The post had only arrived after they left in the morning. Both Lizzy and Jane had received letters from home, Lizzy's from Mary and Jane's from Lydia. Jane was shocked and distressed by her letter, while Lizzy was able to take Mary's news in stride. They discussed the matter between themselves, unsure what to do.
"Georgiana certainly deserves to know, but is it our place to tell her?"
"You are right, Jane. We should let Mr Darcy and General Fitzwilliam know and they can decide how best to proceed."
They consulted Mrs Reynolds, who directed them to Darcy's study and undertook to send General Fitzwilliam to them. She liked most of the guests and was particularly pleased that Miss Elizabeth seemed a sensible, amiable girl. However much they tried, the servants would talk. Mrs Reynolds saw nothing wrong with it, provided that they didn't go gossiping to outsiders. Everyone could see how the master looked at the young lady, after all, and Miss Darcy had never been happier. The Miss Bennets looked grave and upset this afternoon, though they had seemed quite happy when they returned from the picnic, so she had no compunctions about doing as they asked.
Darcy was pleased to see Elizabeth and Jane, until he took in their expressions. "What is wrong?"
"We've asked Mrs Reynolds to find the General. I think it's best we wait for him," Jane said.
They had only a moment to wait before the General arrived. "What's wrong?" he asked at once. "Mrs Reynolds made it sound quite urgent.
The sisters shared a glance and then Jane spoke. "We've both had letters from home and while Lydia's is rather sensational, Mary's letter confirms the facts. It appears that Lydia's friend, Mrs Forster, was discovered by her husband to be engaging in an affair with Mr Wickham. Colonel Forster has instituted divorce proceedings, but he also challenged Mr Wickham to a duel and has consequently been arrested for murder."
"So Wickham is finally dead. I can't say I'm surprised it happened this way."
"We shall have to tell Georgiana," Darcy said and Elizabeth jumped in with relief.
"Yes, we thought perhaps it would be best coming from you."
"I certainly shouldn't be the one to tell her," the General said. "I could not hide my glee from her. The only one I have any sympathy for is Colonel Forster."
"You should certainly be here for the conversation, though, Richard. I think perhaps the ladies should break the news, if you feel comfortable doing so."
"I do," Jane said firmly.
Darcy sent a servant for his sister, who was disconcerted when she saw three grave faces and Richard's grin. Jane explained the news to her and they awaited her reaction.
"I am sorry for the Forsters, and him especially, but I am not sorry that Wickham can no longer hurt anyone. Am I wrong to not be sorry he is dead?"
"I am very pleased that he's dead, so I shall say nothing against you."
"You cannot help your feelings, Georgiana, and while I do not go so far as to be able to take pleasure in his death, I will not mourn him," Elizabeth told her. "I think only Jane could be so kind as to mourn the death of such a man."
"I mourn the loss of potential. Perhaps if he had merely lost the duel he would have realised his position and taken action to redeem himself and make amends to those he has hurt."
"I, myself, do not know how to feel, Georgiana. I am both saddened and relieved. I expect it will take me some time to fully process this news and you should be free to do the same," her brother advised. She took him at his word and chose to retire early.
It was just as well that she did. The news was discussed openly and Miss Bingley made no effort to restrain herself from making a number of snide remarks directed at the Bennets in general and Miss Elizabeth in particular. That lady had no difficulty in defending herself, but found she was vocally supported by Marianne, the General, Mrs Hurst, and even Bingley who, while he didn't seem to understand that his sister intended her words to be insulting, felt that the untimely death of anyone was a tragedy and that one should only speak of it with the appropriate shock and gravitas.
After her brother had reprimanded her Miss Bingley fell silent. But her presence was oppressive and many of the ladies chose to retire early.
They were all, save Miss Bingley, of course, at breakfast the next morning when the butler hurried in.
"Sir, we've just had word. Kympton is on fire and it's spreading fast."
Darcy was up immediately and didn't object when the other gentlemen offered to lend their assistance.
"I wish there was something we could do," Georgiana said once the ladies were alone.
"But there is," Lizzy said. "If the fire's as bad as it sounds there will be a need for refreshments and nursing. I'm sure you have some salves in your still room and we can certainly have the kitchen prepare some snacks we can take over."
