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Along The River.

Volume Six

Part 22.

Back in London, in the area of the Temple and the law courts, Charles Bingley entered lodgings he shared with Richard Fitzwilliam to find his friend sitting in an armchair by the fireplace, smoking his pipe. His eyes were half closed, unruly dark brown hair falling over his forehead, pale grey fog seeping from the brown wooden cup at the end of the narrow tube sucked by his mouth. In the hearth the heat turned the coal a shade of dark red, the crystals sizzling as they knocked against each other. The fire cast a warmth around the bachelor lodgings, adding a comfort to the simple wood panelling, the Spartan furnishings, the small dining table with its four Chippendale chairs and the two large leather armchairs, one of which the lawyer in question reposed within.

"My dear Richard, you are the express picture of contented industry," Charles observed aloud. "Reposing after the virtues of the day."

He took possession of the facing partner of furniture in his usual fashion, a languid air of easy tiredness about his movements, an energetic study of lethargy.

Richard took the pipe from his mouth as he took in the seemingly languid state of his friend as he retrieved a cigar from the nearby box and began to smoke. "And you, my dear Charles, are the express picture of discontented idleness. Where have you been all day?"

Bingley gestured with the newly lit cigar to the streets outside their lodgings carelessly, a sprinkle of ash falling into the hearth. "I've been about town. And I am about consulting my eminently respected solicitor about the state of my affairs."

"Well, your highly intelligent and respected solicitor is of the opinion that your affairs are in a bad way, Charles," Richard replied. "How could they be any other, Charles, when you spend your entire day wandering the streets in search of a certain personage?"

Charles rose from his armchair to rest an arm on the mantle ledge of the fireplace, his booted feet kicking idly at the fender. Yet his disposition had acquired a sudden serious air in response to his friend's inquiries. "But you could say at least that I don't gamble or party or speculate or invest. Or any other greedy activity that may eat up my non-existent income."

Richard sighed at the sorry state of his friend, who presented an almost pitiful figure, driven to distraction and despair by the disappearance of a girl. "Charles. You know you do not really care for her."

"I don't know that," Charles answered quietly and seriously, with a small amount of anger that shocked his friend out of his reproachfulness. "I must ask you not to say that. As if we both took it for granted."

"But if you do care for her, you should leave her alone," Richard advised.

Charles continued to stare at the fire with the same lost, sad, distracted expression splayed across his features. "I don't know that either. Tell me, Richard, have you ever seen me take so much trouble about anything?"

"My dear Charles, I wish I had," Fitzwilliam answered.

Bingley left the support of the hearth and walked to the window, where he gazed out at the nocturnal prospect. "If my taking so much trouble to recover her does not mean that I care for her, what does it mean?"

Richard shook his head, gathering his arguments once more, as his hands occupied themselves with the refilling of his pipe. "You must consider the consequences."

"You know I'm incapable of that," his friend replied with a small smile, his gaze briefly switching from Fitzwilliam then back to the panes of glass.

Their serious discussion was disturbed just then by a knock at the door, which Richard made move to answer, half rising from his armchair before being forestalled by his friend.

"I'm on duty tonight," Charles replied before disappearing to retrieve their caller.

He returned barely a minute later with a man whose sight caused Richard to rise out of his chair with a start, almost dropping his pipe in utter astonishment.

The figure was a collection of ill-kempt rags and hair, skin oiled by the toils of the road and a life lived in the bottle. He half stumbled, half staggered into the room, despite Bingley's best efforts to keep him upright. A wild look possessed his aged features, gleaned eyes gazing about their new surroundings as though the walls were the cage in a zoo, or the conditions of bedlam. Indeed, Fitzwilliam half wondered if their visitor had escaped from that disreputable asylum.

"Now," Charles began as he ushered the man into the room, a sudden energy acquired to his manner and disposition, "this interesting gentleman is a cab driver who I found it wise to make the acquaintance of. My dear, Richard, may I present Mr Dolls?" He barely paused for Richard to incline his head in reply, let alone speak. "Now I believe Mr Dolls endeavours to make a communication to me, but it may be necessary to wind him up before any sense can be got out of him. Brandy, Mr Dolls?"

"Three penn'orth of rum," the already half-cut man barely managed to reply.

"Mr Dolls' nerves are considerably unstrung," Charles added. "And I think it upon the whole, expedient to fumigate Mr Dolls."

Richard watched as his friend took the coal shovel from the fire, poured a powder in it from a small tin on the mantle of the hearth and proceeded to do just that. "Bless my soul Charles, what a mad fellow you are! Why is this creature here?"

"Mr Bingley," Dolls queried, his gaze wildly following the attorney as he swept around him with the coal shovel, followed by the trail of fumigated steam. "This is Mr Bingley?"

"Of course it is," Bingley answered half irritably as he continued to fumigate the man and the area surrounding him. "What do you want?"

"Three penn'orth of rum," Dolls repeated, proffering his glass forward.

"Would you do me the favour, my dear Richard?" Charles asked his friend, who now reluctantly moved from his stance by the fireplace. "Wind him up. I'm occupied."

"You want directions don't ya?" Dolls recollected as Fitzwilliam carefully retrieved the carafe of rum and poured the required amount into the small glass that the coachman clutched in his shaking hand. "You want to know where she is?"

"I do," Charles confirmed, pausing from his fumigation for a moment.

Dolls attempted to salute. He was unsuccessful so settled for draining his glass instead before replying. "I'm your man."

"Have you got the direction?" Charles asked, his attempts to fumigate abandoned as his mind focused on the reason behind this unusual visitation.

"Three penn'orth of rum," Dolls requested once more.

"Wind him up, Richard," Charles commanded. "Wind him up."

Richard caught his friend by the arm as he realised the full nature of to what these inquiries were intended for. "Charles, you cannot stoop to this."

"I said I would find her by any means, fair or foul," Charles reminded him as he began to fumigate the coachman once more. "These are foul, I will take them." He turned to Dolls, pausing in his actions to urge the man on. "Can you remember the direction? If that's why you've come, tell me what you want?"

"Ten shillings, three penn'orth of rum?" Dolls asked eagerly.

"You shall have it," Charles promised. "Just give me the direction."

"Fifteen shillings, three penn'orth of rum?" Dolls haggled.

"Get me my wallet, Richard," Charles asked, to which Fitzwilliam reluctantly complied, leaving the parlour for a moment to visit one of the two bedrooms in the lodgings for the item in question. He returned from his friend's room, took a position nearby as he retrieved the coins from their confinement and handed Bingley the required amount.

"Here you are, Dolls, all yours as well as all the three penn'orth of rum you can drink," Charles showed the money to the drunkard. "Now, give me the direction."

"Plashwell cottage, Lambton, Derbyshire." Dolls replied, his eyes glowing as he eagerly eyed the carafe of liquor and the coins.

Charles returned the coal shovel to the fireplace, poured the fifteen shillings into the man's pocket, placed a large bottle of rum in one of his hands, and hauled him out of the parlour, towards the door. "There. Drink yourself to death for all I care."

Richard watched as the door closed and drew breath, preparing himself for another serious conversation with his friend, inwardly wishing that the Reynolds's would tell him the location of Miss Bennet so he could have prevented his friend from sinking to these methods of discovery. The dustman had been his first port of inquiry when Miss Bennet was gone, indeed the man had initiated the search, only to drop it just as suddenly, without explanation from him, his wife or his ward, who all seemed satisfied that the young woman was well and safe where she was, wherever that happened to be. Since then he had tried in vain to prevent his friend from continuing the search, and now that Bingley had discovered the location, he knew that all further attempts of persuasion could prove impossible.

"It seems to me that you have had no money at all since we've been married," Caroline Wickham, née Bingley, commented to her husband as they sat down to a dinner which lacked all the usual finery they were accustomed to on the evenings when they ventured out of Sackville Street to neighbourhoods of Portland Place. Indeed it was rare that the couple chose to stay at home rather than venturing out into Society, so lacking were they in the comforts to which they had long been accustomed to acquiring. No fine works of art painted by respectable artists graced their panelled dining parlour, nor elegant linen their simple mahogany table. Threadbare cushions resided upon their chairs and sofas, tiny embers glowed in their hearth, remnants of candles hung in the sconces.

"What seems to you to be the case, may possibly be the case," Wickham conceded amicably before taking a spoon and a sip of their meal. "In any case, we're soon to be bankrupt if we do nothing about the case."

A servant entered, placing another dish before them, causing the couple to fall into silence until they were alone once more. Considering their state of affairs they were lucky to still possess a half decent household, and a confidential one at that, so behind in the wages were they, for Society would have long deserted them if the truth were known, shocked by the state of affairs which their once newlywed friends were now reduced to.

"We find ourselves in a corner," Wickham confessed to his wife. "What do we do?"

"There's nothing to sell?" Caroline asked him, glancing around their parlour, which lacked all the gifts gullible well-wishers gave in joy of the couple's nuptials, no china or porcelain ornamentation, and sparse furnishings.

Wickham shook his head. "Nothing. The furniture is surety already."

"So we must borrow," Caroline concluded. "Then I suppose it is natural to think in an emergency of the richest people we know. And the simplest."

"The Reynolds's?" Wickham determined astutely. "They're too well guarded."

Caroline rose from the table and took out one of the thin cigarettes she had taken to smoking of late, a narcotic relief from the present monetary turmoil of her married life. She put the drug to her mouth and inhaled, calming herself for the betrayal which she was now about to make. "Supposing if we could be of inestimable service to Mr Reynolds. He has grown very suspicious of late, remember? And simultaneously rid him of his secretary?"

Wickham turned to his wife, a wicked smile gracing his features as he listened to her explanation of how they were to achieve this feat, then timely step in, and fill the breach, providing another service to the sovereigns of industry without losing or parting with any of their remaining possessions, save perhaps honour and decency.

