Netherfield, morning of Saturday 16 November
“Miss Bingley is dead!”
Elizabeth Bennet froze on hearing the whisperings of the maids. Obviously, she must have let out some sound, since the girls stopped speaking and looked at her in embarrassment before scurrying away. Dawn was breaking, but Elizabeth was still in her dinner clothes, for she had been tending to her sister Jane who had been ill again that night. Thankfully, the crisis appeared to be over, and Elizabeth hoped they would be able to go back home as early as Sunday. If Jane had not had a relapse, she would even have considered leaving today, and if the titbit of gossip she just heard was accurate, they would have to do that in any case. For now, she had to refresh herself and rang for a maid to change into something suitable for the morning.
“I believe I saw you earlier today in the hall,” she said as the girl was buttoning her dress. On hearing a mumbled answer that might have been a confirmation of her thoughts, she went on. “I could not help but hear what was said …”
“Oh, ma’am, it’s truly dreadful! Molly went to tend to the fire in Miss Bingley’s room this morning, but she knocked the poker set over, and it made such a ruckus that she was sure the lady had woken up! But then she heard nothing, so she was about to leave, and then Vincent rushed up into the room!”
“Miss Bingley’s lady’s maid. She told poor Molly off and then went to check on her mistress, and then she had a fit and told her to fetch Mr Bingley and Mrs Hurst quick, ma’am.”
“Is the apothecary already with her?”
“He would not be of any help, ma’am. Molly, she listened at the door—Miss Bingley kicked the bucket. She was already cold.”
When Elizabeth was ready, she slipped out of her room and made her way to Jane's, her lips set in a grim line. It would be best if they could leave Netherfield today, and she had resolved to write and send two notes as soon as possible: one to Mr Jones in order to ascertain that Jane could bear travelling without risking her health too much and the other to her parents, requesting the carriage to be sent. After some hesitation, she decided against including the terrible news in her letter, for after all, her host had not imparted the news himself yet, and it would not do to be to the origin of gossip. If her mother were more sensible, she might have included it, but alas, she was not, and entrusting her with the news meant it would be all over Meryton before two hours had passed.
Jane was still sleeping and seemed to have recovered better than Elizabeth had expected, thus she hoped that she would be able to travel home that very afternoon. If the situation had been different, she would rather have stayed until such a time when Jane felt better still, but given the present circumstances, she thought that they should leave as soon as possible so that Mr Bingley and the Hursts could grieve undisturbed by guests. In all probability, Mr Darcy would not linger either.
After having ensured her sister was comfortable, Elizabeth took aside the maid who had been taking care of her sister.
“You are aware, I presume, of the event which occurred last night—about Miss Bingley.”
“Such news would upset my sister greatly, and I want to tell her myself. Under no circumstances are you to disclose any of this to her. When she wakes up, send for me.”
The maid nodded. Elizabeth sat at a table to write her notes then departed the room quietly. Once she was downstairs she gave the butler her missives and asked him to dispatch them at once then went to the library. On entering that room, she encountered Mr Darcy. After they exchanged greetings, he returned to his book while she settled with one of her own.
Some time later, a footman entered the room with a message from her mother; she wrote her that the horses could not be spared before Tuesday. Elizabeth let go an annoyed sigh and, when she looked up from her letter, met Mr Darcy's inquisitive gaze. Her annoyance grew at the idea he had found another thing about her to criticise.
“You did not receive any bad news from home, I hope?”
Surprised to be wrong, she did not think before answering him.
“Thank you for your concern—but no, not really. It is only that I asked for the carriage, for we cannot impose on Mr Bingley's hospitality any longer. However, my mother writes we shall have to wait, for the horses cannot be spared. I should send another note explaining the situation better; I did not write much in the first one.”
“It would be quicker to arrange for Bingley’s carriage to drive you back to Longbourn. I surmise you have heard of the sad news?" At her nod, he went on. "I also feel de trop here and had thought to go back to London or, at the very least, to a local inn. It would be no inconvenience to see you home before going on my way.”
“Thank you, sir. I ... allow me to say that I am also sorry for your loss.” As he seemed surprised she added, “Was not the lady a friend of yours?”
