothered to speculate, he was too conscious of the desire to revenge himself and his family upon that son and his descendants. When his father perished on the field of Alma, this desire overwhelmed him, but it was not until his own injuries caused by his own career in the army that he was allowed to be shipped home from the Crimea, thus in a position to fulfil that desire.

Meeting Mr Reynolds in London had not been entirely a matter of providence, he had researched the fortunes of the Darcys until he found the whereabouts of the current heir, and stationed himself in the borough to which Maiden Lane belonged, waiting for the first news of the return of that Darcy heir from Africa. When the death was published in the papers, along with the news that the Reynoldses would inherit, he followed Mr Reynolds until the man acknowledged him, whereupon he sold him his sob story of being injured out of his chosen career, thus angling himself into gainful employment. He settled into the house, confident that given enough time, he could wrangle his own fortune out of the mounds, thus depriving the Reynoldses of further profit, and revenging himself on his grandfather's employers.

When he found the Will, dated later than the one recognised, that intended all the fortune to go to the Crown, he was further incensed against a man like Mr Reynolds, who had the nerve to grab such a fortune that the country was entitled to. He felt, as a man who once served in her Majesty's army, that he had a duty to deprive Mr Reynolds of this fortune. That this Will, and, consequently the fortune, was his just reward for all the injustice which his forefathers had endured. And now, to see the mounds in the process of being cleared away, without any warning, or indeed so much as a by your leave, before he had a chance to profit from them, or proposition Mr Reynolds, it was enough to make him considerably angry. He felt all the injustice visited upon his father descending upon him afresh, overwhelming his senses, causing him to fume.

For a good ten minutes he stood before the window of his bedroom, gazing out upon the yard, fuming as he watched the people steadily clear the mounds away. Abruptly, a sudden calm settled over him, as his military mind awoke within him, and he began to realise the practicalities of time. Despite the size of the people employed and diligence in which they carried out their work, it would still take many days before the yard was completely clear of the mounds. Thus he had time to visit Mr Reynolds and put the man's nose to the grindstone. He would also have the advantage then, of Mr Reynolds acquiring more money due to the clearance of the mounds, thus granting him the opportunity to profit even further from his proposition.

"Clear the mounds, clear off the evidence!" Wickham crackled once he finished his ruminations. "It won't make any difference. I'll have you Reynolds. Your destiny is downfall and I'm the one whose destined to bring you down."

Up river, in the lock keeper's cottage that was situated upon the lock just outside Lambton, Jenkinson woke from his sleep to discover that the guest bed was empty. Not only that, it displayed little evidence that it had ever been occupied during the night. Rising from his own bed, he attended his ablutions, dressed, and exited his humble abode to discover that his house guest who had evidently quitted the cottage when he fell asleep, had passed his nocturnal slumber on the grass outside. Silently he abandoned his morning exercise, usually consisting of a stroll with his pipe down to the village and back, and walked over to observe the changes as to ascertain where the schoolmaster might have been.

Mr Collins lay upon his back across a small stretch of grass that lay between the hedgerows and the river. His complexion was flush, almost fevered, with the added stains of mud, grass and blood, spread across not only his face, but his hands and the part of his chest where the shirt was open to give himself the freedom to breathe. The very sight of such an open shirt suggested another observation to deduce, that his struggle to breathe had been caused by an altercation that required such clothing to be undone.

Such speculation was further evidenced by the overall state of his clothes, for aside from being worn by the usual wear and tear caused by wearing, they also possessed the appearance of having being in an altercation, stained with mud, grass, blood and sweat. There was also another dampness, which was different from the stains of sweat, as it was colourless against the faded white cotton shirt. Such dissimilarity was not easily distinguishable to the common observer, but then Jenkinson never thought so humbly of himself to consider his observations as anything out of the common way.

About the neck there was also a large circular bruise, caused no doubt by something, or someone for that matter, pulling at the red scarf which the schoolmaster had tied about himself, in what Jenkinson was convinced was a deliberate attempt to frame him for any dark actions that the schoolmaster decided to commit.

"He's been hung on to pretty tight," Jenkinson observed aloud, for Mr Collins was sleeping the heavy sleep of someone exhausted and unlikely to be disturbed by speech, providing such speech was not unduly loud. "He's been in the grass, and he's been in the water." For Jenkinson, having been raised by a career in the many occupations involving the river, knew the difference between sweat and water stains when he saw them. "And he's spotted and I know with what. And I know with whose."

Within the village of Lambton, in the locals Arms, a distressful scene was to be met by the local physician, as he arrived that morning, having been summoned from his home and his family only minutes ago. A local man, he was the latest of his forefathers to have been born and raised in the village, and in the profession which he chose to train for. He was blessed with a natural compassion when it came to dealing with patients and those closest to them, that was only enhanced by his medical training. There were few people in the village and outside it that could not speak well of his affability and ability to tend to the sick.

The scene which caused him distress was the sight of a young woman, cradling a man in her arms, a man who was bloodied and bruised, and, given the condition of his general appearance alone, looked miraculous to have survived the night.

Gently he crouched beside the young woman who held the man, silently surveying the severe damage which had been visited upon his body as he asked the occupants within the room a question. "Who brought him in?"

"I did sir," the young woman beside him replied, causing him to blink as he took a fresh impression of her.

"You, my dear?" he murmured, amazed, as he observed her slender figure, and stricken countenance. Despite her clothes, she looked for all the world to be a daughter of gentleman, or at least a comfortable merchant, not belonging to the circles that used their fists to settle disputes, which the man in her arms looked to be the victim of. "You could not lift, far less carry, his weight."

"I think I could not, sir, but I'm sure that I did," she confirmed.

The physician nodded, and moved his gaze from her face to his patient. Summoning his training, he carefully and diligently examined the injuries, ascertaining their depth, the damage to the bones, muscle and or organ situated below, and assessed what little progress the body itself had made to try and heal these wounds.

All through his exam, the young lady did not move, except to assist him in moving the patient, her slender hands tending to the man's fevered brow with a gentle, soothing caress. What concerned him even more, was the lack of response from the man himself, who continued to remain in an unconscious state as he was moved and prodded, unaware of what was taking place.

"What happened to this man?" he asked the young woman. "Were you able to see what foul act befell him?"

The young woman shook his head. "No, sir, it was dark. I was walking in the fields outside the village, and I heard a splash."