As the night continued to darken, Richard was still concerned about the methods which his friend had now stooped to in his search. He had secured a small table by his armchair for the carafe in order to partake of some brandy, as the produce of the pipe he was smoking was no longer sufficient to quieten the turmoil in his mind, while his friend wandered the limits of the room, arguing his case for the defence of the visitor they had just entertained, supping from the snifter of brandy in one hand, inhaling the smoky aroma from his cigar carried in his other, all the languor and lethargy gone from his disposition.

"Think about it this way," Bingley proposed as he continued to pace the length of the parlour, turning as he reached the end of every sentence. "I give our Mr Dolls useful employment. Keep him off the streets. Pay him exorbitantly."

"You could make almost anything musing, Charles, but not this," Richard remarked as he leaned back in his armchair with a sigh.

Charles ceased his pacing for a moment, a seriousness acquiring itself to his expression as he gazed at his friend in surrender of the case. "Yes, I'm rather ashamed of it myself, so let's change the subject."

"It is so deplorably underhand of you," Richard continued in delivering his judgement upon the affair. "So unworthy, setting up this pathetic spy."

"Ah, now you have suggested a new subject," Charles said, causing Fitzwilliam to frown at him, for that wasn't his intention. "Isn't it amusing? I never can go out after dark but I find myself attended. Always by one spy, sometimes by two."

"Are you sure?" Richard asked, learning forward in his armchair, all disapproval fading from his countenance, his voice, and his manner as his concern for the safety of his friend conquered all other turmoil. "Charles, have you some debt I don't know about?"

"Observe the legal mind," Bingley mused with some joviality, before continuing to pace the floorboards once more. "Respected solicitor, it is not that. The schoolmaster's abroad."

"The schoolmaster?" Richard echoed, some what confused, not by the reference for he recollected the person in question vividly, despite his one and only encounter with him, when he first learned of his friend's energy and interest in a certain young lady, but by the circumstances behind this person's fascination with his friend.

Bingley disappeared into his room to retrieve his coat, before proceeding to stock the pockets with a liberal supply of cigars and matches. "Yes. Sometimes the schoolmaster and the pupil are both abroad. Don't you believe me? Then I shall prove it to you now. Get your coat, we're going hunting."

Richard obliged, grabbing his travelling cloak and walking stick, which was a sturdy, useful weapon, concealing a fine sword within, an inheritance from a military ancestor, just in case the schoolmaster intended to do his friend harm.

Charles halted outside their lodgings, turning first one way then the other, studying the prospect each direction afforded, considering the streets both led into. "A fine night for the chase. Which way for the scent? East or west?"

"East," Richard decided.

They headed out together from the Temple Inn on to Fleet Street, where the Strand ended and Chancery Lane began, walking parallel with Holborn, the other main road that together with Fleet, Chancery and Dury Lane encircled Lincoln's Inn Fields and Temple.

"Now when we get to St Paul's churchyard," Charles remarked, "we shall loiter artfully and I shall point out our prey. Get your wind, for we'll be crossing the city tonight."

Charles set off down Fleet street and Richard followed. As they entered the churchyard of St Bride's, the parish bell struck nine. Silently they continued walking, passed the crossing for Farringdon Bridge, which led on to Blackfriar's, until Fleet Street turned into Lugate Street, widening into the circle for St Paul's and its Churchyard.

Here they paused, though Richard had glanced back earlier to catch sight of their quarry, until now seeing nothing but the inference of a trailing shadow. Now with Bingley he cast his eyes about the graceful surroundings, till they caught sight of the Schoolmaster in the full gas light, whereupon he resumed his swift pace, exiting St Paul's Churchyard on to Cannon Street. Only the master scholar was abroad tonight, a dark, ominous figure stalking their shadows with equally dark intent.

Richard shuddered at the vision of the scholarly stalking shadow before falling into step with his friend as they continued down Cannon Street, crossing Queen's, which led to a bridge across the river. Behind them he could hear the quiet deadly tap of the schoolmaster's shoes, in time with his and his friend's, together with his walking stick, which he was grateful he had thought to take with him, for he could not help but fear a sudden mortal confrontation followed by a potentially tragic end.

"Charles," he uttered quietly, careful that his voice did not carry to reach the ears of their stalker, "how long has this been going on?"

"Almost ever since a certain person disappeared," his friend answered in the same low tone, briefly glancing at his friend and their silent follower, before resuming the swift pace he had set from the beginning.

Reaching King William's Street, they continued on into Gracechurch Street, passing the crossings of Lombard and Fenchurch, then up Bishopsgate towards Shoreditch, passing the lane that reached the Old Lady of Threadneedle and St Mary's Axe.

Still the schoolmaster kept up with their swift pace, deadly and determined, silent and stealthful, an ominous mortal hangman, ever watchful for the rope with which to secure the scruff of his prey, who hounded him as he hounded them, desperate for news of the girl who unknowingly and unconsciously ensnared their hearts upon first encounter.

"Watch him, Richard," Charles uttered quietly as they passed first Houndsditch then Union, walking parallel with Moorgate and Aldgate. "Watch him. See how I reduce him. I lead him. I grind him. I expose him as a figure of fun."

Entering Shoreditch, they passed a beggar, into whose cap Bingley dropped a few coins, causing the pitiful wretch to speak his thanks and look hopeful to their faithful follower, who was so intent on not losing sight of his quarry as to ignore the proffered cap completely.

"This is what happens night after night," Charles explained as they passed Church street which led into Bethnal Green. "I tempt him all over the city. One night westward, another north. Sometimes walking, sometimes riding." They walked on, past the crossings into Old Street and Hackney before Bishopsgate became Kingsland. "I plan my routes during the day, and execute them at night."

As Charles reached the end of Kingsland, he turned abruptly, looping round Kingsly Green and Richard followed, causing the schoolmaster to halt as they appeared to confront the scholar, before brushing past, turning into Ball's Pond. "I pass him by and refuse to even acknowledge his existence."

Picking up pace once more, the lawyers continued up Ball's Pond until it became Saint Paul's, passing by Highbury Park, whereupon they turned into New North Road into Canonbury Square, confronting the schoolmaster as they toured every side.

"As you see he is undergoing grinding torments," Charles commented quite composedly as they passed so close as for Richard to observe the schoolmaster's tormented countenance by the gaslights. "I goad him into madness."

They exited Canonbury Square via Cany Lane, entering into Upper Street, the tormented schoolmaster still doggedly following them. He stalked them all the way down the road, as they passed Barnaby then Cross Street, Church Street then Theberton, until the route rounded Islington square. Upper Street became High Street, dividing into Pentonville, Goswell and City Roads. They took the second of these three, the schoolmaster following them still, even as they continued down until Goswell became Aldersgate, reaching the crossings of Cheapside and Newgate, whereupon St Paul's Churchyard came into view once more. From there it was a short walk into Lugate and then Fleet, before they returned to their lodgings at Temple.

Richard clasped his friend's arm as they reached the grand entrance, pausing their hunt by the sign of names assigned each flat. The schoolmaster was out of sight now, but Fitzwilliam could still feel him loitering in the shadows, waiting to see if they truly meant to go back inside, or were merely tricking him only to take another tour of London. "Charles, don't you think you're running a terrible risk goading him like this?"

Bingley sighed. "Richard, listen. Listen. Jane's gone. She's gone. And these night chases are my only solace. They give me an expressful pleasure."

"And what happens if your foul method is telling the truth?" Richard asked. "Will you allow the schoolmaster to dog you all the way to Lambton? Will you be solaced if he sees Miss Bennet and does her harm?"

"Of course not," Charles retorted. "But how will he afford to do that? And how can he when he has children to teach during the daylight hours?"

"I don't know," Richard conceded, "but I ask you to take care, Charles. If not for your safety, then at least for hers."

"Very well, Richard. If it puts your mind at ease, I shall take care to lose the schoolmaster before I go to Derbyshire."

Richard let his friend go to bed and tried to do so as well, but his mind would not let him settle, the schoolmaster continuing to haunt his thoughts as he had haunted his figure during the long walk through the city streets. Two or three hours of restless turning later, he entered his friend's bedroom and glanced out of the window into the approaching dawn warily, fearful to see the schoolmaster still watching their lodgings.

"What's the matter, Richard?" Charles asked as the creaking floorboard woke him to the sight of his friend, leaning cautiously by the wooden frame of the sash window.

"Nothing," Richard uttered absently, his focus and his gaze still on the street below, as he watched the alleys and corners by every lodging, afraid to see the schoolmaster lying in wait of the next venturing from their rooms.

"What the devil are you doing sleepwalking then?" Charles remarked, with barely a concern or a care directed at the reason behind his friend's disturbed stance.

"I'm horribly awake," Richard confessed as he continued to stare out at the gradual approaching dawn. "Charles, I cannot lose sight of that fellow's face."

"Which fellow?" Charles asked as he rolled over to face his friend.

"The schoolmaster," Richard answered.

"Odd," Charles laughed. "I can." He rolled over and returned to sleep.

Richard sighed, turning his face from the window to gaze at the unconcerned slumbering figure of his friend. Charles seemed to have few cares in life, save what related to Miss Bennet, and those only on her disappearance, not how the schoolmaster might be connected to that, as his stalking had begun when she disappeared, leading Richard to be of the opinion that the schoolmaster believed Charles knew her whereabouts, and would eventually lead him to her.

But Charles had been in ignorance until now, and knowing that, capitalised on the schoolmaster's nature, goading him into madness, a solace to one, a torture to the other. He appeared to possess no conception of what this would goad the schoolmaster into, the possible injury he might visit upon him or Miss Bennet.

Richard however, could speculate such consequences all too well, and he did not like any of them.

Collins did not sleep well either; his mind indulging in a perverse mood, one which finds joy in plotting cruel and unusual ends to the life of the man he trailed each night. An intelligent Christian, he knew well the sin of this thought and the consequences when he carried such a violent deed out, but he was long since passed the point of caring. Bingley had to know the whereabouts of Miss Bennet, or if he was still in ignorance, he would find out from the Reynolds's in Society circles soon enough. He had no other means of tracking her down, not with his limited resources.