They agreed it was a wonderful idea and quickly divided up the tasks. Lizzy and Jane went to turn out the still room, Mrs Gardiner and Mrs Hurst went to the kitchen to arrange refreshments, and Georgiana and Marianne found Mrs Reynolds and went in search of bandages, baskets, and anything else she thought might be of use. Elinor went to the stables to arrange a cart and horses, or whatever could be found to transport them and their supplies. Most of the men had gone to lend their assistance, but there were two grooms and four horses remaining behind. Once they heard what the ladies wanted they were more than willing to help as it would mean they would be able to assist in the fire-fighting.
As they readied the carts Elinor returned to the house and found herself faced with an older woman descending from a carriage.
"Oh! You must be Aunt Helena. I'm afraid we quite forgot you were coming in all the bustle. Most of the staff have gone to help, but Mrs Reynolds is here and she'll assist you."
"What is going on?"
"One of the villages is burning. The gentlemen all went to assist and we're planning to head over shortly with refreshments and medical supplies. Let's go inside and see if we can't find Mrs Reynolds. And, of course, Georgiana will want to see you before we leave..." she trailed off and stopped still on the stairs. "I just realised, you're the General's mother, the Countess. I've been abominably rude Lady ... Fitzwilliam? I don't believe anyone's mentioned the title."
"It's Matlock, but you may continue to call me Aunt Helena. Which one of Georgiana's friends are you?"
"Elinor Dashwood, ma'am."
"Well, Elinor, I shall be joining you on your mission of mercy."
Lady Matlock had hoped the young lady was Elinor. She was kind, thoughtful, and artless. She also seemed genuinely unaware of what the title was, which meant that she had not bothered to talk to anyone about it, as it was very widely known. They were met in the vestibule by one of the maids, readying the ladies' bonnets and pelisses. The rest of the ladies, and a good supply of maids, appeared shortly thereafter toting an enormous supply of baskets.
"Goodness," Elinor said. "We've only got two carts. I hope we can fit everything in."
"Aunt Helena," Georgiana said, as soon as she looked up.
"Lady Matlock! I'm so sorry there was no-one to welcome you. I have your usual room prepared," Mrs Reynolds said hurriedly.
"Do not trouble yourself, Mrs Reynolds. Elinor welcomed me quite wonderfully and I shall be going with them if there's room in the cart."
"Oh, I'm sure there's room Aunt. Let me introduce you to everyone."
The introductions were made and Lady Matlock was surprised and pleased to find Elizabeth Bennet among them -- Richard had told her that she would be in the neighbourhood, but she had not expected to find her in the house. There was, however, someone missing.
"And where is Miss Bingley? Was she not to join her brother on this trip?"
As one, the ladies turned to Mrs Hurst, who blushed. "My sister chooses to keep the fashionable hours of town and has not yet risen today."
Lady Matlock raised an eyebrow but did not comment.
They packed all their baskets into the carts and then tried to fit themselves.
"This is not working," Lizzy said eventually.
"No," Elinor agreed. Either two stay behind or we make two trips."
"That doesn't seem fair to the horses," Jane said. "Given their condition I think Aunt Gardiner and Mrs Hurst should remain behind."
"Nonsense," Mrs Gardiner said at once. "Travelling a short distance in a cart will not injure us. Besides, I think experienced nurses will be needed."
"The smoke and the stress, however, may well cause problems," Lady Matlock declared, once she'd made sure she understood their condition. "I suspect that the more serious cases will be sent here and Mrs Reynolds may well need your assistance. Also, you appear to have cleared out the still room and I suspect we'll have need of a great deal more, so perhaps you could take care of that?"
"I will certainly remain behind," Mrs Hurst agreed, concerned for her baby given her previous losses. "If nothing else it would be best to have someone to supervise Caroline."
After a few more moments' negotiation Mrs Gardiner also agreed. The rest of the ladies packed themselves into the carts and made their way to Kympton. It was not far, though they could see the smoke, and even flames, long before they reached the village. The scene was rather chaotic, but they saw people laid out in a meadow upwind and went there. The villagers were pleased to see them, especially the women who had exhausted their supplies. It was hard, hot work, but they were mostly protected from the smoke and flames.