"You were out alone in the fields at night?" the physician sought to confirm. Receiving a nod, he felt it his duty to admonish the young woman for such ill thought as to her safety. "It is dangerous to be out at such an hour of the day, my child, even such a village with as good a reputation as Lambton has. You never know with what ruffians you might meet."

"I know, sir," the young woman answered. "I have lived in London, sir, and I know what horrors men or women are sometimes driven to. I am used to being awake at such an hour, and I can protect myself."

He nodded, laying a hand on her own. "Forgive me, I did not mean to cause you further distress. You were saying you heard a splash?"

"Yes. I went to the source, and I saw Mr ... Bingley lying in the river."

"Mr Bingley?" He echoed. "The gentleman told you his name?" If this man had managed to regain consciousness at some point during the night, there was hope for him yet.

"No, I knew him in London, sir. He is a lawyer, he had occasion to deal with a case involving my family. I could see he was unable to remove himself from the water, so I took the boat that I saw was lying nearby, out into the river, and fetched him aboard."

"So you retrieved him from the river and carried him to the village?" the physician concluded, and when the young woman nodded, his estimation of her rose even further.

"Sir, shall I send word to his family and friends?" the young woman asked.

For a moment the doctor hesitated in replying, for he did not wish to alarm the young woman by asking her to send for the family, leading her to conclude the worse. "It might be beneficial, my dear, if he has a friend, for word to be sent. The voices of those he holds dear could give him the strength to survive."

The young woman nodded. Rising to his feet, the doctor reluctantly parted from her and the patient, to meet the landlady who stood waiting upon the threshold of the room, to deliver his dreadful diagnosis.

"Attend to the girl," he advised the woman, who was a good and generous owner of this fine establishment, respected by parishioners and guests alike. "She must be amazingly strong at heart, but I fear that she's set her heart upon the dead."

Back at Blackheath, in the dearly situated cottage, Hurst observed his wife as they broke their fast, wondering if today he would tell her, and, seeing the contented state of her beautiful features, immediately deciding against it. Everyday he contemplated whether or not to tell her the truth, and everyday he would see her so happy that he feared to bring out news which would surely spoil the emotion, for clearly she was satisfied with what little they had now, and saw no need to desire more.

He glanced at his briefcase, packed for work at the Reynolds's, for he visited the townhouse everyday, taking care to arrive by the servants entrance so as to avoid the surveillance of Mr and Mrs Wickham, who since his dismissal had taken it upon themselves to watch the Reynolds's everyday, no doubt in expectation of the earliest opportunity to foist themselves upon them and scrounge what money they could. His glance was one of reluctance, for there was little reason for him to go to work, as he did not have to earn for their living. Indeed, the only motive he had to absence himself from the house and his wife, was in order to keep alive the deception concerning his name and his true fortune. Now that he had Elizabeth's love, there was nothing but his own fears to prevent him from telling her that they were rich, his fear that she would resent him for lying to her.

Turning his gaze from the briefcase, to the woman beside him, he caught her own eyes occupied in travelling the same path. "Is there something wrong, my love?" He asked.

"No, nothing, my love," Elizabeth replied, but not without something in her tone, which indicated that she intended to say more. "I was wondering..."

"Yes?" He encouraged, eager to answer whatever concerns she might have.

"Well, if one day I might go with you to the china house." Elizabeth looked to him, her beautiful face full of eager curiosity.

An image sprung to his mind; of her accompanying him to the Reynolds's, discovering that it was not the china house, that his real name was Darcy, the man she was promised to, like a horse, or a dog or a package, and turning from him in disgust, their marriage falling apart, caused him to rise from the table with a sudden enthusiasm for work. He had never forgot the words she said to him when he first confessed to having an interest in her, they preyed on his conscience even more so since their marriage, increasing his fears that she would spurn him when the truth was known. "I'm afraid you would find my office life in the city very boring."

Elizabeth shook her head. "No," she protested as she followed him from their kitchen into the hallway to stand before the front door, watching as he readied himself for departure and journey into the city where that office was located. "Its just, I watch you pick up your briefcase in the mornings. I do not know where you go, or what you do, with whatever is in that important looking case."

Hurst ceased his preparations to leave, in order to clasp his arms tenderly about her waist, concerned that this seemingly light-hearted teasing curiosity on her part might be out of a need for more comforts than their present situation could reasonably afforded them. "Are you bored, Elizabeth?"

"Of course not," she replied so assuredly that it convinced him such was the truth of her happiness. "Our own dear house. Spending our own dear lives together. There's so much to do, how could I be?"

"You are not regretting it?" He asked, searching her gaze. "Having married no money at all? Absolutely no future whatsoever!"

"You must not tease me," Elizabeth returned. "Its clear I'm being tested in some way, but you will not break me, no you won't."

He leaned forward and kissed her tenderly. Another symbol of her love, another avowal of how happy she was, in their simple lives. Would she resent the sudden influx of wealth, he wondered once more, as he walked away from her. He had promised the Reynolds's that it would not be long before he told her, but seeing her so happy every day, in their dear, little house, made him muse that it would be nice to remain in Blackheath forever, without the demands of society and responsibilities that his fortune would impose upon them. For, while it did not deprive them of the advantages of a comfortable life, this anonymity did protect them from the opinions and occupations of Society, and the duties that his estate in Derbyshire would thrust upon them, such as the welfare of his servants and his tenants.

The welfare of his servants and tenants. Acknowledgement of such duties caused him to pause in his thoughts for a moment. It was not that he doubted of the ability for Mr and Mrs Reynolds to cope with such duties, indeed it was what they had been trained for, before they moved from Derbyshire to London to be with his father while he sought his fortune. It was rather that he could not help but feel that his refusal to publicly acknowledge those duties was an act of selfishness on his part, a crime against the reputation of his ancestors who had left him this inheritance to manage. He was merely a custodian afterall, it was expected that he would not shirk such responsibilities.

He hadn't, insofar as seeing to the welfare of the tenants and servants, both at Pemberley, the townhouse in London, and the numerous other cares of the Darcy estate, but he had not let it be known that he was a Darcy, and responsible for their welfare. It was a minor distinction, but a distinction nonetheless. In the desire to protect himself and Elizabeth, had he neglected the welfare of all those under his care and employ? It was a disturbing thought, and one which he resolved to ask Mr Reynolds about, during the course of the day.