Rising from his bed to greet the new day after a short respite from stalking the lawyers all over London, Collins splashed water on his face, the haggard creature that was his reflection in the mirror causing him no concern. It had been his appearance for awhile now that even the pupils dared to hazard about it no more.

Charlie Philips had passed his exams awhile ago and was established in his apprenticeship in another school. There was no need for him to save Miss Bennet for her cousin's sake, for Charlie could now care less. Collins could give up this care without a consequence to anyone save himself and Bingley, doubtless causing the both them some eventual beneficial ease.

Yet he could not erase her beautiful features from his mind, nor the passion with which he cared for her. He had to see, her reason with her, persuade her to return his feelings.

If not for her sake, for Bingley's, else fear what his passionate nature and violent thoughts would drive him to commit.

Part 23.

Once she had informed her husband of the secret with which she could secure a means to recover some of their living expenses, possibly even their future security, any thought of compunction concerning the betrayal of such a confidence, or decency in respecting the privacy of another woman's life, left Caroline's mind, if indeed they had ever existed in the first place.

Together husband and wife debated the best way to inform Mr Reynolds's of the indiscretion a member of his household had the impudence to commit, settling on a plan for him and Caroline to talk alone. The conversation could not be had in Sackville Street, for their home was not suitable to entertain such a wealthy personage, or indeed convey the idea of the Wickham's wealthy reputation. So they settled upon the plan that Caroline would wait outside the Reynolds's townhouse in Portland Place, where, once she had caught sight of Mr Reynolds's and called him to her, the conversation would take place.

It was the evening before Caroline's patient watch in Portland Place upon the townhouse of the Reynolds's, once the old townhouse of the Darcy family, was rewarded with the sight of Mr Reynolds returning home alone. Since the early hours of the morning she had been waiting outside the gates, idly smoking her tiny cigarettes, indifferently admiring the golden initials that a past Darcy ancestor had wrought into the iron fixture, all the while keeping watch on the road for the person who had inherited this wealth. Opening the little window of her now grossly expensive Hansom cab ride, she called out to him.

"Oh, good evening, Mrs Wickham, I hope you're well," he returned.

"Not so well, dear Mr Reynolds, I'm uneasy and anxious," Caroline replied doing her best to sound as though she felt those emotions she had just named, yet never experienced in her life before. "I've been waiting for you for some time. May I speak with you?"

"Of course." Reynolds assured her, gesturing with the walking stick he carried to the welcoming lit windows of his townhouse ahead, waiting for his return. "Will you not join me in my home where I can offer you some refreshment?"

Caroline drew back into the confines of the cab. Though the comforting glow from the grand house tempted her with images of finery and elegant society, she knew that such a location was not the best place to disclose her news, particularly if Mrs Reynolds was in company, to coax her husband into a sympathy neither she nor Wickham desired that she caused him to possess. "I'd rather not, Mr Reynolds. The matter I have to speak to you of is very delicate. Do you think this strange?"

"No madam, of course not," Reynolds replied, though it was quite apparent from the expression splayed across his features that his protestation was not entirely truthful.

"It is difficult to speak, but it is my duty," Caroline replied, though indeed, nothing could be further from the case. She opened the door of her cab. "Would you mind stepping into the carriage?"

Reynolds obeyed, mounting the step, then bending a little so he did not cause an injury to his head as he entered the vehicle, taking the empty seat across from her. "Now, madam, what is it that concerns you?"

"The proper conduct of your staff, Mr Reynolds regarding your ward," Caroline answered. "I understand you wish for her to be well matched?"

"Yes," Reynolds replied with a frown, puzzled as to where Mrs Wickham was going with this. "But I do not see what the conduct of my staff has to do with this Miss Bennet's marital prospects."

"She told me in confidence, Mr Reynolds," Caroline added, "but I cannot help but be concerned for her, after all the man could persist and perhaps compromise her against her inclination."

Now Mr Reynolds was truly concerned, his mind speculating on the possible improper behaviour of one of his footman regarding Elizabeth or even Jane, for it would explain why she had left so suddenly. "Who do you speak of?"

"Mr Hurst," Caroline answered in a tone which implied the identity of the person involved was obvious. "Elizabeth told me that he declared himself one evening. I fear for her, Mr Reynolds, a young vulnerable woman with only your generosity to rely on."

Reynolds took care to his features devoid of expression as he received this news. What he had previously dismissed as being a figment of Mrs Wickham's imagination, he now knew to be true. Society was scandalised and he must act accordingly. "Thank you for the information, madam. You can be assured I shall deal with the matter at once."

"Oh, I am so relieved," Caroline replied, opening the cab door, a clear sign of dismissal, as though he were a servant bound to do her bidding. "And if there is anything else George and I can assist you with, please don't hesitate to let us know."

Reynolds nodded and exited the cab. As he entered the grounds of the Darcy townhouse, he heard the vehicle turn and clatter down the road behind him, presumably in quest for Sackville Street. Stepping inside the house he was greeted by Hurst, who appeared to have been waiting for him in the grand entrance hall for quite some time.

"Who was in the cab?" Hurst asked as he closed the door behind Mr Reynolds and help the man to doff his hat and coat. "It has been here all day."

"Mrs Wickham," Reynolds replied grimly. "Come, let us go into my study and talk."

Once inside he related everything which had taken place inside the carriage.

"Undoubtedly she has a more nefarious motive for telling you this," Hurst speculated aloud when he heard all. "Given their situation concerning their debts, unpaid staff, for I have heard much gossip below stairs, I would deduce that they want money."

"I don't mind paying them off," Reynolds confided. "But it won't end there unless you are gone." He paused, then inspiration struck, causing him to ask. "Are you prepared to declare yourself again?"

"Declare myself?" Hurst echoed in disbelief. "How will that help matters?"

Reynolds frowned. "I thought you said Lizzy and you are closer now?"

"We may be," Hurst allowed, recalling the visit to Pemberley, "but I don't know if she will accept me if I try again."

"Well, I think you must, my son," Mr Reynolds remarked, "just in a different manner to your last endeavour."

Hurst glanced at him intrigued. "Alright, what do you propose?"

"Prepare yourself to be slighted and oppressed," Reynolds continued. "I shall confront you openly with her present and we shall see how she reacts."

"And what if she stands by your accusations and rejects me once more?" Hurst asked.

"Then you will have lost nothing," Mr Reynolds pointed out. "Do you really have so little faith in her, son?"

"No," Hurst bowed his head. "If anything its myself I no longer have faith in." He turned to lean on the desk, as he had done long ago, when the truth was first revealed to Mrs Reynolds, that desolate evening. "Did I lose my mind when those scoundrels threw me in the river, Edmund?"

Mr Reynolds stepped forward and put an arm about his shoulders. "No, my son, you lost your heart, when you set eyes upon your intended. And when she learns the truth, when the time is right, she will understand." He gave the shoulders a comforting clasp. "These things were sent to try us, son. We would not be worthy of the rewards bestowed if nothing test our strength or our faith."

Elizabeth, on her way through the entrance hall into the breakfast room the next morning, witnessed Mr Reynolds pacing his study, mumbling something in audible and therefore intelligible to himself, a storm cloud splayed across his face, one hand pounding a fist into the palm of the other, and inwardly grew fearful of what could be troubling the man at this early hour.

When he joined them for breakfast, an uncomfortable silence settling over the room as he did so, he ate with only his fork, drumming his knife against the china with an ominous tattoo, a black look directed at Mr Hurst. Nothing could cease his actions, nor rouse him into conversation, not that Mrs Reynolds or Elizabeth wished to make him speak, fearful for what reply might be wrenched from his mouth if they did so.

The Secretary stood the tension for as long as he dared before rising from his chair and with a bow directed to the ladies, quitting the breakfast room. Instantly the tattoo ceased, leaving Elizabeth and Mrs Reynolds no doubt as to who was the cause of his distemper, if the black look had not betrayed such information before. Elizabeth could only speculate as to what Mr Hurst could have done to rouse his employer's wrath.

She knew Hurst was trying to bear with the changing character of his employer, possibly - she dared to hope sometimes - for the sake of being with her. Since their visit to Pemberley, she had gown flattered by such consideration, by his quiet, gentlemanlike manner, in contrast to such behaviour shown from his employer, whose character seemed to worsen by the hour. It caused her to wonder afresh whether she really belonged here, or in the simple comforts of her father's house, loved for who she was, as opposed to what money could make her.

Moments after she and Mrs Reynolds finished they meal, Mr Reynolds summoned them to his study, where he and the secretary were waiting, in stances similar to when the employer announced what wages he was to give the man, and threatened to have a bell hung from this room to Hurst's, in order to summon him whenever the whim arose.

His wife took her usual seat and retrieved her usual piece of needlework with which to occupy her hands. Elizabeth hung back by the door, wary of the look which Mr Reynolds was directing at her, and the way Mr Hurst was facing him, his expression as if he were about to do battle with someone.

"Come in, Elizabeth, my dear," Mr Reynolds urged, moving from his stance by the desk to take her arm and usher her further into the confines of the parlour. "Do not be alarmed, my dear. We are here to see you righted."

Elizabeth frowned at the choice of words, for she was not aware that anything had taken place that was deemed to have wronged her "See me righted? Sir?"

Reynolds nodded, guiding her to take a seat beside his wife, before he turned to face Hurst, who regarded him with his head held high. "Now sir. Consider this young lady?"

"I do sir," Hurst replied.

Too late did Elizabeth realised what was about to occur. With those words let lose from Mr Hurst, as solemn as a wedding vow, the full nature of the wrong done to her was revealed. She was powerless to prevent it, nor the event which would undoubtedly follow. All she could do was listen and observe as everything unfolded before her.

"How dare you tamper with this young lady!" Reynolds cried, the force of his protest causing everyone within the room to flinch as if struck. "How dare you come out of your station to pester this young lady with your impudent proposals. This lady was far above you. This young woman was looking about the market for a good bid. She wasn't about to be snapped up by fellows that had no money to buy with."

