Thursday’s 300: To Save Elizabeth Re-edit, Chapter 7: The Investigation

Welcome back to Thursday’s 300!

Today’s post is brought to you by To Save Elizabeth! (This is an affiliate link. It’s free to click on and no purchase is required. However, I may earn a tiny commission from your click.)

The rush proofreading job I had kept me from working on this project, but I finished it the other day and now I’m back on track here. <3

I’ve not made many actual changes in any of these chapters so far. In this one, I again made very few changes; just removed a couple commas and rearranged a paragraph or two.

If you missed the first chapter, you can find it here. The second chapter is here.

Chapter 3 is here. Chapter 4 is here. Chapter 5 is here. Chapter 6 is here.

Enjoy!

The Investigation

Once again addressing the Gardiners, Darcy asked, “Have you any idea at all who this man could be? Did you recognize him?”

Maddie’s head started shaking before Darcy finished speaking. “No, I did not. I keep trying to tell myself that it was all in our imagination, but …”

Gardiner laid his hand on top of his wife’s. “Maddie, Brutus would not have reacted as he did had it been nothing. Someone was following you, likely with ill intent.” He looked up at Darcy. “I have hired two additional footmen just this morning. Their sole task is to protect my family. No one is to leave the house unattended. I have told Maddie and Lizzy this.”

Darcy nodded in approval. “I would do the same in your position.” He decided then that he would inform his friend of the investigator he hired, when the sexes separated after the meal.

Georgiana and Elizabeth had been silent as the tale was told, but now the younger girl could restrain herself no longer. “I would have been terribly frightened to have such a thing happen to me! You are so brave to have remained calm throughout and to want to follow that man like you did!”

This comment made Elizabeth visibly relax and laugh for the first time since the Darcys had entered the room. “Oh, I was only outwardly calm. On the inside, I was shaking.”

“No one knew it, though, Lizzy. Your courage rose, and none who saw you would have known anything was wrong.” Maddie praised her niece.

A small smile lifted the corners of Elizabeth’s mouth. “I am glad. I have grown quite weary of being fearful. It was refreshing to have anger surging through me for once.”

“You are doing so well in overcoming your fear, though. You are doing so very well!”

At Georgiana’s earnest exclamation, Elizabeth smiled fondly at the younger girl.  “Thank you. And, please, if we are to truly be friends, you must call me Elizabeth, or Lizzy, as my family does.”

Georgiana beamed with delight. “Very well, Lizzy. You must call me Georgiana.”

“I shall. I am so happy to have met you. Shall we play together after we eat, while my uncle and your brother are enjoying their port and cigars?”

“I would be happy to. We should prepare a duet for the gentlemen’s enjoyment.”

Before Elizabeth could reply, the housekeeper announced the meal, and the five of them repaired to the dining room. Darcy smiled to see Georgiana and Elizabeth with their heads together, deep in conversation, as they walked.

                    ~~~***~~~

After the ladies had retired to the drawing room once more, Darcy brought up the investigator he had hired.

“I know it could be seen as presumptuous of me, but I have hired a man to investigate Miss Bennet’s accident.”

Gardiner drew a long pull on his cigar, blowing the smoke out slowly while he considered this information. “You are correct,” he said as he tapped the ashes into the saucer on the table. “It was presumptuous.” He sighed. “But I cannot complain. Thank you for taking it on. I cannot help but wonder why you have; perhaps you might explain that to me.”

“Gladly. I am … I have …” Darcy searched for the correct words to say. “I have fallen in love with Miss Bennet, and I hope to gain her permission for a courtship, with your consent, of course. I am a methodical man, and as harsh as it may sound, I want to know everything I can about her past. There are things that neither she nor you know that an investigator may uncover.” Darcy stood and began to pace behind his chair. “There are too many things happening around Miss Bennet for my comfort. She was nearly killed in an accident and almost kidnapped at the museum. Knowing now that your house was broken into and her belongings trifled with, and that someone has followed and apparently approached Miss Bennet and Mrs. Gardiner, I am convinced it was the right decision. These events cannot all be coincidences.

“There is also my sister to consider. If there is danger surrounding Miss Bennet, I could be putting Georgiana in peril, as well.” He stopped and turned toward Gardiner, holding the back of the chair in front of him and leaning slightly over it. “I need to know what I am facing by becoming romantically involved with your niece.”

Blowing another smoke-filled breath into the room, Gardiner replied. “I agree, and let me say that it speaks volumes about your character that you would take such a step. I will also confess only to you an uneasiness about Lizzy’s safety. I have long felt there was something suspicious about the accident that brought her to us. Perhaps your investigator will find something.”