Jenkinson clung to the shadows of the hedgerows that bordered the environs of the lock and his cottage, as he watched the schoolmaster rise from his deep slumber. He had spent most of the day before, sleeping beside the river, and now his body began to awaken, and rid itself of the violence it seemed to have visited on someone, in a similar manner as to what he did when he was revived from almost being drowned in the river. He stood silent, as Collins coughed himself into an awareness of his surroundings, then hurriedly attempt to brush away the evidence of how he had spent the night. This care caused Jenkinson to inwardly grin, for such concealment was useless, as he was about to inform the schoolmaster, once he sought him out.

Emerging from the hedgerows, he watched Collins attempt to hide the blood which was littered about his attire, as he walked along the lock to greet him. "Why t'otherest, I thought you been and gone and lost yourself," he remarked. "Two nights away. I almost believed you'd given me the slip. 'Cept I knows you's an honest man and a respectable schoolmaster."

Jenkinson gestured for Collins to follow him inside his house, presenting him with a table and chairs, upon which was laid some bread and cheese, enough for a meal for himself and the schoolmaster. "Eat, you must be starved after all your travelling."

"I'm not hungry," Collins protested, but the sight and smell of food was enough to alter his mind, and a violent hunger conquered him, causing him to grab a knife and attack the humble provision before him with a vengeance.

"Watch out, t'otherest, you'll cut your hand," Jenkinson remarked, and sure enough, the schoolmaster soon did. He showed the lock keeper the wound, almost in defiance, shaking the blood from the wound upon him, before his host fetched a cloth with which to bind the injury.

Jenkinson observed the schoolmaster carefully as Collins returned to meal, attempting to cut the bread with a great deal more care than before, as he revealed what he knew. "Well, t'otherest, news has gone downriver before you."

The schoolmaster froze noticeably, gripping the knife in what appeared to be fearful anticipation. "What news?"

"Who do you think picked up the body?" Jenkinson remarked, inwardly grinning, for not only did he know who, he also knew how much consternation this would cause to the schoolmaster. When he saw Collins appear incapable of speech, he prompted him. "Guess."

"I'm not good at guessing anything," Collins responded resentfully, sensing a little of the glee his host possessed, and attempting to appear unruffled by it.

"She did," Jenkinson uttered, laughing as he watched the schoolmaster blink, drop the knife in shock, a exclamation escaping his mouth. "You did well there sir. She picked him up. She used her skills to recover the body."

Collins sank down into a chair, a darkness visiting him. When he struck Mr Bingley, he intended for the river to carry him some distance hence, away from the village, to claimed for dead by strangers, who had no knowledge of his acquaintance with the lawyer. He had watched as Bingley met with Miss Bennet, as they walked and talked, his mind reeling as they fell down upon the grass and shared a kiss before parting. He had not dared to watch them from a vantage point where he might hear their conversation, for fear of being seen, so he could only speculate as to what might have passed between them. Given their kiss, he was forced to assume that they were soon to unite themselves in the holiest of bindings.

This conclusion incensed him and caused him to remain, while she left the field, presumably for the village, while Bingley continued to stroll in it. Then he rose from where he had hidden himself and made his way to his rival, brushing past him before setting himself upon Bingley, attacking him. Minutes seem to pass them by as they struggled, but he knew that it could not have been more than one or two before he rendered him incapable of fighting back, and dumped him in the river.

During the fight, he had not given one thought as to how far the girl might have travelled. It had not occurred to his fevered brain that she could not have gone far before he set upon Bingley. He should have waited, followed the girl, taken the risk that Bingley would linger in the fields before seeking his bed. But it was useless to ponder the alternatives, now that he had committed the deed. It mattered not now that Jenkinson had referred to a body, not once saying that Bingley was still alive. Whether the lawyer was alive or no, his fate had not changed.

As Miss Bennet had rescued him, she would know who had attacked him, for he had been too foolish and angry that day she refused his proposal, to conceal from her his murderous intentions. He had doomed himself almost as surely as he had doomed his enemy. And her. He said once that she was the ruin of him. Now he had proved it utterly. "I intend to leave as the sun goes down."

"Well, t'otherest, you won't get far without something to sustain you," Jenkinson pointed out eagerly, for he had no desire that the schoolmaster leave yet, not while there was a chance for him to confirm why he was so bent on framing him, and what profit he could possibly gain from that. "So eat."

Part 28:

While the sudden energy to clean the dust yard in Maiden Lane roused the old squaddie that was Wickham into a state, his comrade and partner that was Younge of Clerkenwell, sobered himself out of the depressed condition which the combined influences of drink and unrequited love had served to make him vulnerable to the old soldier's schemes.

As he began to return to usual self, Younge realised the evils of the schemes, and the probable cruelty it would do to the Reynolds's, of whom he had always heard nothing but good. Even from Old Darcy, when the miser was alive, there had been praise for his servants, who helped run the dust yard and raised the children he grew to hate and dispossess. And now, since the Reynolds's inherited his fortune, they were known for being all that was liberal and generous around their old neighbourhood, doing what they could to improve the living conditions of their employees.

It further deepened his guilt, the thought that he would deprive these good people of the means to continue their charitable endeavour, by entering into a partnership with Wickham. The old soldier had little planned to do with what money he could blackmail out of the Reynolds's that did not involve enriching himself.

Younge could not imagine what he would do with such a fortune, except improve his shop and the lives of people he knew. The fortune would not alter his lonely life, it would not give him the hand of the woman he loved. If knowledge of his actions were ever made public, his reputation would surely be ruined. He had no motive for this scheme other than his verbal, drunken agreement to a partnership with Wickham, whom, Younge was certain, would be glad to keep all the money to himself.

In short he had nothing to gain and everything to lose. With this in mind, Younge sent a note to the Reynolds's, with the intention of apprising Mr Reynolds of the nefarious scheme, and, if it were possible, help him keep his inheritance, thus redeeming himself from the evils Wickham colluded him into. The note was short and succinct, containing very little beyond a name, directions and the request to see Mr Reynolds at his premises in Clerkenwell as soon as possible. Younge preferred to tell the man in person of the sin about to be committed against him, it was the honourable thing to do.

"Well I lost no time," Mr Reynolds remarked when he arrived, closing the shop door behind him. "I know an urgent summons when I see it," he added, gesturing to the note he held in one hand with the other.

Mr Younge brought them both a cup of tea, courage for himself and calming for his guest, taking sip of his before he began. "Before starting, sir, I have to ask we be in confidence."

Mr Reynolds nodded. "I suppose that sounds fair."

"I have your word and honour, sir?" Mr Younge challenged.