When she was first sensible of the feelings which Mr Hurst had harboured for her, Elizabeth would have supported the claims Mr Reynolds was making now. But time had begun to soften her miserly ambitions, to temper her bitterness, reverting her character to the young woman who lived within herself as she rambled about the Longbourn estate. The one who desired that nothing but the very deepest love tempted her into matrimony. Who realised that never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him now, when all love must be in vain. She felt her power sinking, as everything must sink under such a humiliating assurance of the deepest disgrace. Appealing to Mr Reynolds for leniency in this was pointless, so she turned to his wife. "Mrs Reynolds...."

"My dear," that lady interrupted, her voice and gaze full of tears, her nerves close to hysterics, "I can't let,"

"Old lady, you hold your tongue!" Mr Reynolds shouted at his wife, quelling her into an even greater sorrowful silence. "Now Elizabeth, don't you be put out. I'll right you."

"But you don't," Elizabeth cried, causing Hurst to briefly direct his gaze away from his employer to her fine eyes, a hope beginning to burn within his breast. "You don't right me, you wrong me!"

Mr Reynolds ignored the pleas of his ward, turning his full attention on to Hurst, who faced him proudly, unwilling to give way. "This lady did herself tell you of your presumption did she not?!"

In desperation did Elizabeth seized on this query, hoping she could persuade Hurst with a pleading look to deny his previous avowals. "Did I Mr Hurst? Did I?"

But disguise of any sort was his abhorrence, though an irony such a principle was just now, yet in this he would speak nothing but the truth. "Do not be distressed, Miss Bennet."

Elizabeth turned back to Mr Reynolds,. "But I've asked him to forgive me since and would again now if it would spare him." The sorrow in her voice along with Mrs Reynolds's general distress over this matter, caused all restraint on that lady's grief to be lost.

"Old lady, stop that noise!" Mr Reynolds shouted at his wife before he continued, his wrath redirected once again on his wayward employee. "Now what have you got to say for yourself?"

"My interest in Miss Bennet began the moment I saw her," Hurst revealed, his gaze not on his employer now, but on the woman he loved. "Even before."

"H'm. This is a longer scheme than I thought," Mr Reynolds mused. "He gets to know about me and my property, about Elizabeth and the part she played in poor William Darcy's story and he says to himself 'ah, I'll get in with Reynolds and my ship will come well and truly in.'" Mr Reynolds turned to Elizabeth with a smug expression. "But he didn't know who he was dealing with, did he, Elizabeth, my dear? He thought to squeeze money out of us. And he's done for himself instead."

"I have borne my position here so that I might not be separated from Miss Bennet," Hurst continued, ignoring Mr Reynolds's untrue and unfounded accusations, continuing to direct his gaze to Elizabeth, who as he spoke, listened with a heart and mind that somehow rejoiced while at the same time despaired. "And since she rejected me I have not urged my suit with one syllable or look. But my devotion to her has not changed, except that now it is deeper and better founded. My feeling for Miss Bennet is not one to be ashamed of. I love her. And when I leave her in this house I go into a blank life."

"Let me assist you into that blank life," Mr Reynolds remarked contemptibly, dropping a pile of notes on the floor in front of Mr Hurst. "I dare say you can stoop to pick it up after what you've stoop to here."

Mr Hurst went down on one knee to collect the money. "I have stooped for nothing but this. And it is mine for I have earned it by the hardest of labours."

"You're a pretty quick packer, I hope," Mr Reynolds added smugly as his former employee rose up from the floor, the pile of notes in his hand.

Mr Hurst nodded, even deigning to give a bow of respect to his former master. "You shall have no fear of my lingering."

"One thing before you go," Mr Reynolds said, causing the young man to blink, and Elizabeth to flush as he attributed more falsehood upon her character. "You pretend to have a mighty affection for this lady but what is due to this young lady is money and the young lady knows that very well. This young lady only wants money and that is the end of it."

"You slander the young lady," Mr Hurst replied, rising to her defence before she could speak aloud such assurances herself.

"You slander her," Mr Reynolds countered forcibly and angrily. "It's money she makes a bid for, money, money, money!"

Mr Hurst chose not to respond to that last claim, and turned to the ladies. "Mrs Reynolds, for your delicate and unwavering kindness, I thank you." His gaze moved to Elizabeth, inwardly wondering if this would change anything, longing to take her into his arms and wipe the grief away from her face. "Miss Bennet, goodbye."

Elizabeth watched him take the short walk to the door and could bear it no longer. She rose from her seat and joined him there, her words causing him to halt the act of reaching to clasp the handle, turn and open the edifice. "Oh God, make me poor again! Someone, I beg, or my heart will break!" She turned to Mr Reynolds, slowly walking towards him, as Hurst listened her, still facing the door, scarcely able to hope. "Don't give me money, Mr Reynolds, I don't want money. Oh God, help me!"

"There, there, my dear," Mr Reynolds remarked in a warm tone. "It's all right, you're righted now. It's all right."

"I hate you," Elizabeth declared, making him pause and blink. "I've heard you with shame, for myself and for you. I am afraid that you have become a monster!." She turned from him and returned to Mr Hurst's side, who held his breath at her words, his eyes scarcely able to meet her gaze. "Mr Hurst, I'm deeply sorry for the reproaches you've borne on my account. I earnestly and truly beg your pardon. The only fault you should admit to is that you laid yourself open to be slighted by a worldly, shallow girl whose head was turned and was quite unable to rise to what you offered."

Tears threatened to conquer her at the last, causing him to take her hands tenderly in his own and raise them to his lips, pressing a soft kiss upon the pale skin of each. Then with one last look to her he opened the door and parted from her side.

Elizabeth watched him go, the mark of his lips on her hands awakening a mixture of feelings, too overwhelmed with grief at present to define. "Oh, Mrs Reynolds!" she cried in tone that once perhaps resembled that of her mother when disappointed of a scheme, going to her, and falling into her comforting arms.

Mrs Reynolds held her close, and glanced up at her husband, who met her look with a eloquent one of his own, offering a heartfelt apology in view of the grief which he had just put her, the girl in her arms, and the young man in the process of leaving the premises through. With one glance she forgave him, knowing the show had been necessary, for the future contentment of all concerned. There was also a silent hope with both of their breasts, as they prayed that this little performance of slighting and oppression, engineered by the schemes of one avaricious couple, would serve to thwart their plans, while bestowing a long awaited happiness to another.

"You vicious old thing!" Elizabeth cried to Mr Reynolds when her tears were spent and her emotions and mind and heart rose high to defend the actions and words of herself and the gentleman who had just left.

"Don't be rash, my dear!" Mrs Reynolds urged from her position on the sofa, all motions of comfort and support seemingly forgotten in the face of the insults thrust at her husband. "Think well what you do."

"Yes, you think well of it," her husband added from his stance behind his desk.

Elizabeth ignored the request for caution, any care or respect for the man before her having disappeared long since. She stood proudly before Mr Reynolds, a scheming young miss no longer, instead an avenging angel. "Your money has turned you to marble. You are a hard hearted old miser, who is wholly undeserving of the man you have just lost."

"What? You'd set Hurst against me?" Mr Reynolds scoffed as if the idea that a man with barely a penny to his name could be superior to him was preposterous.

"He is worth a million of you," Elizabeth avowed.

"Ah, yes I'm sure," uttered Mr Reynolds, taking her hand to clasp in his as he tried to coax some sense into her. "Now listen, I'm not angry, I'll overlook this."

"No," Elizabeth declared, wrenching her hands from his grasp, raising them to skies as if to warn him off her. "I must go home for good."

Mr Reynolds stayed her hand. "Now, don't do what you can't undo. Stay where you are and all's well. Go away and you can never come back. If you leave us like this you can't expect me to settle any money on you. Be careful, Elizabeth. Not one brass farthing!"

Elizabeth nodded, wrenched her hands free of him, exiting the room. She headed for the stairs, ascended, then walked to her room, where she opened one of the armoires and retrieved her small travel bag, together with the simple country dresses she had worn when she first came to the Reynolds's. Her fine eyes caught sight of the rich muslin she now wore in the large ornate mirror, the silks in the wardrobes, the gemstones upon her dresser. How she had once longed to see such things, and know they belonged to her.

Now the sight of them sickened her. She realised all her opinions on finding an establishment, on marrying for money, were no more her own now than they had been when the past granted her such an idle fancy. A chance encounter in her youth caused her to take for granted that she would attract a man who possessed those qualities, as well as her mother's influence and continued instruction. She had sworn to marry for nothing but the deepest love, when she knew that the chance encounter would prevent such a vow from ever being carried out. And now that such a freedom was granted to her by the drowning of that chance, she surrendered to the desire for financial security, knowing past experience taught her nothing was certain, causing her to refuse a man whom she could no longer deny that she cared a great deal for.

Mr Hurst may be worth a million of Mr Reynolds, but Elizabeth was no longer certain that she was worthy of his regard, indeed if she were superior to him in any way. While she professed opinions which were not her own, he had remained steadfast and constant in his affection for her. He may not have urged his suit with words or looks, but his desire to encourage their friendship, their companionship, had resulted in her change of feelings regarding him. That he had fallen in love with her in the first place was astonishing, for their early acquaintance was hardly begun under the best of terms; she determined take offence at his every action, he continually trying to figure her out.

Idly she glanced at the riches of her current life once more, her eyes fixing on her timepiece and noting the hour. Doubtless Mr Hurst had returned to his lodgings by now, at her father's house. Had he hoped she would follow him after his dismissal from here, she asked herself, which caused her to speculate as to whether she should. Mr Reynolds had threatened her in such a manner as for her to understand that, presuming she stayed here, relations between them would never quite be the same. The situation would cause her to be uncomfortable both here and in society, thus eliminating any chance of finding someone else to love as much as she might Mr Hurst.