He sighed. “She was mostly the sister of my friend—but yes, we were on friendly terms. Poor Miss Bingley.”
“Yes,” said Elizabeth. “To leave this world so young, before her time ...”
“Before her time indeed,” nodded Darcy. “I should not be surprised if the apothecary was to suspect something was amiss.”
Elizabeth started and looked at her companion. He was gazing absently at the window, frowning. He had voiced such a surprising opinion that, after some hesitation, she spoke again.
“Do you think that she could have been … that someone could have had a hand in her death?”
Darcy nodded again. “I cannot know for certain, but I believe there is something not right there.”
“But who could have wanted her death?”
“A fair number of people,” Darcy smiled faintly. “I dare say there is not one person under this roof who does not benefit from her demise.”
He shrugged. “She was annoying, rude and taxed everyone's patience.”
“But this is not reason enough to ... to kill someone!” Elizabeth was aghast. “Why, if it were the case, I should have orchestrated your demise long ago!”
He started and looked at her with no little disbelief. She thought he was about to say something, but instead he shook his head and turned towards the window again.
“I find myself at a loss,” he said after a couple of minutes. “I should like to call for the magistrate, and yet ... I do not know what I should tell him.”
“Maybe you could wait for Mr Jones to come and confirm your suspicion before alerting Mr Knowles," she answered, barely refraining from rolling her eyes.
“Perhaps I should. I shall send word to him now.”
“I already had a note sent, for I wished him to check on Jane, but warning him about Miss Bingley should ensure he will have all the things he could need for his examination close at hand.”
“Then I shall write another note at once. Meanwhile, perhaps you should check whether your sister has awakened and gently tell her the news. I do not know her well, but I heard her being described as a kind-hearted young lady; this might come as a shock for her.”
Elizabeth nodded and left the room.
Jane was awake and somewhat better, but the news of Miss Bingley's demise affected her strongly. Still, Elizabeth decided that, barring contradictory instructions from Mr Jones, they would depart that day. She helped her sister to dress accordingly and had a footman apprise Mr Darcy of their plans; she had just finished packing when she received word that the gentleman was also ready to leave and that they would go as soon as the apothecary gave his approval.
Longbourn, late morning, Saturday
Mr Jones had judged that Jane could go home provided she was dressed warmly enough, and after having said their goodbyes and extended their condolences to Mr Bingley and Mr and Mrs Hurst, the two sisters and Mr Darcy took their places in Mr Bingley's chaise. When they arrived at Longbourn, Mr Darcy helped the two young women to alight; they entered the house arm in arm, the gentleman trailing behind.
Elizabeth did not lose time and walked as quickly as she could, for Jane felt uneasy and was in need of bed-rest. As she was ascending the stairs, she wondered at Mr Darcy's presence in the house. That he had not stopped in Meryton on their way to Longbourn could be explained by the necessity to bring Jane home without delay, but why, once that had been accomplished, did he not go back? Perhaps he merely wished to apprise her father of what had befallen their neighbours.
Once Elizabeth and Jane had disappeared, Mr Darcy had indeed asked the housekeeper to lead him to Mr Bennet. The master of Longbourn was reading when his visitor was announced. After greetings were exchanged, he could not hide his surprise.
“This is quite unexpected—if anything, I should have expected Mr Bingley on my doorstep. Is there anything you wish to share with me?”
Darcy sighed. “Actually, there is—I fear Mr Bingley will not be making social calls anytime soon, sir.”
A raised eyebrow—strongly reminiscent of his second daughter—was his only answer.
“Miss Bingley has passed away. She seemed in good health yesterday evening; Mr Jones was still determining what caused her death when we left. I suspect foul play. In any case, this is a dreadful time for my friend.”
Mr Bennet nodded and, since it was an occasion on which a witty word would not be welcomed, kept silent. On seeing his visitor did not seem ready to leave him in peace, he spoke again.
“Was there something else you wished to impart, sir?”
“Given the circumstances, it would not do for me to stay at Netherfield. I first planned to go back to London, but, as I told you, I believe there is something not quite right with this death. Consequently, I should like to be still in the neighbourhood while the first investigations are conducted.”