"Mama!" Richard exclaimed when he came up some hours later. "This is a pleasant surprise. How are you?"
"There's nothing the matter with me. What have you done to yourself?"
He looked down at his sodden clothes and grinned at her. "Nothing. Darcy doused me preemptively. I do need a stretcher though, if there's one available. Bingley fell through a few levels and seems to have a broken leg."
"Of course. Elinor! Have we any stretchers?" she called, as she turned to face the field.
"Just a moment!" Elinor called back, moving in search of the last one she'd seen.
Mr Gardiner came up at that moment and congratulated Jane and Lizzy on convincing their aunt to stay behind.
"Don't thank us, Uncle. Lady Matlock was the one who convinced her and Mrs Hurst."
Mr Hurst had come up behind them and both gentlemen thanked her. There was no time for more as Elinor appeared then with two stretchers. She handed one to the General and laid the other near the entrance to the meadow so that it was easily available to those who needed it. Georgiana and Marianne were manning a refreshment station nearby while the others ladies tended the wounded. Elinor checked in on them and learned they'd commandeered one of the carts to resupply them. They had a small, very well controlled fire they were using to boil water to make tea as well as a herbal concoction that seemed to consist mostly of mint, which one of the village women had told them was good for smoke inhalation.
They were in need of it as a man helped Colonel Brandon up to them. He was coughing and having trouble breathing and the ladies rushed to his aid. When he reached for the cup they noticed his hand was burnt. Marianne ran to fetch one of the other ladies, while Georgiana helped him drink. Jane returned with salve and bandages and tended to him as Marianne breathlessly asked the man with him what had happened.
"He's been helping the children and elderly get out. Some of them can't walk, or didn't know what to do, so he was guiding them. Had too much smoke as a result, I'd wager."
It was late afternoon before the fire was contained and dusk before it had been fully extinguished. They were all tired and dirty, and many of them were wet as well. Few of the houses at Kympton were still habitable. Most of the villagers were being housed at Lambton and other nearby villages. The severely wounded had been taken to Pemberley, to make it easier for the two local doctors to treat them all. Mrs Gardiner and Mrs Hurst had been busy, as had Mrs Reynolds and the staff that had remained behind.
Miss Bingley had risen and found the state of things to be dire. Her maid had been much longer bringing her tray than usual and was soundly chastised for it. She had eventually allowed the girl to explain and was utterly horrified. She could not believe that the inhabitants of Pemberley would go to so much trouble for undeserving peasants. Her maid was treated to a lengthy lecture on the dignity of the gentry, and how this was what happened when one allowed the lower orders into one's society.
Once Miss Bingley felt herself appropriately dressed -- which required three changes of costume and at least six different hairstyles for she had not forgotten that Lady Matlock was due to arrive -- she arrayed herself in one of the grandest drawing rooms and waited to greet the guest. She was quickly bored. On enquiry, she found that her sister was assisting Mrs Reynolds with settling and nursing the injured. She was told, though she did not care, that Mrs Gardiner and a number of maids were busy in the still room. With nothing to do and no-one to talk to she amused herself by mentally redecorating the house and fantasising about how much better things would be managed when she was mistress.
She was angry by the time they returned. She moved to the hall when she saw them approaching. "Is this your idea of entertainment, Mr Darcy? What will you expect of your guests next? Tending livestock perhaps?"
"This was strictly a voluntary undertaking, Miss Bingley," Darcy said tiredly, in no mood to put up with her at the end of a very long day.
"I take it by her lack of arrival that you were kind enough to warn your aunt, Lady Matlock, of what you had planned."
"You are mistaken, Miss Bingley. My mother not only arrived this morning, but she lent us her assistance. Let me introduce you."
She came forward to meet the young woman, feeling rather more dislike than she'd expected given what she knew of her. Miss Bingley was clearly dressed to impress in brightly coloured silk and lace with feathers in her hair.
"How is your brother?" she asked and was pleased to see the girl appear disconcerted.
"My brother? How should I know? He went out with all of you."
"He is as well as could be expected," Mrs Hurst said, coming down the stairs. "The doctor has set the bone and given him some laudanum for the pain. He is still sleeping, but the doctor tells me that's expected."