Which only left her one alternative. Silently she changed into one of the country gowns, then packed everything else she had brought from Holloway before leaving the room, carrying case in hand, a note upon her dresser addressed to Mrs Reynolds, thanking her for her kindness to herself and to Jane throughout their stay.

As she approached the offices of her father's work, she felt a little of her previous doubts, fears and shame returning. Seeing him apparently content in his position, knowing that her words might trouble him as she had done the last time she arrived to see him, this time without the assurance that she would be welcomed back at his home.

However, of these anxieties she was soon easily rid; her father only had to look up, catch the rather pensive expression on her face, observe the travelling bag within her hand, and he was outside in the street before her.

"Elizabeth, I am glad to see you. Have you come for a holiday?" He asked as he sought to confirm his deductions.

"No, I have come to my senses, father. Am I able to return?" She inquired softly.

"Of course, my dear," he replied, and with a signal to one of his colleagues, he took hold of her free hand and escorted her home.

In an effort to make her feel comfortable he amiably informed her of all that had occurred within her family's life since her last visit, so that by the time they turned into the street on which the house was located, Elizabeth felt able to tease him as she used to.

"I suppose Kitty has abducted my room in my absence, having declared a preference for it more than once when I was at home?"

"Indeed, she has, my dear, but I'm sure she will make way." He turned to her with a gentle, loving smile. "You have been quite missed by all of us, Lizzy."

They came closer to the house, when a door could be heard to close somewhat violently, causing them to halt in the street as the one above the raised entrance opened, and Mr Hurst ran out.

Elizabeth had scarcely time to realise his intent before he was standing in front of her, striving to speak and catch his breath at the same time, a joyful yet hopeful smile gracing his open mouth.

"My dear girl," he uttered before taking both her and her father by surprise as he embraced her. "My gallant, courageous and noble Elizabeth." He drew back to gaze into her eyes, anxiously seeking confirmation. "You are my love?"

Elizabeth smiled at him, as she chose to answer at once, rather than taking a moment to savour this second and previously thought impossible proposal. "Well I suppose I am, if you think me worth the taking."

His reply was such as a man violently in love can be supposed of taking, with a father and open street to witness. A hug which though was sensible, rendered appropriate to occasion by pressing his lips to her hair, as he closed his eyes in silent relief that part of his desires since he returned to life were now accomplished.

The rest depended entirely on the goodwill and cooperation of others.

Part 24.

Later that evening, when all the fuss from Mrs Bennet's highly strung disappointed nerves, caused by another daughter ruining and squandering all her hopes of an excellent marriage in returning home and the distemper of Kitty from being forced to make way for her sister, had worn out conversation and put them both to bed, Mr Bennet joined his soon to be son in law for a drink and some conversation in his lodgings.

"I imagine, sir, that this has surprised you," Mr Hurst remarked after the first sip of port passed their lips.

"You imagine quite astutely," Mr Bennet replied. "In fact, it would be difficult to do otherwise. I must confess that I am wondering how all this came about, though presumably the two of you spent a lot of time together at the Reynolds's?"

"We, did, sir." Mr Hurst confirmed.

"Given your somewhat early return here, followed by my daughter, I take it that Mr Reynolds has dismissed you from his employ," Mr Bennet further deduced. "So my next inquiry is how do you expect to provide for my daughter."

Hurst's hand halted in mid journey to his mouth, and he took a deep breath as he returned the glass to the table. "This is why I wanted to see you privately, sir. I know how much Elizabeth cares for you, which makes it important to me that I have your blessing as to how events proceed now. The simple answer to your inquiry is that I can provide for your daughter far more than my public financial situation would testify."

Mr Bennet raised a eyebrow. "And the complicated answer?"

Hurst met his gaze solemnly, before relating every article he had confided to the Reynolds's previously. When he reached the end of his tale, he raised the port to his lips to slake his thirst, and quietly observed his soon to be father in law's features, waiting for his vocal reaction.

"Well, you have certainly proved my private theory that the husband of my favourite daughter would surprise me," Mr Bennet remarked. "However, your story has assured me than you can provide for her. My only concern now is why you have not chosen to confide in Elizabeth concerning all this?"

"I am worried about her reaction," Hurst replied. "I know how much she disliked the position of being left in a Will to me. I am afraid that she will choose to overlook that I chose this course in order for us to have a chance to find happiness, instead of hating me for the deception." He took another sip of his drink. "There is also the matter of Wickham."

Mr Bennet frowned. "The one whose wife caused this early conclusion to your unusual courtship of my daughter?"

"No, the Wickham who I speak of is his father." Hurst drained his glass and poured another, inwardly surprised that he was about to confide so much of his troubles in a man soon to be his father in law. How was it that when it came to telling Elizabeth that he was so terrified of her reaction, when here he sat telling her father all? He put the query aside and continued his tale.

"Old Wickham is the grandson of my grandfather's steward at Pemberley. He followed his father into soldiery, but unlike him, survived the battlefields on which he served, though not without injury. Having worked on the estate all his life, Mr Reynolds has known of the long standing history between my family and that of the Wickhams. Past intrigues of his ancestors caused us to become distant relations. When he discovered that Wickham was getting his living on the streets, his charitable nature decided to help him to a position; namely in charge of the dust mounds that my father built his fortune on. During his employ there, Wickham happened to see Mr Reynolds hide something which consequently he found and now intends to blackmail Reynolds with, his motive being to accomplish revenge of my family where so many of his antecedents have failed."

Mr Bennet studied the man before him. "How do you know he intends to blackmail you and Mr Reynolds?"

"When I asked Mr Reynolds to retrieve the piece of paper, he was unable to find it in the place he had left it. And the Wickhams have a history of blackmailing anyone connected with the Darcy family for their own nefarious advantage."

"Will this piece of blackmail have any consequence on you and Elizabeth, if made public?" Mr Bennet asked.

"None whatsoever, sir, for Mr Reynolds and I do not intend to provide Wickham with such an opportunity."

"In that case I wish you god speed in the matter," Mr Bennet said, stretching his glass forward for a refill. "As to your fears, I assume that you do intend to tell my daughter the full worth of what she is entitled to sooner rather than later?"

"You made assured that I will, sir, once I find the courage," Hurst answered. He took another sip of his drink before venturing more. "I confess, sir, that I find myself relieved at your reaction to all of this intrigue, particularly with regards to your daughter's ignorance."

"I find that I approve of you," Mr Bennet replied. "And, as you shall discover, sir, when I approve of someone, I take delight in finding out whatever articles of wit or oddity they seem to possess."

Elizabeth awoke early the next morning, half inclined to wonder if all that had occurred to her was nothing more than the result of a long sleep. Confirmation lay waiting for her in the form of a note by her beside, in her father's scrawl, saying that he wished her and Mr Hurst every happiness. The postscript included a request from her fiancee, asking if she would join him in his lodgings so as they might reach agreement over a wedding date. The coupled words caught her a little by surprise, it had not occurred her until this moment that her agreeing to marry him would entail a wedding.

Finishing her ablutions, she walked to the window and surveyed the familiar street of her second home without any focus on its features, except as her recollections of her routine spent in this building. Silently she remembered her days filled quietly reading or mending, helping her mother and her sister in an effort to console their sorrow concerning the change in their circumstances. While she had missed them, a part of her had no desire to return to such a routine for a great length of time.

Calling upon her imagination, she speculated as to what her married life might entail. The prospect of time spent in a house by herself with none but Mr Hurst for company did not seem altogether evil, indeed she found the idea very attractive. A frown caressed her face when she remembered that he lodged in the rooms above, and, as far as she was aware, little in the way of funds to afford them somewhere else. Not that she disliked the lodgings, indeed she had helped her mother fit them up before they were advertised. Still, she had hoped that her married life would not begin in such close proximity to her family.

None of these wonderings would be resolved however, without some consultation with her future husband, she realised. Removing herself from the window, she went to look for him.

She found him where her father's note said he would be, waiting in the principal room of his lodgings, a selection of breakfast foods, along with tea and coffee adorning the small circular table before him. He was seated in an arm chair, an open book resting in one hand, his eyes instantly removing themselves from the pages upon her entrance.

"Good morning, Elizabeth," he uttered, closing the book and rising from his place to welcome her. "Shall I take the sight of you this morning as confirmation that you are not offended by presumption to ask you to meet with me?"

"Why should I be?" Elizabeth countered as she neared him, taking the hand he proffered. "We are engaged after all."

"Yes, but does that allow to meet in my lodgings without a chaperone at so early an hour?" he queried.

She took a step back towards the door. "Sir, if indeed you are so concerned as to proprieties, there lies an easy remedy. I am sure it will not take too much time to rouse my father from his bed."

"Only if you wish it," he replied.

Elizabeth smiled and shook her head. "No, I believe I can trust us to behave within the boundaries of society. And I have some inquiries sir, that my father may not wish to hear the answer for, if he is to lose a lodger and daughter at once."

"I took the liberty of informing him of such last night," Hurst replied, resuming his seat once more and gesturing with an eloquent look and hand for Elizabeth to take the other nearby. "As to the question which follows such an answer, I assure I do have enough money put buy to provide us with somewhere to live, dependent on your approval of the place of course."

"And as to our living there, will you be able to find another position?" Elizabeth asked. "I suppose neither of us can ask the Reynolds's for references."

"I gained my position with Mr Reynolds without a reference," Hurst remarked, "but I cannot suppose another employer to be so eager not to hold such a lack against me. All I can promise you, my love, is that I will endeavour to find a means of providing for us, as quickly as society will allow me."

"What about the wedding?" Elizabeth asked. "I must confess, until your note, I had forgot such a ceremony was needed."

"That can take place as soon as a licence is procured, and a date is fixed between us," he replied, glancing at her.

"In that case, why not as soon as possible?" Elizabeth asked.

He smiled at her eagerness. "You do not wish to spend some time with your family?"