"Good fellow, you have my word," Mr Reynolds assured him. "How you can have that without any honour, I don't know. I've sorted a lot of dust in my time. I never knew the two things go into separate heaps."

"Very true, sir, very true," Mr Younge agreed. "Mr Reynolds, I have to confess I fell into a proposal of which you were the object and oughtn't to have been. I was in a crushed state at the time, having recently being subjected to a romantic disappointment."

"Quite so, Younge," Mr Reynolds offered understandingly.

"That proposal was a conspiracy," Mr Younge revealed, "against you, sir. I ought at once to have made it know to you, but I didn't, Mr Reynolds, and I fell into it. Not that I was ever hearty in it and I viewed myself with reproach for having turned out of the paths of science in to the path of.." he paused, seeking an appropriate name, at last settling on making his own, "....Wickhamery."

At the lock in Lambton, the schoolmaster finished eating and, having endured an atmosphere akin to a dead man being served his last meal for long enough, said a short, almost curt farewell to his host, before rising from his chair and heading for the door. Outside the greeting of the weather was little better, the cold air that signalled the onset of winter touching his skin with all the comfort of an executioner preparing him for the hangman's noose. Collins had felt the hemp close around his neck ever since Jenkinson announced what news came before him down river. The brief pleasure experienced in delivering violence upon the lawyer Bingley faded quickly in the face of such gossiping reprisals.

Doubt now resided where the pleasure had once been housed, and a larger nor more grandiose estate could not be conjured into being. Hindsight guarded the entrance to the room in which it was housed, beside memory, who replayed the act over and over again in his mind until Collins began to comprehend the depth of failure to which he had sank.

He realised now, that he had let his passionate nature rule his better judgement. That he should not have attacked Bingley that night, but waited, until there was no possibility that someone would rescue him from the violent blow that he dealt to him. Emotion had always been his enemy, the window to his soul that harboured his hopes and dreams of archiving something better than his dreary drudge of a life. Now emotion was his hangman. He had once said to her that she would be the ruin of him, certain that she would save him from this. But because of his passion, he had let her damn him forever.

Collins was an apprentice to this craft. Murdering may need no training, but the aftermath required a mastery which he, like any first timer, lacked. Nothing had prepared him for the conflict waging within his mind, just like no one had forewarned him of the evils that would hinder his escape. He had realised that such violence required planning, demanded that he conceal not just the act but his involvement in that act, but it had not occurred to his passionate inflamed mind that such concealment might be seen through. That by choosing to pin the blame on someone else, he would lay himself open to detection. It was true what the Inspector said, that murder lay within anyone. What was also true that one murderer can usually recognise another, long before they are even aware of it.

Jenkinson was one such man. When Philips accused him of robbing a sailor, and a live sailor at that, he had known that the sailor paid the price for making such a accusation. Nor that the sailor had not been the first or by any means the last. There was the sailor who gifted him William Darcy, the young man travelling home to claim his fortune and his bride.

Jenkinson knew from the moment he met that sailor, that the seaman intended to kill William Darcy and pocket the inheritance. That was why he followed him to the lodging, waited for the sailor to attack William Darcy, and then he would attack the sailor, robbing him of the inheritance he desired to plunder. Pinning the blame on Gaffer Philips took no great craft, just as he realised now that it would take nothing from Collins to do the same to him.

So Jenkinson waited for the schoolmaster to leave the house, then quietly rose from his chair and crept outside to follow him. Retribution was within his mind, even though he yet to have the proof required as justification. Evidence was not needed for his own peace of mind, nor for the schoolmaster's, or even the court. It was the threat of evidence, that would lead to courts which he needed in order to achieve his ends.

Without that threat, he could not profit from this act, just as he had profited from all the other murders committed in his name, albeit by his own hand. He knew that if it came to court, it would be the word of a rogue against a schoolmaster, but he also knew that would never get that far. For the schoolmaster would be too terrified to rely on his profession to prove his innocence, too consumed with the doubt and fear that his victim and his lady waited in the wings to testify against him.

With this scheme in mind did Jenkinson follow the schoolmaster, down the path that ran along side the river, far from his lock until the respectable dwelling was hidden by the greenery which surrounded hunter and prey both. Into his greenery did the rogue advance, using what pockets he could find to conceal himself when the schoolmaster abruptly halted, where from he observed his former guest divest himself of his clothes he had taken such care to make so similar to the ones Jenkinson wore, and then descend into the river.

"Not thinking of killing of yourself, schoolmaster," Jenkinson murmured, for he recalled the man's face when he told him of the news concerning the lawyer being recovered by Miss Bennet. He might not know the details of the relationship between the schoolmaster, the lawyer and Gaffer's niece, but he knew a black humour when he saw one, and Collins had worn such a murderously expression of that metaphorical garment since the news was relayed. "Not before I've squeezed the last penny out of yer!"

Instead of proving such an assumption true, and ridding the rogue of the profit he felt he deserved in payment of being framed for another murder, Collins began to wash himself, his body shivering under the assault of the cold water, causing his host some relief. No stranger to such customs of cleanliness in others, the lock keeper continued to watch as the man finished his ablutions and retrieved the clothes he had been wearing only minutes before.

He bundled them together and threw the bloodstained attire into the river, before dressing himself in his usual black school clothes, the uniform Jenkinson had seen when he first encountered the man, before he left London for his lock, receiving five shillings for his trouble of saying that he had witnessed the lawyer Bingley's kindness to Gaffer's niece.

"I see what you're doing," Jenkinson murmured, his eyes travelling the path of that bundle, knowing, thanks to his trade craft around water, where it would end up and how long he could wait to retrieve the bundle of evidence. "Trying to throw your crime on me. Well, we shall see about that, t'otherest. We shall see!"

Mr Reynolds quietly listened to everything that Mr Younge had to reveal, about the discovery of the Darcy Will among the dust heaps, the reading of it, and the quest to find out whether it was of a later date than the one officially recognised, and the plan to rob him of what they could by blackmail. He was not surprised that Wickham was behind it, but the lack of such emotion disgusted him all the more. Vindictiveness seemed to run like a hereditary disease within that family, tainting one generation after the other, settling to deprive one Darcy scion after another. The latest heir of the Darcy fortune was a deserving young man who did not need to experience more hatred than what his miserly father had already bestowed on him, causing even further grief to himself, his wife and Mr and Mrs Reynolds.