“Do you wish for an assessment of the local inns? I doubt any of them would be satisfying for your exacting standards,” Mr Bennet said, and he smirked on seeing the younger man scowl.
“Or,” he continued, “if you do not mind the company of the silliest girls in all England, you are welcome at Longbourn for as long as you need to assuage your curiosity. Be warned—you will not be the only guest, for my heir will join us shortly.”
"I am grateful for your offer, sir, but I do not want to inconvenience you."
"On the contrary, I suspect your presence will do me a lot of good, for I fear my cousin is sadly lacking in sense."
At that moment, a knock was heard at the door, and Elizabeth came in after being bidden to enter.
“Lizzy! How are you there? I thought you were still at Netherfield, nursing your sister. Your mother must have written that we could not spare the horses.”
“She has,” she confirmed. “Mr Bingley kindly lent us and Mr Darcy his equipage.”
Mr Bennet frowned. “How is your sister faring?”
“I fear that the journey, short as it was, has exhausted her. She is resting now, and I hope she will be well soon, as long as she does not exert herself too much.”
"Good. Will you kindly tell our mother that we shall have a guest today?"
"Mr Darcy will be staying at Longbourn for some days."
Elizabeth, unhappy that she would not be rid of his presence, glanced at the seated gentleman as she left the room and made her way to the parlour, where she met her mother. Mrs Bennet was displeased that they had come home so soon, and was sure that Jane would have caught cold again, no matter the precautions that had been taken. When Elizabeth explained the circumstances of their removal, another litany of complaints was heard, for mourning his sister would prevent Mr Bingley from making Jane an offer anytime soon. Moreover, Mrs Bennet was unhappy to host Mr Darcy.
"And the guest room is not ready for use yet! What was Mr Bennet thinking!"
At that moment, the gentlemen entered the drawing room.
"There is no need to unsettle your nerves over this. Jane is still unwell, and Lizzy will want to check on her regularly; she will stay in her room. Mr Darcy will go in Lizzy’s room. If the guest room is made ready for Monday, it will be early enough, do you not agree, Mr Darcy?"
Not understanding why Mr Bennet seemed so intent on hiding from his wife the knowledge of an additional guest's arrival that day, the gentleman could only nod curtly, and it did not endear him to the ladies of the house. As a result, Mrs Bennet stopped considering making apologies to Mr Darcy for not giving him her best room. Having him invade Elizabeth's for two days seemed a fitting punishment for her second eldest, and her anger at her decision to leave Netherfield in the morning abated somewhat, while the young lady's resentment of Mr Darcy only grew.
That evening in Jane’s room at Longbourn, Elizabeth fretted over her sister, fearing that her night would be as uncomfortable as the previous one had been.
“Worry not, Lizzy. I have taken a few drops of laudanum, and it should help me to settle.”
“You had some yesterday night, but it did not do you any good!”
“I had not, Lizzy. I ... did without. Truly, I shall be well.”
Jane was falling asleep and Elizabeth did not press her, but she herself felt wide awake. She wondered first why Jane had not taken the medicine. Shrugging it off, she then thought again about Miss Bingley’s fate. There was laudanum in the house. Could someone have slipped some to her? Elizabeth was then idly wondering whether Mr Darcy could have orchestrated Miss Bingley’s death in order to get rid of her attentions and spoken his doubts aloud only in order to deflect any suspicion from him should foul play be suspected, when sleep claimed her at last.
Longbourn, Monday, at breakfast
On the previous day, Mr Darcy’s presence at the Bennet pew did not go unnoticed. People had restrained themselves during the services, but once those were over, the churchyard had been abuzz with gossip. When the news from Netherfield had been shared and confirmed by Mr Jones’s sister, the discussions had increased in volume. Darcy hoped, rather than believed, that this day would be quieter. He was proven wrong as they all settled for breakfast.
“I hope you will have the guest room ready for today,” said Mr Bennet for his wife.
“Of course I have! Not much could be done yesterday, but I cannot leave Mr Darcy in Lizzy’s room forever.”