"With my father, yes, I shall be glad to mend the relationship between us. But as for my mother and Kitty," Elizabeth sighed. "I would rather not be a burden to them. I fear the sight of me would cause them to wonder why I gave up such an advantageous station in favour of a man with little but character to recommend himself."

"Then I shall sort out the licence today," he replied, before he gestured to the food before them both, whereupon they proceeded to break their fast.

So it came that one morning Elizabeth and her father stole out of the house in Holloway, to a church where Hurst awaited, a bunch of wildflowers in his hand, gathered in the dawn hours to fulfil the task of being his bride's bouquet.

The priest exited the church upon arrival of the intended couple and in law, his gentle voice opening the ceremonial rituals of welcoming them into the marriage state, reminding them of the reasons such a union was formalised and obtaining their vows to commit to each other for richer, for poorer, for better or for worse, until death did they part.

All ceremony at an end, Mr Bennet threw petals about them as Hurst drew his wife forward for a kiss more intimate than that of the day when he declared his affections were unchanged, and she was driven to confess that hers were not.

The trio moved to a nearby park, where they wondered down the wide avenue arm in arm, the newlyweds passing smiles between each other, their meaning eloquent to none but themselves.

Elizabeth espied a young woman of her or her sister's age, attired in the dark weeds of mourning, with a gentleman seated on the bench beside her, his manner attentive and solicitous, answering to every appearance of a lover. She broke from her father and husband to hand the young woman her bouquet in expectation of the happy event to come, receiving a wordless smile of gratitude in return.

Further on in the park there stood a photographer, earning his means to live by taking photos of willing passers-by. Two children from the prosperous middle class were posing for their photos at present, and the trio waited for their turn to come.

The children possessed a generous and curious nature, allowing them to join in the photos, and they amused themselves by posing for various family like scenes. Then the children went, leaving the photographer to take images of the trio, then just the bride and groom, Hurst wrapping his arms around Elizabeth's waist, then Mr Bennet, Hurst and Elizabeth all by themselves.

When all the moods of such likenesses were satisfied, the trio moved to a pleasant area of grass in order to take their ease, before going home to spring their news upon an unsuspecting mother and sister in law, who would no doubt be torn between scorning the inequalities of such a match, the poor prospects that await them in the future, and disappointed that they had not been invited to attend the event.

Part 25.

An announcement of the wedding made a notice in the paper, simple and discreet. 'Miss Elizabeth Bennet to marry Mr William Hurst,' without a syllable said about her who her family or where she came from. But for those who possessed an eagle eye, the notice was immediately caught and the news spread.

"To lose the ward and the secretary in one afternoon, that is extremely impudent of Mr Reynolds," Lady Catherine de Bourgh bemoaned. "What is worse is that Miss Elizabeth Bennet and that Hurst fellow have run off together." She turned to her nephew, her hapless companion at this present moment, and now a source for admonishment. "Oh really Richard, when you know the man needs counsel."

Richard Fitzwilliam shrugged. Though he learned of the news before the union was made public, it was still second hand, via Mr Reynolds, his client, who despite all reports seemed little disappointed to hear of the event. "I hardly see how I can be to blame. If two people are inclined to run off with one another, a lawyer is the last person to prevent it."

"I said no good would come of settling so much money on a dustman," Lady Catherine reminded all present, confident and proud of the strength and proof of her convictions, holding no desire to be magnanimous. "How will he protect himself from the jackals now? The man is a mere novice in the ways of the world."

These words of warning were said in the presence of two such jackals, who did their best to appear as innocent of such a low and degrading practice as any such progeny of that dubious pedigree should. Caroline exchanged a glance with her husband, causally flicked her fan, and took a sip from her glass, while George inhaled another lungful of tobacco, before affecting to maintain his previously bored and indifferent expression.

Younge looked up from his latest additions to the shop floor as the bell signalled the arrival of his comrade in crime and arms.

"So have you found anything?" He asked, studying the old squaddie curiously, searching for the merest hint of deception. "Do not attempt to conceal anything from me."

"Well man and brother and partner in feeling, equally in undertakings and actions, I have found a cashbox on the dustheap." Wickham Senior reported. "On the outside was a parchment label saying 'my Will, George Darcy, temporarily deposited here.'"

"We must know its contents," Younge remarked, in a tone still awed by the wonder of the discovery.

"That was my feeling exactly comrade, so I broke the box open," Wickham reported eagerly.

Younge froze, a suspicion of doubt entering his mind about his supposedly loyal comrade in arms and crime. "Without coming to see me first?"

"Exactly so," Wickham replied. "I was bent on surprising you, sir, before we were surprised by that rogue Reynolds. I examined the document, regularly executed, regularly witnessed. In short, he, George Darcy, leaves to Edmund Reynolds the little mound which is quite enough for him and he leaves the whole rest and residue of his property to the crown."

"The date of the will must be proved," Younge murmured, scarcely daring to believe what he was hearing. "It may be later than the one generally accepted."

The old squaddie beside him nodded triumphantly. "Exactly my thinking, comrade. I paid a shilling, mind I did not ask you for sixpence, to look up that will. It is dated months after the generally accepted one."

"I would have thought that you would have consulted your partner earlier as to a course of action," Younge remarked, glancing at his comrade with a raised brow.

Wickham was all innocence. "But sir, think of the surprise!"

Younge hesitated for a moment, then relented. "Let's see this document at last."

His companion obliged, retrieving the parchment from his dusty old rag-worn coat, placing it on the table, so that Younge could run his magnifying glass over the elaborate legal wording and attempt to translate it into layman's understanding.

"Am I correct in its content, partner?" Wickham asked.

"Partner, you are," Younge confirmed.

Wickham slapped his hands together in eager satisfaction of the bounty that was to come their way. "We'll extract a hefty payment from Reynolds to keep this secret."

Younge frowned a moment as a sudden black thought entered his mind. "What if he's honest and gives up all according to what is written legally?"

"Him?" Wickham queried, incredulous at the suggestion. "Prove honest? He's grown too fond of money for that."

"The question is, who is going to take care of this will?" Younge mused as he rolled the parchment into a cylinder. "Do you know who is going to take care of it?"

"I am?" Wickham sought to confirm.

"Oh dear, no," Younge replied. "That's a mistake. I am."

Wickham grabbed the free end of the bundled legal document and for a moment a brief struggle of possession ensued.

"Now I don't want to have any words with you," Younge remarked, "and still less do I want to have any anatomical pursuits with you."

"What do you mean?" The old squaddie asked.

Younge glared at him a little. "What I mean is that I'm on my own ground. And I'm surrounded by the trophies of my art, and my tools is very handy."

Wickham resisted for a moment, confident having served in a war and lived in the gutter that he could do some damage, until he caught sight of the unusual items for sale, placed within handy reach of the proprietor, who looked more than capable of using them to his advantage.

Reluctantly, he surrendered hold and possession of the Will.

"Now, I presume, having had the advantage of time, you have formed a view of how we should proceed?" Younge questioned.

Wickham nodded. "Yes comrade. I propose that we wait while Reynolds clears the mounds to see if we can profit equally. And then we can use this to make him pay in money and in humiliation."

Fortune continued to favour the rogue that was Jenkinson, granting him the means and opportunity to acquire a roomy dwelling by the river, some distance upstream from the cavernous city, with leasehold of a good, hardy lock, to fund the rest of his natural life. This profession, though difficult in colder weather, granted him not just monetary gifts from those who requested passage along the river, but also information, which might prove useful to his further, future advantage.

"Lock, ho!" One of these passerbys called out as their wooden boat glided towards the solid, secure impasse.

Jenkinson rose up from his reflective pose to raise the doors, catching sight of the man's profile, and recognised him. "Mr Charles Bingley t'other governor," he murmured to himself, consideringly. "What exercises you on the river today?"

Charles Bingley guided the boat through the upward passage, then drew out the coins for payment. As he prepared to toss the fee to the lockman, he also acquired recognition. "Ah, its you is it?" He remarked, before throwing a coin. "Honest friend."

Jenkinson caught the circle of metal and answered. "Yes I'm the keeper here. No thanks to you for it, or lawyer Fitzwilliam."

"We shall save our recommendation for the next candidate," Charles replied, "the one who offers himself when you are transported or hanged. Don't be long about disappointing him, will you?"

Jenkinson glared at the carefree boater long after he had ceased to become a concern of his, watching him as he progressed up river, his mind quietly speculating if it were possible to do that lawyer some personal damage. When the boat was nothing but a speck upon the horizon, his gaze travelled amongst the hedgerows which covered the opposite bank. And there he spied another man whom he knew from the city.

"Oy there! Lock ho," he called out. "Mr Schoolteacher if I'm not mistaken. Lock ho." he cast a speculative look upon the man's profile, startled and suspicious to see a curious resemblance between them. "Well bless me t'otherest if you haven't taken to imitating me. Never thought myself so good looking before."

"These are my holidays," Collins replied, his gaze travelling from Jenkinson to the boat now far up river, his expression turning stormy.

"Well your working days must be stiff'uns if these is your holidays," Jenkinson commented. He grinned inwardly as he divined the object of the man's stare. "Don't worry. He takes it easy that one. But you know you could have outwalked him."

Collins turned back to his companion. "Would you say I'm following him?"

"I know you're following him," Jenkinson answered.

"Yes, well, I am," Collins confirmed, before seeking to move on, only for a staying hand of Jenkinson's. "He may land,..."

"Be easy," the lock keeper murmured. "He'll leave his boat behind as a marker won't he? He can't carry it ashore under his arm."

Collins found little fault with that observation so he took a breath awhile beside the lock and river. "What did he say to you?"

Jenkinson shrugged, showing that the insults traded between him and the lawyer Bingley hardly troubled him. "Cheek. Spite. Affronts. Said I'd be better hanged."

"Damn him!" Collins swore. "Let him get ready for his fate when that comes about."

"Oh, then I make out, t'otherest, that he is going to see her," Jenkinson deduced, remembering his last conversation with the schoolteacher, concerning Jane Bennet, niece of his late partner, Gaffer Philips.