“If there is something to find, Haynes will locate it. In the meantime, you have hired more men to protect her.” Darcy pushed away from the chair as Gardiner rose. “I will keep you informed as to the investigation. I know I do not have any rights yet as far as Miss Bennet’s safety goes, but I will help you with it as much as you allow.”

“Your offer is greatly appreciated. I think we are set for now, but if that changes, I will let you know.” Gardiner stopped with his hand on the door latch. “When are you planning on asking Lizzy for a courtship?”

“After I hear from the investigator. I would like to come to her with some knowledge of what is going on.”

“I see. Where do you see this courtship going, should she grant you permission?”

“To the altar, sir.”

Gardiner grinned. “I thought as much. She is a good girl. She will be blessed to have you, should she accept you.”

“I will be the blessed one, I assure you.”

 ~~~***~~~

The next day, Darcy sat down at his desk just as the door flew open. Seeing that it was his cousin, he did not bother to rise again. Instead, he waved toward the decanters and asked, “Do you never knock?” Though his tone was annoyed, his head was down to hide his smirk.

Fitzwilliam snickered before smugly replying. “Of course I did, at the front door. Baxter let me in. How else did you think I would gain admittance? You keep this place locked up like a fortress.”

“With the crime in this city, I have to.” He looked his cousin up and down. “Just look at the riffraff that wanders in.”

Fitzwilliam affected a wounded look, his eyes growing large and his mouth falling open. His free hand pressed against his chest. “Me? Riffraff?”

Darcy rolled his eyes at his cousin’s dramatics. “Yes, you. Come, sit down and tell me why you are here.” He shook his head and chuckled.

“I had an hour or two before my meeting with the general and thought I would come visit my favorite cousin. And his wine.” Fitzwilliam winked, grinning at Darcy’s laugh.

“I would venture to say you would far rather visit my wine than me, eh, Fitz?”

The pair laughed some more, and when their merriment had ceased, Fitzwilliam asked about the man he had seen leaving as he approached the front door. “Have you hired the Runners? Why? Is that scoundrel Wickham stirring up more trouble? I tell you, Darcy, if you let me take care of him, your pocketbook will thank you.” Richard patted the hilt of his sword.

Darcy set his drink down carefully and then looked up at his cousin and leaned forward. “I have hired an investigator, yes; and no, I have not heard from Wickham. I introduced you last week to Miss Bennet?”

Fitzwilliam’s brows rose, and he nodded. “You did. You are serious about her, then?”

“I should like to be.”

“Do you doubt her character? Did you not tell me she has a connection in Lady Marlee?”

“I did. It is not that I doubt Miss Bennet’s character; the Wickham affair has made me cautious. Miss Bennet has told me the story of how she came to be living with her uncle, but she cannot tell me everything, in part because she has gaps in her memory due to the accident, but there are details that simply do not make sense. Even Mr. Gardiner admits to some suspicions regarding the event, but he does not have the resources that I do. I want to know as much as I can about Miss Bennet before I proceed.”

“Very wise, especially given, as you so aptly called it, the Wickham affair. Is your heart engaged, then?”

Darcy leaned back in his seat once more, his gaze focused on the gleaming polished top of his desk. “Yes,” he admitted after a moment’s reflection. “It is.”

~~~***~~~

The next morning, Darcy and his cousin entered Gardiner’s study. They had discussed the investigator’s report and had agreed that Gardiner needed to be informed about its contents. Darcy had dashed off a note the evening before, requesting a meeting, and Gardiner had immediately sent a reply back. Now, the three of them were greeting each other and settling into seats.

“Your note said you have news related to your investigation?” Gardiner had poured drinks for each of them and was settling into his desk chair as he spoke.

Darcy was caught mid-sip, and so he swallowed and set his glass on the table that sat between his chair and the colonel’s. “I do.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a packet of papers. He handed it across the desk to Gardiner, then sat back, picking up his drink once more as he spoke. “This is the report, but allow me to share with you the most salient points.”

At Gardiner’s nod, Darcy began. “My investigator has uncovered evidence about your niece’s accident. He found the remains of the carriage behind the blacksmith’s shop in Meryton. Both the harness and the axle show marks that indicate they were cut through somehow.” Darcy saw Gardiner stand and begin pacing the room, but kept talking. “The investigator interviewed several townspeople and some of the Bennets’ neighbors, and based on the descriptions of the scene and the damage to the carriage, it is clear that what happened was not an accident. Mr. Haynes does not have a perpetrator as of yet.”