“I am afraid he will have to stay longer, for we shall have someone else staying with us.”
“Who can it be, Mr Bennet? One of your university friends?”
“No, my dear. He is a gentleman and a stranger.”
Mrs Bennet frowned. Her husband continued. “Mr Collins, who will inherit this house should something happen to me, has expressed the wish to mend the fences his father had broken. He will arrive today, in time for tea.”
“And you tell me this only now? Oh, Mr Bennet!”
Mrs Bennet’s agitation did not cease for the whole day; it was not only due to the fact she had to welcome yet another unplanned guest, nor to the fact that she was prepared to dislike the second even more than the first. After breakfast, she took Elizabeth aside.
“I am sorry, child. Had I known, I should not have dislodged you!”
“Worry not, Mamma, I am perfectly content to share rooms with Jane.”
“Still! I was angry with you for coming home early and thought two days of having to lend your room to that disagreeable man would be punishment enough. I never wished for it to go on for longer than that!”
“Do not distress yourself over it,” soothed Elizabeth. “Truly, I do not mind so much. I am content to be with Jane.”
Thus reassured, Mrs Bennet went on to complain about other household matters and how her nerves were taxed by the situation. Elizabeth watched her go with a resigned smile. As for Mr Darcy, he had already retreated with Mr Bennet to that gentleman’s book-room. Elizabeth hoped that the mysterious cousin would more often plague Mr Darcy than seek to entertain her or her sisters. If he was half as foolish as his letter foretold, only Jane might be patient enough to bear with him.
Longbourn Gardens, Tuesday morning
Elizabeth and Mr Darcy were walking side by side, basking in Mr Collins’s absence. That gentleman had been as foolish as his letter had foretold, and his long-winded discourses difficult to tune out.
“I hope,” said Mr Darcy, “that your cousin is a late riser.”
Elizabeth giggled. Darcy straightened and scowled. “I do not see any humour in this, Miss Bennet.”
That haughty glare again! She refrained to roll her eyes. “He is at least three times as annoying as Miss Bingley ever was. Any doubts I had about your innocence are lifted now.”
He smiled slightly. “You are impossible.”
She shrugged. “Do you mind if we go to Meryton? I should like to call on my aunt, and ... I should rather not ... I should like to ...”
“Avoid your cousin if he were already about?” he finished with a smirk. “I like that scheme. Perhaps you could devise a way of having your sisters join us without being seen by Mr Collins?”
In the end, with the help of Mrs Hill, the remaining Misses Bennet were made aware of the plan. Jane was still too weary for such an endeavour, and Mary, who always avoided what she called disproportionate effort, volunteered to keep her company. Kitty and Lydia, however, escaped through the kitchen door, giggling and whispering to each other, delighted at the idea of having an opportunity to meet with the officers.
Soon, the foursome was on the road to the town, the younger girls laughing in the front, and the other two walking more sedately at the back.
When she was assured her sisters could not hear them, Elizabeth said:
“Do you have any news of the case—or of your friend?”
“I did not receive any since I went to Meryton the other day. I hope I can tell you more when we come back.”
They were soon in Meryton, where they separated; Elizabeth hurried to join her sisters before they hailed any officer walking the street and Darcy went to pay a visit to Mr Jones.
Kitty and Lydia had quickly run into Mr Denny, who had come back from London with a friend, who appeared to be nearly everything a young man ought to be. Their happiness was complete on learning that he had taken a commission in the regiment of the militia and would soon wear the same red coat as his friend.
This meeting did not hold Elizabeth’s interest, for though she owned that Mr Wickham seemed to be an agreeable man and was certainly handsome, her mind was still mostly preoccupied with Mr Darcy's quest.
At length she saw him exit Mr Jones’ practice and stride down the street, either with the intent to join them or with that of conversing with Mr Knowles.
When he neared their group, he froze and barely nodded at them before he continued on his way. Elizabeth knew not what to think about his reaction. Her sisters, still giggling and admiring the officers, had not noticed anything; Mr Denny was as he ever was. Mr Wickham, however, seemed to have reddened and looked as if he had been unsettled by the sighting of Mr Darcy. Elizabeth yearned to learn more about this, but this would have to wait. She reminded her sisters about their avowed goal of visiting Mrs Philips, and the young men proposed to accompany them, which they did before going back to their duties.