"He left London yesterday," Collins revealed sombrely. "Until now he has done nothing but torment me by walking the streets of that city. And now he suddenly ceases and leaves, taking care to do it discreetly? I have little doubt he's going to see her."

Jenkinson stilled as he observed the schoolteacher. There was a quiet deadliness about him, as if a passionate fire of dark purpose was burning deep within. "Are you that sure?"

"As sure as if it were written here," Collins replied, placing a hand over the piece of his shirt that covered his chest, where his heart beat below.

The lock keeper caught the tell tale shadows under the eyes, along with the certain hollow pallor to his face, indicating that the schoolteacher had undergone many stresses since their last passing encounter. "But you have been disappointed before, it has told on you."

"I've followed him day and night now, through the summer holidays," Collins revealed. "And I won't leave him till I've seen him with her."

"And then?" Jenkinson prompted.

Collins rose up from the grassy bank. "I'll come back to you." He retrieved a few coins from his pocket and handed them over to the rogue. "Now I must go. Though he'd have to make himself invisible before he could shake me off."

"You'll put up at the lock on your way back?" Jenkinson asked, which caused Collins to nod before he left.

"Now why did you copy my clothes, schoolmaster?" Jenkinson murmured to himself as he watched the man walk on in search of the lawyer that could lead him to a glimpse of her. "What is your plan?"

He entered his dwelling and went to the clothes chest, retrieving a red scarf, which he placed around his neck. "Now if I see him in a similar, I'll know its not by accident."

Later, as the afternoon gradually surrendered to the dusk, the sombre figure that was the schoolmaster returned to Jenkinson's dwelling by the dock. The owner awaited his return, leaning upon the bow of the lock, pipe in his mouth, the small chimney of smoke visibly indicating the coldness of season.

"He's put up for the night," Collins informed the lock keeper. "He goes on early in the morning. I'm back for a few hours."

"You need them," Jenkinson diagnosed, for the schoolmaster looked worn out, as though he had been trekking through the mountains, not an easy stroll down the river bank on the trail of a boat and its rower.

"I don't want them," Collins replied. "But if he won't lead, then I can't follow." He glanced down at the sheer, dangerous looking shaft which led to the bottom of the river and the lock. "This would be a bad pit for a man to be flung into with his hands tied."

"The gates would suck him down afore he'd have a chance of climbing out," Jenkinson observed, before darting across the narrow bridge to join the schoolmaster on the other side of the river bank.

Collins watched in admiration of his seemingly reckless manoeuvre. "Yet you run about over six inches of rotten wood. No wonder you don't fear being drowned."

"I used to," Jenkinson confessed, "but I can't be drowned now."

"You can't be drowned?" Collins echoed dubiously.

"Nah, Its well known," Jenkinson confirmed, "I've been brought back out of drowning and I can't be drowned again. You should better come along and take your rest." He led the schoolteacher into his dwelling.

Down in the city, where night was illuminated by the gas lamps adorning many a fine residential street, a dark avaricious figure stalked the brightly lit windows that belonged to the Reynolds' house.

"Honest," Wickham murmured, echoing the word his partner and comrade in crime had previously uttered that day. "He's grown to fond of money for that. What wouldn't you give me for my box? Look out for a fall, my lady dustwoman, I'm gonna have your Reynolds, I'm gonna turn him upside down and grind him down."

Part 26:

There had been few times in Jane's life when she was truly scared. The first was during the year an illness came to Meryton and took two of her sisters. The second was when Mr Collins had threatened to kill Mr Bingley, causing her to run from her sister and Mr and Mrs Reynolds, from her mother, father and lastly her sister, from London, to her Aunt and Uncle in Derbyshire.

Life was such a contrast here when compared to the dusty and smoke filled town. She had forgotten how quiet the country was, how lush the greenery appeared to the sight and touch, the smell of the flowers, the sound of the birds. In Lambton she had rediscovered the quiet tranquillity that she lost when her father sold Longbourn. The Gardiner's house was by no means as large as that estate, but it was comfortable and fashionable, without leaning towards ostentatiousness, or the dark gothic style which had infected society of late. The rooms were large and airy, the few servants pleasant and hardworking, her cousins well behaved children who made her duty of looking after them a pleasure. Here she could almost forget the tragedy which had struck her and her family, indulge in a belief that she was simply vacationing with her Aunt and Uncle.

Which she did, until a few weeks before Elizabeth came to visit her. The indulgence was abruptly broken by an article in the newspaper, on the rise of industry built fortunes, using the Darcys as an example. The article included everything concerning the mysterious circumstances of the heir's death, how his body was found and by whom, bringing the full horror of that time back into Jane's mind.

It mentioned the solicitor in charge of the case, it mentioned the involvement of his friend Charles Bingley, it even included a brief postscript about her Uncle Philips' death and his only surviving son. The mere mention of Charlie caused Jane a turmoil she had not known before. It was as though she was experiencing the full horror of what Mr Collins might do to Mr Bingley for the first time. Her motive for running away returned with full force.

For days she anxiously scoured the papers, fearing to find reports of Mr Bingley being attacked, or Mr Collins connected with acts of violence. She was concerned that her absence from London would cause more tragedy than her presence there. Eventually she became reconciled to this too, and her mind returned to the quiet tranquillity she had first discovered, with the added noble cause of protecting the best man she had ever known.

Then, one day, as she walked out into the village on an errand for her Aunt, that tranquillity was once more disturbed, by the familiar sight of a figure awaiting her before a table outside the local Arms.

"Hello Jane. What a pleasant surprise," Charles remarked as he rose up from his chair in an attempt to get her to sit with him. "I was out for a day on the river." Observing her continued resistance, he resumed his previous position. "Actually I was on business and who should I find?"

For a moment Jane couldn't breathe, much less move. When she found her voice again, her first thought was for his safety. "Mr Bingley, you must leave this place instantly."

Charles regarded her solemnly. "I will. If you'll grant me an interview. A private interview. Then I will leave, I promise. I give you my word."

Jane had no choice but to comply, nodding her head, all while her mind silently wondered if Mr Collins was still in London.

Had she the foresight to glance around the outskirts of the Arms, upon the rural alleyways which led into other lanes, she would have received the answer to her question, in the shape of a shadowy figure, darkly attired, a red scarf wrapped around his neck, almost as a portent of the tragedy to come.

Jenkinson retired to the relative safety of his cottage as soon as the storm set in, seating himself by a window as he watched and waited for the return of the schoolmaster. It was dark before that creature returned, in a hurried run, caught in between flashes of lightning, as he sought the shelter of the house, bursting in through the rapidly opened and shut front door.

"You've seen him?" Jenkinson asked. "With her?"

"I have," Collins confirmed in a hoarse voice, turmoil visible in the plains of his darkly troubled visage.

"Where?" Jenkinson queried.

"Upstream," Collins replied. "His journey's end. I saw him wait for her and meet her!"

"What did you do?" Jenkinson sought to discover.

"Nothing," Collins answered desolately.

Jenkinson uttered the final part of his catechism. "What are you going to do?"

For a moment Collins had no answer. Instead he sank upon the bed, and suddenly began to retch, blood dropping from his mouth. "I don't know how this happens," he choked out when he had breath left to speak. "I can't keep it back. I taste it, I smell it, I see it and then it chokes me."

The dock keeper watched the schoolmaster as he retched again before heading back outside. Through the window, illuminated by the lightning flashes within the storm, he saw Collins tilt his head towards the sky as he sought the comfort of the rain into his mouth. After a while he turned and came back inside.

Jenkinson rose and fetched him a generous snifter of ale. "You're like a ghost."

"You asked me what I would do," murmured Collins despairingly. "I don't know! What can a man do in this state?"

Taking the ale away, Jenkinson guided the schoolmaster to the bed, where he helped him lie down. "Here. Sleep now," he uttered in soft, hypnotic tone. "Sleep. Smooth and round. And when you wake, you'll know what you have to do."

The old rogue sat at the edge of the bed for a moment, observing his sleeping guest, then with all the care of an old Charon, he rose and gently pulled at the covers about the schoolmaster's neck, to reveal a red scarf, identical to the one he had sought to attire himself in only this morning.

It was clear to him now that some part of Collins knew exactly what he would do when the lawyer Bingley met with Jane Bennet.

Charles had been wearing a path out in the grassy field upon the outskirts of the village almost from the moment he woke, having taken a brief repast at the local Arms, where he spent the night. So far his only company had been the white squat beasts that patrolled the field, otherwise known as sheep. One gazed at him now, contentedly chewing grass, the inscrutable visage seemingly able to ask him for his judgement.

"Yes, you're stupid enough, I suppose," he answered mildly. "But if you're clever enough to get through life tolerably, then you have the better of me."

A sound of a distant rustling drew his gaze from the animal to the grate, where he observed the arrival of the woman he had been waiting for. Silently he watched her walk towards him, waiting until she was before him to speak. However, as his brown eyed gaze caught sight of her face, he realised something which almost made him abandon the meeting altogether. Of all the expressions he had imagined her to possess when he was reunited with her, terror wasn't one of them. Jane looked downright fearful of him. Sure her eyes were bright, there was a serene smile splayed across her lips, but barely hiding behind them was powerful, nearly soul consuming fear of something, and his mind could only speculate as to who or what was the source.

"I was saying to myself you were sure to come," he murmured gaily, hoping his eagerness would infect her, "even though late, as you always keep your word."

"I had to linger through the village, Mr Bingley," Jane replied, and he found himself analysing her voice, for behind the serenity, there was undercurrent of nervousness and vulnerability.

"Are the villages such scandalmongers?" Charles asked, attempting for levity, as he held out his hand in quest for hold of hers, hoping it might give her some courage.

Instead Jane flinched and stepped back. "Will you walk beside me, Mr Bingley, and not touch me?" she asked him reproachfully.

"I'll try," he replied, forlornly withdrawing his hand. She continued to keep her distance, walking slightly ahead of him. "Jane, don't be unhappy. Don't be reproachful."