Gardiner cursed. “That confirms my worst fears. Bennet was indolent and did not manage Longbourn so that its profits increased, but he was not lazy or careless. His carriage was older, but he maintained it as though it were new. The same with his horses and tack.”

Richard’s brow creased. “If that were the case, how was the tampering not found before they set out?”

“I am uncertain. I know he had hired a new groom not long before the accident. Perhaps that man did not know to inspect it.”

Darcy disagreed. “Perhaps that is true. However, the first thing any groom is taught is to thoroughly inspect the rig. At least, that is how it is at Pemberley, but I cannot imagine anyone doing otherwise. To overlook it is as dangerous for the coachman and grooms as it is for the passengers. I will pass this information on to Haynes. He will continue investigating, but this is not all he has discovered.” Darcy waited for Gardiner to turn and look at him. “There is someone watching your house.”

Gardiner’s eyes widened in realization. “Most likely the same man who followed the ladies three days ago.”

Nodding, Darcy and Richard murmured their agreement.

Gardiner dropped heavily into his chair. “What a mess this is! My sister and her family have been murdered, and it seems that whoever was behind it has now targeted my only remaining niece.” He ran his hands through his hair gripping some at the sides of his head, and rested his elbows on his desk, staring down at the report. “I am glad that I hired the extra footmen.”

“Yes, that was wise.” Darcy watched Elizabeth’s uncle as he struggled with the weight of this new knowledge. Taking a deep breath, he blew it out slowly before he spoke again. “I would like to hire more men to supplement what you already have, but I fear stepping beyond my place. You already know that I wish to court Miss Bennet; my urge is to protect her at all costs.” Though he felt that he was pushing himself and his desires onto Gardiner, Darcy also felt the stomach-twisting worry that something would happen to take Elizabeth away from him forever. He forced himself to push the fear aside and concentrate on his companion’s words.

“I appreciate your sentiments, Darcy, I do. I am not without funds, however, and am able to hire more men if I need to.” Stroking his jaw, he thought for a moment. “What I suggest is that you hire protection for her while she is out with you, even if it is a simple walk in the park. I will take care of the matter here in my home and when you are unavailable; you may do it everywhere else.”

“That is a good plan. I fully assent to it.” Darcy’s chest, which had tightened in worry during the discussion, loosened. He had never been in love before; he could not bear the thought of losing Elizabeth due to a lack of proper protection.

Gardiner got up to pour more port for all three men. “You stated previously that you intended to ask Lizzy after you got the investigator’s report. Has that plan changed?”

“Not at all. I should like to speak to her now, if I may.”

Gardiner leaned back in the chair, having seated himself once again. “Let us finish this wine, and I will call her down. She has been playing with the children this afternoon. They adore her.”

Darcy smiled, imagining Elizabeth with her own children, children he hoped would also be his. “I intend to share the investigator’s report with her. Do you have any objections?”

“No. I know you well enough to trust you to impart the information gently.”

“Thank you. I am honored to have earned that trust.”

A short while later, Richard and Gardiner quit the room, and Darcy sat awaiting Elizabeth’s arrival. All the nerves he had managed to keep at bay while speaking to Gardiner suddenly reasserted themselves, and he wiped his sweaty hands on his breeches. Puffing his cheeks out, he blew out a deep breath in an effort to calm himself. He forced himself to stay still in his seat as he mentally reviewed what he would say. Then, the door opened, and she stood there before him.

Darcy leaped to his feet at the sight of her, all his carefully considered words forgotten. Deeply, he bowed. “Good day, Miss Bennet.”

Curtseying, Elizabeth returned his greeting. “Good day, sir. My uncle said that you wished to speak to me?”

“I-, I do. Please,” Darcy gestured to the chairs he and his cousin had so recently occupied. “Come and sit. I have something to tell you and something to ask.”

Doing as he requested, Elizabeth seated herself in one of the wingback chairs in front of her uncle’s desk. She observed Darcy as he lowered himself into the other, closely observing him with a smile on her lips.

That lifting of her lips encouraged Darcy. It brightened her whole face and made his heart skip a beat. “First, let me compliment you; you look fresh as a spring morning.”

Elizabeth laughed. “Thank you, sir. You look very well yourself.” She grinned, and a twinkle came to her eye as she teased him. “If the rest of your speech is just as pretty, I am eager to hear it.”

Chuckling, Darcy confessed, “If I did not have other news to impart, I would do so just to please you.” He paused a moment, and solemnity replaced the jovial tone in his voice. He knew what he had to say would bring Elizabeth pain. “Sadly, however, I do have more serious things to say, and I hope you will bear with me as I tell it.”