Their aunt Philips was happy to see them and, after having heard Kitty and Lydia sing the praises of the officers, invited her nieces to a card party she had planned for the morrow and to which she had invited the officers. They were still thanking their aunt when Darcy was announced; Elizabeth was eager to be told what he had learned during his visits, and also owned to some curiosity regarding his acquaintance with Mr Wickham. But none of those subjects were suitable for conversation in the presence of her sisters and aunt. She hoped that Kitty and Lydia would be as absorbed by their conversation on the way back home as they had been when they came. Meanwhile, at his request, she introduced Darcy to her aunt. Upon learning that he was now, due to the Bingleys' mourning, a guest at Longbourn, Mrs Philips extended the invitation to the card party to him—and to all the young people that were currently in the household, for her nieces had also told her of their cousin's presence. That did not sit well with Elizabeth, for she had been looking forward an evening spent without Mr Collins; she did not attempt to conceal her frustration.
Soon afterwards they were on their way back to Longbourn, the younger girls skipping ahead and sharing gossip as they had done earlier. The other two walked behind, but this time Darcy had not offered his arm to Elizabeth. He threw her a glance now and then. Elizabeth knew not what to make of that, and was about to enquire after his meetings when he spoke.
“I could not help but noticing that you were displeased when I accepted your aunt's invitation for tomorrow.”
“Of course not! Why would you think such a thing?”
“Why would you have scowled if not for that reason?”
“Did you realise that Mr Collins was also included in the invitation?” She was scowling again.
“I shall shield you from him if you wish,” he said with a smile.
“How gallant of you,” she answered with a huff. “But let us not speak of my cousin any longer: do not leave me in suspense, what did you learn this morning?”
“Mr Jones told me that she could have taken too much laudanum. Her maid had told him that Miss Bingley had complained about a headache and asked for a dose of it to help her sleep. The girl said that she gave her mistress a little more than what she asked, but not enough to cause her harm. I then went to see Knowles to determine whether he thought further inquiry was necessary, but the man’s hypothesis is that Miss Bingley took another dose by herself and died as a result.”
They walked some minutes in silence, before Elizabeth spoke.
“But you do not think it likely.”
“No. She was clever; she would have known not to take such a risk. Mr Knowles, though, is reluctant to enquire further. He told me that if this was no accident, it might then be a suicide, and he would rather not give the family pain.”
“Which is commendable,” she sighed. “Could you not try to learn more, since his inaction displeases you?”
“You wish me to pry around and ask questions?”
“Not necessarily yourself, sir;” she answered with a smile. “Given that you were a guest of Mr Bingley, I dare say your valet could easily acquire some information from his staff.”
Darcy nodded, and they continued to walk in companionable silence.
Meryton, Wednesday evening
The seven young people had squeezed together in the Bennet carriage and arrived at Mrs Philips's house in a short time and without the dresses of the ladies having suffered too many wrinkles. While they waited for Mr Philips and the officers to join them, the ladies and Mr Darcy were subjected to Mr Collins's long-winded discourses, which only Mrs Philips seemed to appreciate.
Elizabeth would have liked an opportunity to talk with Mr Darcy some more, but was prevented to do so by her cousin, who stubbornly continued to address Mr Darcy and praise his aunt to him. She hoped she would have more luck later, when the tables would be set, and was wandering the room when the gentlemen entered. She was stuck again by Mr Wickham's appearance and found herself surprised, but not wholly displeased, when he came to her side and engaged her in conversation. She had to admit that he was a delightful conversationalist; A glance from the corner of her eye showed her that Mr Darcy appeared displeased, but there was nothing she could do about it.
The tables were forming, and Elizabeth saw with resignation that Mr Darcy, as well as Mr Collins and an officer, had been commandeered to play whist with her uncle. Wickham, though, did not play whist, and sat at the lottery table between her and Lydia. The charming officer inquired about their acquaintance with Darcy.