"Now look here, Younge," Mr Reynolds remarked when the tale reached the end. "If I have to buy Wickham out, I shan't buy him any cheaper for your being out of it. Might you pretend to be in it till Wickham was brought up and then hand over to me what you'd been supposed to have pocketed?"

Mr Younge shook his head. "No, no I don't think so, sir."

"Not to make amends?" Mr Reynolds persisted.

"Well, it seems to me, the way to make amends for having got out of the square, is to get back into the square," Mr Younge reasoned.

"And by the square you mean?" Mr Reynolds asked.

"The right, sir," Mr Younge elaborated.

Mr Reynolds sighed. "I suppose there's no doubt as to the genuineness and date of this confounded Will?"

Mr Younge shook his head. "None whatsoever."

"And where might it be deposited?" Mr Reynolds asked.

"Its in my possession, sir," Mr Younge revealed.

"Is it?" Mr Reynolds' gaze widened. "Now for any liberal sum of money that could be agreed, Younge, would you put it in the fire?"

"No sir I wouldn't," Mr Younge replied.

"Or give it to me?" Mr Reynolds pleaded.

"That would be the same thing," Mr Younge pointed out.

As Mr Reynolds began to despair of finding a solution to this matter, he heard the sound of singing, from someone making their way up the road.

Younge made to destroy all evidence of the presence of his visitor, removing the tea from the table nearby to the vicinity of the fire once more. "Hush! Here comes Wickham. Hide behind the young alligator in the corner, and judge him for yourself." He gestured to a beast which Wickham had long regarded with apprehension, and therefore would not care to examine more closely, thus discovering his comrade's decision to desert the latest scheme of revenge upon the Darcys. "Get your head well behind his smile," he instructed. "He's a little dusty, but he's very like you in tone. Are you alright, sir?"

"Yes," Reynolds just had time to reply before Mr Younge had to shut the drapes to conceal the animals, just as the shop bell struck, and Wickham entered.

"Partner, how's our stock in trade?" Wickham asked as he prowled the shop floor, sparing only a glare towards the exhibits he had long since tired of seeing. "Still safe, partner? With all your friends watching over it?"

Mr Younge noted the stress of slight fear upon the word 'friends' and inwardly breathed a sigh of relief that his quick concealment had succeeded, before he retrieved the document and showed it to his new visitor. "Nothing new, Mr Wickham?"

Wickham nodded angrily. "Yes, there is. That foxy old grasper and griper!"

"Mr Reynolds?" Mr Younge sought to confirm with a glance to the alligator, from which behind that foxy old grasper and griper peered anxiously over the meeting, trying to judge in a fresh light a man he had once taken pity over and offered employment.

"Mister be blowed!" Wickham scoffed at such a title applying to the man who had disturbed him so rudely this morning. "Dusty Reynolds sends his dust carts at dawn to wake me up. He's clearing those mounds to get the better of me. When I see him put his hand in his pocket, I see him taking liberties with my money! Flesh and blood can't bear it. No I go further, a wooden leg can't bear it. His nose shall be put to the grindstone for it!"

"How shall you do that, Mr Wickham?" Younge asked, with another discreet glance in the direction of the alligator.

"I propose to insult him openly!" The old squaddie cried. "Then, if he offers a word in return, I'll say, add another one to that, you dusty old dog, and you're a beggar! I'll break him. I'll drive him. Put him in harness, bear him up tight! The harder he's driven, the higher he'll pay! And I intend to be paid highly, Mr Younge, I promise you!"

"You speak quite revengefully, Mr Wickham," Younge observed, and which Mr Reynolds noted with regret concealed behind the alligator.

Wickham shrugged as though such a motion could shake such evil emotion and notions from him. "Perhaps I've allowed myself to brood too much. Be gone dull care! I'll be seeing you afore long. But let it be fully understood that I shall not neglect bringing the grindstone to bear and putting Reynolds's nose upon it until the sparks fly off in showers."

The old squaddie left the premises, leaving Mr Younge to glance at Reynolds, who waited for the sight of the soldier to disappear from view before he emerged from behind the alligator. For quite some time did he remain in the shop with Mr Younge, as both silently contemplated how they would foil this product of vengeful scheming without laying themselves open to further losses which the law would require.

At the school in which Collins taught, the man to whom that name belonged stood before his black board, his chalk in his hand, writing down the multiplication tables for a fresh intake of boys, who sat behind tables in his classroom, waiting for his instructions. But his mind not within his body, instead it was far away from him and his pupils, and far away from London, travelling upriver towards that place where there lay evidence of the violence which he had visited on the lawyer Bingley.

When he returned to London there was more news awaiting him in the newspapers; that the lawyer was on his death bed at a local Arms, in the village of Lambton, Derbyshire. Bingley may not be wealthy man by himself, but as the heir of his wealthy, if some what unconventional father, by choosing to have his children earn the money they would inherit, he held a reputation that required such attention by the press as to whether he still lived.

Details on the nature of his attack were still sketchy, but the reporters who wrote the newspapers had the joy of making up their own version of events, with all the gruesome violence and gothic horror such an age gloried within. Nothing yet as to the identity of the attacker, but Collins knew that it was only a matter of time. For Jane Bennet had retrieved the lawyer from the river, the same woman to whom he had first made his threat of wishing violence upon Bingley, all those weeks ago.

Not once did his mind believe that Jane would keep her silence. The estate of doubt still resided within him, acquiring more and more acreage to its name as he continued to think and rethink over the act, and what he should have done, as opposed to what he did do.

If I had hit him more from behind he would not have seen me, he realised silently, his hand hovering over the board, chalk poised to write out the next sum. If I had finished the job before throwing him in the river, he would not hover between life and death as he does now. Even now, he grinds me down. Even now, she ruins me along with him.

"Sir? Sir?" A boy called him out of the dark thoughts and back to the classroom. Silently he turned round to attend to his inquiry.

Part 29:

Several days passed before news of the attack would reach Jane's family members. As soon as she had the strength, she had written to Mr Fitzwilliam, who came to be with her and his friend as soon as he received the note. Richard had been devastated and shocked by the news, and at the desperate state of his friend's condition. Although he knew immediately who was responsible for this heinous crime, it did not prevent him from placing some guilt within himself, for not accompanying his friend on his journey to find Miss Bennet, or not counselling him more successfully, by persuading him to remain in London, make his peace with the schoolmaster and thus perhaps preventing this terrible violence from taking place.