Elizabeth tilted her head, scrutinizing his face. “I will gladly bear it, sir. Please tell me.”

Looking down for a moment to gather his thoughts again, Darcy took a breath and, looking up, began. “I recently hired an investigator to look into your accident.” Darcy continued through Elizabeth’s gasp. “The investigator has found evidence that it was not an accident, after all.”

“What do you mean, ‘not an accident’?” Elizabeth’s eyes had grown large in her face. Her mouth hung open, but no speech came forward. Slowly, she closed it and awaited his response.

Darcy watched carefully as Elizabeth spoke. He did not wish to cause her undue anxiety, but she needed to know this. Softly, he continued. “There is evidence that the leather traces holding the horse to the carriage was cut, and there were the marks of a saw on the yoke.”

“So, when the horse spooked, the traces broke, which in turn caused the yoke to break when the animal’s thrashing about tilted the carriage over.”

“Yes.” Darcy continued to observe Elizabeth as she absorbed this news.

“Is this something that can happen naturally?”

“Only in the case of extreme neglect of duty by the coachman and grooms, and by the owner of the rig. Your uncle assures me that your father was not and that he had his men trained well.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “No, he was not neglectful in that matter.  Papa insisted that his carriage be maintained meticulously, as he did the house and stables. He did not have much left over after he paid for his port and books and Mama got us all ribbons and gowns, but the funds set aside for the upkeep of the estate were generous, and used freely.” She breathed out her nose as she lifted just the corners of her lips into a small smile. “Papa used to say that, though he had no son to pass it on to, he would not allow Longbourn to fall into disrepair. He did not wish to see decay surrounding him.”

Darcy smiled at her words, glancing down for a moment before looking into her eyes again. “It sounds as though he loved the estate.”

“He did. He had many fond memories of growing up there. My room had been his when he was a boy, and Jane’s had been his sister’s. His stories made the house feel alive, if that makes sense.” She inhaled, holding her breath and looking around as she searched for words. “He gave it a personality, if you will.” Elizabeth looked at Darcy to see understanding in his eyes.

“My father did the same with Pemberley.”

“It is hard to believe he is gone, and that I will never see my childhood home again.” Elizabeth’s eyes began to well with tears. “Forgive me,” she muttered. “I am not usually a watering pot. Although I have had almost a year of grieving behind me, I have largely been able to face each day with equanimity, other than riding in carriages.” She shrugged. “However, every once in a while the reality of my loss slams into me.” She turned her face away, endeavoring to control her emotions.

Darcy immediately offered her his handkerchief, his heart longing to comfort her further. “My own father has been gone five years, and I still feel it at times, if it is any consolation. I think the loss of a parent, especially when one is so young, leaves a hole that never completely heals. Please do not feel uneasy about it.”

Taking the handkerchief from his fingers, Elizabeth nodded. She blotted her eyes as she thanked him. “There is a hole, a large one. I miss all of them, my parents and my sisters. But, I thank God every day for my loving aunts and uncles, especially the Gardiners.” Finally in control of herself, Elizabeth faced Darcy once more, his handkerchief still clutched in her hand. “What I understand from what you tell me is that my family did not have to die. Had pieces of the carriage not been damaged, we would have arrived home at our destination in one piece, all of us alive and healthy.”

“That is correct.” Darcy found himself admiring the fierceness of Elizabeth’s expression.

“What is being done? Do you know who did it?”

“We do not, but the investigator is looking into it. The most obvious suspect would be the heir. I believe he is a relative?”

“He was my father’s third cousin, twice removed. It was a very distant relationship, and while we knew of Mr. Collins, we had never met him.”

“You have no idea of his character, then?”

“No, I do not. Well, that is not correct.” Elizabeth rose and walked to the window. “The accident has taken many of my memories away, especially those of the days leading up to it, but I do recall Mr. Collins visiting Longbourn.” She turned around. “He was not there more than a day or two when he said he wanted to marry one of us. Mama would not allow him to have Jane, because Jane was the most beautiful of all of us. Mama often said that Jane was destined for a husband of the highest circles.

“He then asked for my hand, but I refused him. Mama was angry at me for it, but Papa took up for me and would not force me to accept. I remember Mr. Collins becoming enraged. He did not do anything obvious to give it away, but his countenance and stiff posture gave all indications that he was. He left Longbourn immediately and returned to his parish. My friend Charlotte had invited him to her home to dine, but he even refused her. He said he could not bear to be in the same county as us. He called us all ‘ungrateful.’”

To be continued …

 

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