"La! He's such a proud, disagreeable man! I did not think much about him until my father invited him to stay at Longbourn. But I dare say none of us hates him as much as Lizzy does!"
Having said her piece, Lydia giggled and then focused on her lottery tickets. Wickham turned towards a blushing Elizabeth and enquired about the cause of her supposed dislike for Darcy. Elizabeth decided that she would have a greater chance to learn something of substance if she professed feelings that were not her own.
"I fear Mr Darcy, by holding himself above the local people, has not endeared himself in the area. We spent some days under Mr Bingley's roof, and had more than one disagreement. Then our host's sister died, and Mr Darcy would not leave the area, though he did not want to impose on his friend. He did accompany us home, and my father felt obligated to offer him a room."
"This is the cause for the particular dislike your sister alluded to?"
"Oh, no," she smiled. "We all have our own room at Longbourn, which means that there is only one guest room. With both Mr Darcy and Mr Collins here, I have been dislodged which is, arguably, a disagreement."
“And does familiarity make it easier to bear with Mr Darcy’s presence?”
Elizabeth only shrugged in answer. The gentleman appeared to see that as encouragement, for he then shared with her the story of a denied inheritance that left Elizabeth somewhat doubtful; that doubt increased when, once his game was over, Mr Darcy sat at her other side and Mr Wickham’s countenance appeared more calculating than offended. She would have to ask their guest about the truthfulness of the tale. Maybe there was a condition in the will that the young man did not fulfill.
Longbourn, Thursday 21 November
After breakfast, Darcy joined Elizabeth for a walk in the gardens. She was reasonably confident they would not be overheard and decided to ask him about his side of the story.
“While we were playing yesterday, Mr Wickham had an interesting tale to share.”
“Had he?” said Darcy, stiffening.
“I am afraid it does not paint you in a good light.”
“I should have been surprised if it had been otherwise.”
Elizabeth glanced at her companion and rolled her eyes on seeing his frown.
“You are not, I hope, entertaining the thought that I had believed him?”
That seemed to improve his countenance markedly. “You have not?”
“I may have,” she confessed, “if I did not know you better. However, we have been sufficiently in company for me to realise that you would never act in the dishonest way he says you did. I must conclude that you had a legitimate reason to refuse him that living, that he refuses to accept it, and that resentment has made him bitter.”
“Thank you for your trust,” he said in a gentler voice. “What will you conclude if I say that he was the one who refused the living, was given three thousand pounds in compensation, an additional thousand, and came back to me a couple years later having spent it all and hoping the living would be available to him?”
Elizabeth stopped in her tracks. After looking at Darcy in horror for some moments, she shook her head and resumed walking.
“I should say such a man is lost to common decency and wonder that he had the effrontery to show up where you are.”
“I am not one to share my private dealings and do not make friends easily, whereas this is a talent of his. He must have counted on that.”
“And Lydia told him I was particularly displeased with you. He must have thought I should easily listen to him,” mused Elizabeth.
“Are you displeased with me?”
“Of course not. Not any more. This was not the case in the beginning of our acquaintance, though, but it would have been childish of me to resent you forever because of a refusal to dance.”
Darcy smiled, and they continued their walk, both appreciative of the calm they would lose as soon as they entered the house again.
Longbourn, Wednesday 27 November
Darcy had not learned much concerning Miss Bingley while he stayed at Longbourn. His valet had enquired, but learned nothing, and had even been shooed away by Netherfield’s housekeeper. Mr Bingley would return soon; he and the Hursts had gone north, for their sister was to be buried alongside their parents. They were to come back and spend the winter at Netherfield, though Darcy did not know whether his friend would renew the lease. Given the bad memories associated with the house, this seemed doubtful.
Having word that his friend had come back the previous day—living at Longbourn proved to be very informative if you had an interest in the comings and goings of the local gentry—Mr Darcy had been to Netherfield in order to take leave of his friend and would then depart for London.