All too easily did he recall the mornings he had spent wandering back and forth from his room to his friend's, hoping to see Bingley asleep in his bed only to be confronted with the then ominous reality of undisturbed sheets and an empty lodgings. Why had he not begun a search on the first morning that he noticed such a state of affairs? He was a lawyer and by no means inexperienced in these matters. Why did he adopted the manner of delaying and inactivity, the same one that he always reproached his friend for doing? It was not as if he could have wasted time searching, after all his supposition as to where his friend was likely to be proved to be the case.

With this blame and guilt in his heart did he take himself to Derbyshire and into Lambton, where such emotions only increased as he first set eyes on his friend. The physician was just leaving as he entered, and the good man delayed his departure in order to warn the lawyer that it would not be long before his friend began a journey of his own. Richard took in the sorry news as he stared at the patient, lying unresponsive in his bed, and the young woman beside it for whom his friend had risked his life to find.

There was guilt to be felt regarding her as well, for had he not promised the Reynolds's that she would be protected from the danger which sent her here in the first place? Inwardly and not for the first time, he doubted his career choice. So little had he succeeded at what was required of him by the few clients he could claim to work for.

"Miss Bennet," he began, as the young woman turned to face him. But before he could attempt to speak of his repentance, she rose from her seat to come before him and speak of her own, assuaging his altogether.

"You did nothing wrong, Mr Fitzwilliam," Jane uttered, quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping gentleman behind them. "If you need someone to blame, lay the charge at my door. It was I after all who was first warned of the violence threatened against Mr Bingley. I thought that by leaving London I would protect him, but clearly I should have stayed behind and allowed Society's natural barriers to keep his attacker at bay. My disappearance only inflamed the dangerous passionate mind of his attacker."

Richard shook his head, as the truth entered his mind at last. "No, Miss Bennet, if I am not to blame, then neither are you. How do we know what would have happened if you had chosen to remain in London? Mr Collins knew where we lodged, he had warned Charles long before left town. The only person to whom we can assign blame, is the schoolmaster and he will be brought forth to account for this." He took a breath, then focused his gaze on her. "Now, is there anything that you need for your present relief?"

Jane shook her head, but Richard could clearly descry some reluctance within the motion. He reached for her hand to press his point. "Please, Miss Bennet, you must attend to yourself as well as Charles. He will be comforted to know that you are not alone."

"I have no wish to make you leave when you have only just arrived," Jane replied.

"Ah," Richard nodded. "It is your sister, yes?" he waited for her nod, then smiled. "Then the sooner I go, the sooner I can return. In truth I should have thought to bring her with me in the first place."

Jane thanked him, then parted from his kind support to write a note for her sister, before sending him on his way once again. Richard took advantage of the age of steam, and found himself back in London within no time at all. It was almost dusk when he came upon the pretty little cottage in Blackheath and knocked for admittance.

Elizabeth Hurst frowned curiously at her visitor as she opened her door. "Mr Fitzwilliam, what brings you here to see me?"

"Pardon me, Mrs Hurst." Richard handed her the note. "You must believe me when I say that this note is from Jane."

Elizabeth glanced at the piece of paper. There was just one line and written very ill, barely recognisable as her sister's hand. Yet the words contained therein were unmistakable. Come to the Gardiners at once, I need you so, my dear sister. "It is very short."

"There was no time to make it longer," Richard replied sadly. "My dear friend, Charles Bingley is dying. He is dying at some distance from here, from injuries received at the hands of a villain who attacked him in the dark."

Elizabeth clutched her hand to where her clothes covered her heart, the letter creasing in her palm. "She is with him?"

"Yes, yes, she's there," Richard confirmed. "I've come straight from his bedside."

"Poor Jane," Elizabeth murmured softly. "Oh my poor Jane."

Richard gazed at her sadly. "Please come. She asked me to fetch you. We have long been much more than brothers. I know well the comfort received by the support of a sibling."

"Of course, I'll come," Elizabeth replied. "I just need a moment to write my own note, to my husband."

Her own note was just as short, yet she took care to make it as legible as she could. Leaving it somewhere William would find it, she grabbed what necessaries she might need for the journey, then joined the lawyer outside.

The ride to Derbyshire was quiet, full of deep thoughts. Richard handed her a newspaper which contained the most accurate report of the attack, and Elizabeth spent most of the carriage journey trying hard not to imagine the worse. She hadn't seen Jane since her visit to Pemberley, when she spoke of the resolve to keep herself away from Bingley, to protect him. She could only speculate as to what had changed; Bingley some how managing to discover her location, travelling up river to talk to her. Had he managed to before he was attacked? And had Collins attacked him?

The newspaper only detailed the serious extent of the injuries, nothing about who was responsible. From what little Mr Fitzwilliam had said, his friend was too near death to even contemplate identifying his attacker. And as much as she felt sorry for him, she felt far more for her sister, who was about to lose the man she loved. It would be like if Darcy had never drowned and come back to claim her and his father's fortune, parting her and William Hurst forever. She did not know how she would deal with the loss, let alone how Jane would be if the worse happened.

It was late evening when the carriage stopped outside the local Arms in Lambton. Richard helped her down from the vehicle, then they entered the pub and took the flight of stairs up towards the room.

As she pushed open the door and caught sight of Jane by Bingley's bedside, Elizabeth felt a sigh of relief come over her.

"He's still alive," she heard herself whisper.

"If he were gone, she would still be sitting by him," Fitzwilliam replied.

Jane looked up at that moment, and with a muted cry rushed to embrace her sister, leaving her travelling companion to take her place by his friend's bedside. Richard felt as if something heavy suddenly appeared to weight itself across his shoulders as he sank into the chair and took one of Charles' hands in his.

Proximity did nothing to improve the pitiful sight. Every inch of his friend's features seemed to be covered in bruises and what little skin that threatened to show past the vivid lurid colours was devoid of the proper pallor. Richard supposed that he should be grateful that his friend had yet wake and become aware as to the desperate state of his condition. But he also knew that if Charles did not wake soon then it was entirely probable that he would not wake again.

Elizabeth meanwhile, after directing one sad glance at the two gentlemen, led her sister outside for a bit of air, knowing that the sick room often caused the sensation of suffocation if not left by those who are well for brief times. "Jane, what happened before this terrible deed took place?"

Her sister took a breath to calm herself before she relayed the events of that day when she had suddenly encountered Mr Bingley in the village, and been asked to meet with him alone for a conversation. "When I heard the splash, I knew immediately that something had happened to him, Elizabeth. I do not know how I knew, I cannot explain it. Since then I have thought over that meeting so many times, wondering if I could have somehow prevented what followed."