"Mr Bingley, you must leave this place," she pleaded once more, turning slightly so she could see his confused and stricken face.

"Jane, you know I can't go away," he replied, refusing to be convinced by the fear in her tone, or the equally terrified expression barely concealed by her serene features.

"Why not?" She inquired, half frustrated.

"Because you won't let me," he answered, causing her to falter. "I don't mean that you design to keep me here, but you do it. You do."

For a moment, his answer reminded her of Mr Collins, when he talked of her leading him into any fire, or committing any dark deed. Self doubt arose within her mind, asking herself if it was she, however unconsciously, who caused men to act this way, rather than their natures. Yet the resolution was still the same. She had to keep her distance to protect him, whether this were true or no.

"Mr Bingley, will you listen to me while I speak to you very seriously?" She asked. When receiving only a mild inclination of his head in reply, she summoned her courage and continued. "When you said you were much surprised to see me, was it true?"

"It was not in the least true," he confessed. "I came here to find you."

She was not surprised by that answer, for in truth she had left him little alternative but to come, having paid him no farewell or let him know of her whereabouts. She bemoaned her actions back then, that final night in London when she realised she had to leave. One last conversation conveying an excuse that her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner needed her could have prevented this encounter. "Can you imagine why I left London, Mr Bingley?"

"I'm afraid you left to get ride of me," he deduced astutely. "Not very flattering, but I'm afraid you did."

Jane halted and bowed her head, for she was ashamed to confirm his fears, as it was true, from a certain perspective. "I did."

"How could you be so cruel?" He asked her, halting behind her.

"Is there no cruelty in your being here now?" Jane countered, despairingly.

Bingley heard the grief in her voice and feared that if he walked the short distance which separated them, then turned to look upon her, he would see tears staining her beautiful complexion. "Please, don't be distressed," he begged.

Jane resolutely shook herself into a better composure, or at least an attempt of one, before she turned to face him. "What else am I to be? You put me to shame!"

Bingley saw the grief upon her face which he had descried in her voice, and abandoned the questioning in favour of confessing why he had followed her, in the hope that it would lessen her grief, as well as his own, caused by seeing her in such a state. "Oh Jane, I never thought there was a woman in the world who could affect me so much. You don't know how you haunt me, you bewilder me. You don't know how the carelessness that helps me at every other stage of my life cannot help me now, you've struck it dead. Sometimes I wish you'd struck me dead with it."

Here there was more shades of Mr Collins' speech to her. Jane drew another breath, refusing to let herself be shaken by the reference, and continued in her attempts to dissuade Mr Bingley from pursuing her. "But you must think of what you're doing," she appealed.

Think of what he was doing? Nothing else had consumed him so since his passage into adulthood. "What am I to think of?" he asked her.

"Think of me!" she cried.

Bingley sighed. Something which had consumed him so. "Tell me how not to think of you and you'll change me altogether."

"Think of me as belonging to another world from you," Jane explained. "I have no protector, except in yourself. Respect my good name. If you have feeling for me as if I were a lady then give me the full respect of a lady. I was once, until the illness that changed mine and my family's fortune, causing me to become a working girl. If you were a true gentleman...." she paused, at loss as of how to continue.

He gazed at her solemnly, realising, perhaps for the first time, how much grief he determined pursuit of her had caused. "Have I injured you so much?"

"If you don't leave me alone consider what you'll drive me to," she added.

A dark hold settled over his heart. For a moment he could not breathe, let alone speak. This conversation had left the direction he desired it to follow long ago, and now he feared that he would never be able to turn it back, or turn her. Softly, he dared to ask her, "What shall I drive you to?"

"I live here peacefully, respectfully and I am well employed by my family," Jane answered. "If you continue to see me, you'll force me to leave here as I left London and by following me, you'll force me onwards."

A sad expression crossed his features, all but weakening her resolve. He took the final few steps which separated them to stand before her as he dared to ask another question. "Are you so determined to run away from me?"

Distressed, Jane leaned against him, her fevered forehead pressing into his own hot brow, inflamed by the stress of the conversation. Seeking some relief, gently they fell to their knees upon the soft cushioning of the grassy field, the long green tuffs flattening under their weight.

"Answer me this," he asked her tenderly, his eyes desperately searching her own in the vain hope of salvaging something positive from this encounter. "If we had been on equal terms, would you make me leave?"

"I don't know," she replied, moving to rise, anxious to bring this distressing interview towards the desired end, but his arms clasped hers, refusing to let her. "Please let me go."

"I swear I will let you go directly," he promised. "I will not follow you, but you must answer. Would you still have hated me?"

Jane shook her head at his mistaken impression, and then met his eyes for the first time as she answered him. "You know me better than that. How can I think of you as being on equal terms? That first night I met you, when you looked at me so attentively, I had to draw away. Having so looked up to you and wondered at you since that night and at first thought you to be so good as to be at all mindful of me."

Bingley searched her face, inwardly struck at how upon hearing confirmation of her feelings for him, he could feel nothing but grief. "At first so good, and now so bad?"

"So good, so good," she assured him. "But our continued acquaintance is impossible. If you do feel for me the way you said this evening, then there is nothing left us in this life but separation. Heaven help you, and heaven bless you."

Their faces were so close, their hearts pounding so loud and so in tune, the next move was almost inevitable. His hands slipped upwards from her arms to the soft planes of her cheeks. Within another move, he was kissing her. To his joy she returned the gesture, giving as fiercely as he, receiving and acknowledging all that lay between them, the barriers enforced on them, parting them forever.

Resolved, Jane parted softly from his lips and drew away from him. Reluctantly, he let her go, rising to his feet only a moment after her.

"I promised I'd not follow you but, shall I keep you in view at least?" he asked, with a slight gesture to the late afternoon light that now surrounded them. "It grows dark."

Jane shook her head, for she feared he would follow her to her Uncle's house and call upon her in the morning. Her Uncle Gardiner was an early riser and would not rest until he and thus Mr Bingley, learned why his niece refused to see a gentleman lawyer who desired to pay a call on her. "I am used to being alone at this hour. Please do not."

Charles bowed his head in compliance with her request. "I promise. Jane, I can promise you no more tonight, except I will try to do as you wish."

The thought of encountering him again as she walked into the village tomorrow, or indeed any day after this, filled her with the same dread as refusing to see him in her Uncle's house. Not just dread for her, but for his continued safety, after all, it was entirely possible that where he had managed to trace her, so had Mr Collins. "You will spare yourself and me, if you leave this place tomorrow morning," she added.

"I will try," he replied, inwardly knowing that it would be a failed attempt. Silently he watched her go, waiting until her figure faded from his vision before he turned away, walking towards the river.

"Oh Richard," he uttered, wishing his friend were here to console and catechise him in his usual manner, "who could believe this ridiculous position. And yet I've gained a wonderful power over her," he realised. "She loves me. She is so earnest, she will be earnest in that passion. We must both follow our natures, and we must both pay for them."

He stopped for a moment as he considered his next move. "Now suppose I married her. Impossible. And yet I should like to meet the fellow who could tell me I do not love her for her true beauty and warmth, and in spite of myself, I'd not be true to her."

Shaking his head, he resumed his wandering, he mused as to his distant friend's opinion of this affair. "I can hear you Richard, your sorrowful voice bemoaning, 'Charles, Charles this is a bad business.' Yet I'd like to hear any fellow say a word against her."

"Yet she begs me to go away," he murmured, unable to think of any good reason that would justify such an action. "I'll not go away. I will try her again. She shall not resist me." He smiled as he imagined Fitzwilliam's response upon hearing such a resolution. 'Ah Charles, Charles, this is a bad business.'"

Someone brushed past him just then, the surrounding countryside too dark now from him to make out who or what caused the altercation.

"Hello there, friend are you blind?" he asked, before returning to his more immediate dilemma. "Out of the question to leave her. Out of the question to marry her. Richard, we have reached the crisis."

Here his mental and doubtless physical wanderings would have continued, but for the sudden violence of another knocking him forcibly to the ground. Shaken, Bingley made to rise, but the other anticipated the motion and beat him back to the ground, striking him again and again, first with fists, then with a oar, until, much to his relief and the attacker's, unconsciousness claimed all his senses.

Jane had not walked far, only to the outskirts of Lambton, before her own thoughts overtook any desire to go home, causing her to turn round and take a wander in the fields on her own in an effort to reconcile her mind to another no doubt difficult meeting with Mr Bingley on the morrow. For a while she contemplated telling him the truth behind her escape to Derbyshire, her fears that if she continued to spend time with him that Mr Collins would carry through on his threat to kill him. Would he scoff at her concerns as he had done so just now, or would he take them seriously, and accede to her wishes for separation?

She wandered on for some time, without any care as to direction, and thus she was still close enough to hear the crash of waves. A shiver of dread stole over her, causing her first to halt, then turn and run towards the source of the sound, also immediately fearing and knowing who she would find.

Darkness surrounded her, threatening to blind her sight, but the river was lit by the light of a full moon, and she had her experiences from helping her Uncle with his Charon like duties to provide her with enough vision to guide her first into the waiting boat, and then out into the river.

He was lying unconscious in the middle of the stream, bloodied and bruised, his breathing slowed, a paleness haunting his complexion, indicating that his body had suffered much injury, and was certainly near death. In the darkness and due to the violence visited upon him, she could not make out his features, but in her mind and heart she knew them well, almost as well as she knew her own.

"Oh, Uncle, help me now," she pleaded to her dearly departed relative, as she hauled Mr Bingley out of the water and into the boat, their combined weight fortuitously not enough to be in danger of sinking the light yet sturdy craft, "help me make amends. Help me restore this poor soul to someone who holds him dear."

There had been few times in Jane's life when she was truly scared.

Unfortunately for all concerned would not be the last, but the first of many more to come.

Volume Seven

© Danielle Atkinson 2010-2020. All rights reserved.