He came back from that visit more agitated than when he had left and hoped he would have an occasion to speak with Miss Elizabeth soon. After having led his horse back to the Longbourn stables, Darcy stepped in the hall just in time to see that lady flee from one of the parlours and up the stairs, and her mother quickly entering the room her daughter had just exited. He hesitated, not knowing if he should go after Miss Bennet, greet her mother and her cousin—for that gentleman's voice could now be heard, or simply retreat to the library where Mr Bennet was probably ensconced, when some of the words William Collins was enunciating reached his mind.
“I have every reason to be satisfied from that interview! The steadfast refusal my dear cousin Elizabeth opposed me is proof of her natural modesty and genuine delicacy.”
“I am afraid this seems to be unlike anything Lizzy would do,” Mrs Bennet could be heard to answer in a somewhat hesitant voice. “But depend on it, Mr Collins, that she shall be brought to reason. I shall speak to her about it myself directly.”
Mr Darcy could not take any more of it and entered into the room.
“You cannot be serious!”
The other two stared at him.
“I fail to see how a family matter would be of any concern to you, Mr Darcy,” said Mrs Bennet in a pinched tone.
“Madam, it is my understanding that Mr Collins made a proposal of marriage to Miss Elizabeth, and that she refused him. Am I correct?”
Mr Collins nodded, though some doubt was rising in his expression.
“Lizzy is a very headstrong, foolish girl who does not know what is good for her,” answered her mother in a dismissive voice. “I shall make her know where her own interest is.”
Mr Collins huffed. “If this is really the case, I am not certain she would be a very desirable wife for a man in my situation. I need a wife who would contribute to my felicity, not undermine it by her fits of temper.”
Darcy was surprised to find himself on the same mind as Mr Collins. “Mr Collins has the right of it, madam. If there is one young lady who knows exactly what she wants, it is Miss Elizabeth. I should very much doubt that she would profess opinions that are not her own in a matter of such importance, nor does she strikes me as a lady who would toy with her own happiness. If she said no, she must be resolute not to have him, and you will not have her change her mind.”
A vexed Mr Collins—for had he not been misdirected by Mrs Bennet on his arrival?—then excused himself, and went to walk in the gardens. Mrs Bennet glared at the remaining gentleman and went straight to her husband's study, from where she went away shortly afterwards looking even more displeased. She then climbed the stairs in pursuit of her headstrong, obstinate child—that became obvious when her lamentations, reproofs and entreating could be heard through the house. The library and its thick door were very appealing, and Darcy opted to join his host, who nodded when the young man entered and sat with a book. The sounds of the house were now muffled, and though Darcy felt some guilt at the idea that he had left Miss Bennet alone to deal with her mother, he did not see how he could properly manage to extricate her out of her predicament. He wondered how, in such agitation, they would find a moment for him to quietly impart to her what Bingley told him, when a very agitated Elizabeth entered her father's refuge.
“Papa, please!” Mr Bennet lifted his eyes from his book. “Please, tell me that you did not, and will not consent to grant Mr Collins my hand.”
“You can be reassured on that point, young lady. Now would you please leave us in peace?”
“May I sit with you? I should rather not be around Mama for the time being. I promise I shall make myself scarce.”
Her father nodded, and after choosing a book, she sat on the settee near the fireplace. After half a minute, Darcy joined her. She looked at him.
“I may have learned something. You know that Mr Jones suspected a laudanum overdose, but Miss Bingley’s maid was adamant that the one she gave her was harmless?” Elizabeth nodded. “Well, I just went to see Bingley before I left the area, he confessed fearing his carelessness had cost his sister her life.”
“He wished for her to retire early and said he had dropped some laudanum in her glass after dinner.”
“Oh dear. But the doses were so small—I know that one must take care when it comes to opiates, but surely a double dose would not have been enough to cause Miss Bingley much harm.”
“This is what I told him.”
Elizabeth nodded and went back to her book. She soon started and rose.
“Forgive me, I—I have to see to Jane. I shall be back soon.”
Not waiting for an answer, she curtsied and fled from the room, leaving a baffled gentleman behind her—Mr Bennet had lived too long in a household of ladies to be baffled by anything.
Elizabeth raced up the stairs and barged into Jane’s room. She found her sister alone, awake, and alarmed at such an intrusion.