"Jane, you must not blame yourself for this," Elizabeth uttered as she tightened her comforting embrace around her sister. "No one could have foreseen this violence."

"But I could have, Lizzy," Jane argued. "You and I swore we would follow our hearts when it came to whom we loved. You chose to do so, and I did not. I thought too much of what society would think."

"You thought to protect Mr Bingley," Elizabeth reminded her. "Jane, there is nothing wrong in what you did. Only the man who attacked Mr Bingley is blame for this. I hope he is suffering under a conscience at last, but I fear that a man who knows how to deliver violence such as this, cannot possess one."

In London, though the city was too far from the village of Lambton for the guilty party to hear such a speech, the schoolmaster was still discovering the truth in Mrs Hurst's words. Almost from the first moment after the deed was done did he begin to suffer under a conscience. He was an educated man, he knew well the price of murder, even attempted murder for the courts paid little heed to semantics.

It was only recently however that he began to discover the price that your own mind would set upon you while you waited for the offices of justice to come to your door. Not knowing if he was to be called to account for his actions was an ignorance far more likened to hell than bliss. He had little in his life to derive a measure of happiness from, and the future promised no relief, save death.

He wondered if he would find it easier to live if he knew that the lawyer would not, or that he would soon endure the price of his crimes. As the days passed, their hours shortening in daylight as was the custom when autumn turned to winter, a part of him began to hope that his violence would remain unpunished.

That he would be able to return to his life without suffering justice dealt by anyone except his own mind. Scholastic conscience he was accustomed to, it was something he was used to enduring. But if the words of others decided to intervene, he knew not what he might be driven to.

Abruptly the door to his classroom opened, and another master entered, disturbing him from his thoughts. Mr Collins looked up and could find nothing but pleasure from the welcome intrusion. The young man before him had prospered well since their parting, passing his exams with distinction and transferring into a school to become a master himself. Collins could not help but feel a small measure of pride at seeing such a product of his tuition establishing himself so successfully.

"Come in, Philips, come in," he beckoned, emerging from where he stood behind his desk to greet his former pupil. "Well, how is your new position?"

"Mr Collins, haven't you heard the news?" Philips asked him, brushing aside any attempts at civilities.

"What news?" Mr Collins inquired, moving to stand before his board, his hand reaching to retrieve the cleaning rag, so that he may erase the previous lesson and replace it with the one to come.

"The news about that fellow, Charles Bingley," Charlie replied, managing even now to convey the name with a sneer, and using the word fellow as if to imply that he had not ever encountered the gentleman before. "That he is killed."

Mr Collins's hand froze before the black board where previously he had been washing away the remnants of chalk. "He's dead then," he remarked before adding somewhat hurriedly, as if to counter the suspicion which might arise from his reply, "I mean, I'd heard about the outrage but I had not heard the end of it."

"Where were you when it was done?" Charlie asked. His former teacher made a gesture as if to answer, but he forestalled him. "No, stop! Don't answer that! Don't tell me! If you force your confidence upon me, Mr Collins, I'll give you up. I will. I'll have nothing to do with you!" He cried. "If your selfishness- passionate, violent and ungovernable selfishness -had any part in this attack, you've done me an injury that's never to be forgiven! By pursuing the ends of your own violent temper, you've laid me open to suspicion." He paused before querying, "is that your gratitude to me?"

Mr Collins turned from the board to face him, inwardly wondering what sort of gratitude did Philips think he was owed. Surely it was the other way round, as only one of them had profited from their meetings and it was not he. "You've no idea how long its taken me to reach this position. I did not have your natural abilities." He paused then added, "your cousin was something....."

"I've done with my cousin!" Charlie cried, cutting him off. "And I've done with you! My prospects are very good. I intend to follow them alone. Whatever happens, I hope you'll see the justice of keeping wide and clear of me. And I hope that you might think how respectable you might've been yourself," He turned and opened the door, uttering one final epithet before leaving. "And will contemplate your slighted existence!"

Collins remained still long after his former pupil had departed. He found himself disappointed by the young man's outburst. Arrogance had always been Philips' one real failing, and it was a shame that the fault had only worsened since he last saw him. But it was not his arrogance which called him to ponder on Philips visit long after he was gone, but the words, particularly the critique on his nature, which were too true be denied.

At the local Arms in Lambton, the deathbed patient stirred from his slumbers to call out to his friend. Days had passed since his injuries were inflicted, time which Bingley could not comprehend, having been unconscious for most of them.

When he did struggle to rouse himself from that state, his labouring could only sustain him for a short burst, causing him to learn the necessity of making his words and actions count. For a man who abhorred any activity which required energy, he now wished for such a strength to exist within himself daily. "Richard..... I must.... Jane?"

Fitzwilliam immediately looked up from his novel where he had been keeping post by his friend's bedside, although in truth the leather bound volume had held little of his attention from the moment he first opened it. "I'll fetch her. She's always nearby."

Charles shook his head, the motion only causing a further strain upon his suffering, yet the seemingly incomprehensible motion was immediately understandable in the eyes of his friend. A request that what he was about to say must not be spoken in her presence. "No.... she.... this attack... Richard, this murder."

"You and I both suspect someone," Richard sought to confirm, whilst his thoughts tried desperately not to fix on the charge his friend had laid at the guilty party's door.

"He must never be brought to justice!" Charles cried in a sudden fit of energy.

Richard sighed at the adamant protest, before attempting to dissuade his friend from the refusal to seek justice for the violence visited upon him. "Charles...."

"She would be punished," his friend added before he could utter another word. "Her innocent reputation. I've injured her enough. I would have injured her more, believe me. You must not avenge me at her expense." He reached out to clutch at Richard's hand, the previously limp body part possessing some sudden strength within its muscle. "Listen to me! It was not the schoolmaster Bradley Collins. Promise me!"

Fitzwilliam gazed into his friend's eyes, and seeing that he was in earnest, reluctantly agreed to obey.

In the Reynolds's house, the good lady of that name waited at the dining table with another young woman, Mrs Wickham, while their husbands attended to a meeting concerning a business proposition. After allowing several days to pass without witnessing a return of the secretary and the ward, the couple felt that the time was right to assume the positions they had scandalised their rivals out of.

Caroline and Mr Wickham presented themselves at the house in time for nuncheon, having spent some hours outside in the carriage, checking for a final time that the Reynolds's would be alone when they visited. The vehicle also acted as a useful hiding place from the debt collectors who had begun to ask for the bills of payment for the lavish lifestyle of which the couple were fast reaching their untimely demise.