“Lizzy! What is the matter?”
“Nothing, nothing, everything is well ... it is just … Jane, you told me the other day that you did not take your laudanum dose that last night at Netherfield.”
Jane nodded, puzzlement visible on her face.
“What became of it? Did you spill it?”
Jane blushed as she shook her head. “Do not think ill of me, Lizzy. Miss Bingley came to visit me before retiring, but I feared that I was not equal to conversation, and gave her the glass in which I had mixed the syrup with some wine. It worked, she felt tired and retired soon afterwards. Why are you asking? Are you angry with me for my deception?”
“No, Jane. I am not.”
“Do you think I may have killed Caroline?” her sister suddenly fretted.
Elizabeth paused. “No, Jane,” she said at last. “I believe it is as Mr Jones said: Miss Bingley’s death is completely accidental.”
Elizabeth left the room and went back to the library at a much slower pace than when she had left it. Her father did not as much as raise his eyes from his book when she entered and took her former seat back.
“Mr Darcy,” she whispered to the inquisitive looking gentleman. “We have to determine who else gave Miss Bingley a normal dose of laudanum that night.”
The gentleman, who was distracted with how bright her eyes were, whispered back. “What is your theory?”
“Miss Bingley asked for one,” she answered, raising her fingers successively. “Bingley gave her one, as did Jane. That’s three—maybe not enough for poisoning, but if there were one or two more people who acted in the same way at the same time …”
“The Hursts seemed satisfied when Miss Bingley retired that night,” mused Darcy.
“And Jones told you that Vincent gave her a little more … Perhaps other servants would also have benefitted from her rest.”
They looked at each other.
“Do you not feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of visiting Netherfield?”
“Are the Hursts in residence?”
“Aye, they came back with Bingley and were to stay a fortnight.”
Mr Bennet, whose tranquility was troubled by their whisperings, waved them off, and they were on their way as soon as Mr Darcy’s carriage, which had come from London a couple days before, was ready.
Netherfield, later that day
“Mrs Hurst, Bingley, Mr Hurst, thank you for receiving us. We ... “ Darcy threw a glance to Elizabeth, who continued.
“We think we have an idea about what happened to Miss Bingley. It seems it is all an accident.”
“My sister would never have accidentally swallowed that much laudanum!” protested Mrs Hurst.
“No. Not if she had been aware of it,” said Elizabeth gently.
“Louisa, she took a dose as she went to sleep, and I gave her another earlier that evening,” confessed Bingley.
“A double dose would not kill her either,” cried Mrs Hurst as her husband swore. She paused. “Hurst?”
“I gave her one, too. She had been prattling all evening, and I feared she would never stop.”
Mrs Hurst paled. “Three doses?”
“Four, perhaps five.” Elizabeth sighed. “Jane gave her hers for the same reason Mr Hurst did, and Vincent thought she needed a little more than she had asked.”
“And maybe more,” continued Darcy. “Maybe some of your staff had the same idea. Laudanum is easily procured.”
Bingley rose and summoned the housekeeper. A discussion with the woman led to learning that she also had slipped a small dose of laudanum in Miss BIngley’s drink, in order to calm her down. The lady’s abigail confirmed that she had, when asked to fetch a dose, augmented it a little in order to ensure that her mistress would have a good rest. Each taken separately, these superfluous doses would not have had another effect than making her sleep later in the morning than was her wont. The temporal coincidence was what had been fatal to Miss Bingley.
“Nobody must learn about that!” entreated Mrs Hurst once she had fully comprehended the situation.
“We shall not say one more word,” said Darcy as Elizabeth nodded. “All that matters is that it was an accident. Since there was no ill intent, its circumstances are, I believe, irrelevant.”
Darcy and Elizabeth soon took their leave of the grieving family and made their way back to Longbourn. The weather being fair, they decided to walk, and the gentleman sent his carriage back at Longbourn. Neither of them wished for their association to come to an end, but it was time for them to go on their separate ways. Not wanting their last stroll to end too soon, they walked more slowly than was their wont, sometime in silence, sometime in pleasant conversation.