When their card was presented to the footman and they were granted admittance, the couple determined to separate their host from their hostess, and Mr Wickham was soon closeted with Mr Reynolds in his private study to present their business proposition. Caroline meanwhile took to entertain Mrs Reynolds in the breakfast parlour, imagining inwardly many a morning spent thus in this finely decorated room.

"It is true that both my secretary and my ward have proved ungrateful enough to leave me and Mrs Reynolds stranded here in this grand house all alone," Mr Reynolds asserted as he and Mr Wickham entered the parlour, considerably earlier than either Caroline or Mr Wickham had planned for them to do so.

"Edmund, my dear...." Mrs Reynolds began, nervously, glancing back and forth between her husband and their guests, torn for feeling sorry for the former as well as the latter, disappointed at the Wickham's seemingly self-serving motives, as well as being forced to go along with such a scheme in order to help the Hursts.

"Oh, now look here, I'm afraid the old lady is a little uncomfortable," Mr Reynolds observed. Caroline Wickham made to rise from her chair, whilst her husband began to remove his supporting hand from her shoulder in the direction of their hostess, but Mr Reynolds forestalled them both. "No, no, no. You see it really won't do. She doesn't care to lead you on. Either of you. And I suppose it is safe for me to assume that you were hoping to fill these vacancies in our household? You and your wife have done me and the old lady great service. We mean to reward you. We think a hundred guineas should do it." He paused to take an envelope out of his jacket pocket and placed it on the table before the couple. "Now as for your filling any position in this house I'm afraid it won't do."

Caroline would have liked to found herself surprised by this somewhat kind refusal, but she could not find herself so. She had suspected as much when she and her husband were shown into the parlour earlier. Mrs Reynolds had done nothing but glance at her sympathetically, just as the housekeeper at her father's house used to do whenever her father decided to refuse her or her siblings, or her mother something it was not in his power to give. As her husband made move to protest, she felt the weight of their debts slowly piling themselves about her shoulders. "But, Mr Reynolds...."

Mr Reynolds shook his head. "No it really won't do at all," he repeated and Caroline was struck by something in his tone. For a moment she wondered if he had seen through their attempt to gain money from them. His expression and the odd note in his voice reminded her so much of when her father had suspected her own schemes to gain money when she carelessly run dry of funds before she abandoned his household in quest to gain one of her own, preferably more grander and richer than he could ever hope to possess.

Her husband tightened his grasp upon her shoulder, and silently she reached up with her hand to touch his fingers, preventing him from making a further protest. They had exhausted the scheme, there was nothing more they could do to persuade Mr and Mrs Reynolds otherwise. Understanding her motion, he delivered their farewells, before she rose from her chair and they departed from the house.

Although like his father and ancestors in many respects with regards to possessing the vengeful desire to take some of the Darcy fortune for himself, this George Wickham at least had the awareness if not perhaps the sense to realise when he was defeated. However he was not above adding a spiteful epithet or two upon the conclusion of the matter as he and his wife walked through the open gates that granted admittance on to the public streets.

"Let the old fool fend for himself," he remarked somewhat arrogantly. "There'll be plenty more jackals sniffing round here tonight."

At the Lambton local Arms one evening, the patient woke from his slumbering once more, to find the room bathed in candlelight, his friend reading and Jane sewing nearby. Several days had passed since he had been graced with such company, during which time his father had visited but once, complaining at the conditions of his accommodation for his excuse to return to London, rather than fearing to face the probable death of his son. The Gardiners too had visited, as well as Jane's sister Elizabeth, whom could stay only a night or so before returning to the capital to be with her own beloved.

For Charles himself, he was glad that Jane was by his side, just as he was glad that he found it easier to return to the world of living than he had during the first days of his injuries. However, was also tired, so very very tired of not possessing the energy to do the most simplest of activities. He who had once bemoaned his lack of vigour for life now realised how much strength he had used to live in the first place.

Bruising from his injuries weighed heavily upon his body, the mind stressed by the prodigious amount of time spent unconscious. Charles feared and yet welcomed the end of his suffering, for although he would like to face a time free of his injuries, he could not help but feel that such a freedom required the sacrifice of the company of the woman who attended him so faithfully.

He had come here in order to gain her, and now that he had her, he was afraid to lose her, yet equally aware that he did not deserve her. Summoning what little remained of his strength for thought, he recalled the moments when he woke to see her in the chair by his bed, where his friend sat now.

Keeping herself occupied, she would sew while he slept, or read to him when he did not, and he would savour the sound of her sweet voice uttering the power of the written word. When he did not despair of his end, he would dream of many a day spent employed thus, with her by his side. It was an idyll he could not imagine being easily bored of, and it was with this in mind that he roused himself to speak to his friend.

"How long will this last, Richard?" He asked, pondering the very real possibility that the physician might have visited while he slept and perhaps noted a change in his condition, whether for the good or the worse.

Fitzwilliam closed his book of law, although the attempt to focus his mind on work had been just as successful as the attempt to involve himself in a novel, and leaned over to look into Charles's eyes, observing the fire of the living still within their dark depths. "You're no worse than you were."

"I pray I shall last long enough for you to do me one last service," Charles remarked, his voice inflamed with that same element.

"Tell me what it is you want me to do, Charles," Richard remarked. "Try to be calm," he added, as he saw his friend abruptly grow short of breath.

"You may leave me...." Charles said, between breaths, feeling quite nervous and somewhat embarrassed at what he was about to ask his friend to do, a task he wished he had the strength to do himself. "Leave me and ask her...."

"What is it you want me to do Charles?" Richard asked, only to receive deep, wavering breaths in reply. Watching as his friend's eyes moved to gaze at the other figure upon attendance in the sickroom, he began to comprehend what kind of service his friend was asking of him.

"Charles, listen to me. Were you about to ask me if I would speak to Jane? Were you about to ask me if I would entreat her to be your wife?"

A relieved sigh passed through his friend's mouth, followed by whispered words of profound gratitude. "God bless you, Richard."

"Trust it to me, Charles," he assured his friend, before rising from the chair and walking the short distance to the hearth, beside which Jane was situated.

He found her looking up from her needlework, her face flush not just from the heat of the fire, but from having overheard the assurance to his question regarding her hand, her eyes and features radiant.

"You have no need to ask, Richard. The answer is yes."

Continued in Volume Eight.

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