"Louisa! How could you not tell me Charles was injured?"
"I tried. You told me you had no interest in any of the injured and would thank me not to talk about it. Now, we've got as many baths going as possible, but some of you will have to wait. We've also sent a tray and tea up to your rooms as I'm sure you're all starving."
With a slight acknowledgement they streamed up the stairs in search of sustenance and cleanliness.
Caroline was outraged and turned on her sister before all the others were out of earshot. "How could you embarrass me like that in front of the Countess!"
"If your conduct embarrasses you perhaps you should behave differently. Besides you sounded as though you were doing a good job of it yourself before I said anything. Now, will you sit with Charles for a bit? I want to see Gilbert."
"He doesn't need anyone with him while he sleeps. What if Mr Darcy comes downstairs?"
"I expect they're all exhausted and will retire early. I don't think you'll see any of them until morning."
Louisa was quite correct, but Caroline stubbornly remained in the drawing room until late in the evening just in case.
After breakfast Colonel Brandon was sent back to bed by Jane. He was still coughing and had aggravated his old war wound. The Hursts went to sit with Bingley, as the doctor thought he would wake soon. Georgiana, Marianne, and Elizabeth went to the music room, Jane and Elinor to the still room -- they all intended to spend a few hours there through the day -- while the Gardiners went for a short walk in the shrubbery.
Lady Matlock was left with her son and nephew. "Miss Bingley is even worse than I imagined. And the disrespect she shows by maintaining such contrary hours!"
"I think it's remarkably kind of her to absent herself for so much of the day."
"That's part of why she's worse than usual. Of course, Miss Elizabeth and Miss Marianne are almost as bad as him."
"Miss Elizabeth's very existence upsets her!"
"I expect so. I do like your Miss Elizabeth, Darcy. Kind, capable, and good-humoured. I trust her unexpected presence in the house means you've managed not to insult her?"
"I hope so. I think so. She was certainly pleased to be reunited with Miss Bennet."
"Ah, but I get the credit for that."
"And why neither of you felt the need to communicate our proximity to either of us still escapes me. We might have missed meeting each other entirely!"
"I thought the surprise would be good for you."
"Yes, well, it all worked out for the best this time. I've had a number of conversations with her and I think we're coming to know each other a bit better."
"Good. Georgiana seems much improved."
"It seemed almost overnight she transformed. I knew Miss Elizabeth would be good for her, but Richard really does deserve the credit here. I was not sure that a sudden influx of strangers would help. I would have introduced the ladies one at a time, but I think being part of the group has helped."
Darcy was called away by his steward to discuss the rebuilding of Kympton, leaving mother and son alone.
"I like your Elinor a great deal as well, Richard."
"What? Mother," she held up her hand to stop him.
"I know what you're going to say. You need to marry with money in mind and Elinor does not meet that criterion."
"I'm glad you understand."
"I do not. I share Georgiana's confusion as to why the origin of the money matters."
"It just does."
"Mmmm. And if didn't you'd be doing your best to secure her?"
"But it does matter."
"Georgiana found your calculations and passed them on to me," his mother said, taking a sheet of paper from her reticule.
"Then you know how futile this conversation is," Richard said just before he stormed out.
"It's not futile, Richard. Richard! I'm not finished!" she called after him in vain. She sighed and went in search of the other ladies.
Elinor and Jane busied themselves in the still room. Elinor was making more lavender water, as well as a marigold tincture for those who had suffered burns. Jane was concentrating on the need to help those who were suffering from smoke inhalation and was carefully creating elderflower infusions.
“I’m sure there must be something more we can do.”
“We can only do so much at a time, Jane.”
“Yes, I know, but it just feels so little when the poor colonel is suffering so.”
“And so the real cause of your distress is revealed.”
“Oh, Elinor! I did not mean to disparage anyone else’s efforts, but he has made himself quite sick and aggravated the rheumatism in his shoulder, and I just wish there was something more we could do to help him.”
“I’m sure knowing of your concern will aid in his recovery.”
“Elinor!” Jane blushed a deep crimson, while her friend merely grinned at her.
“I’m quite serious, Jane.”
“Whatever my feelings may be, I doubt that he could ever see me as more than a friend.”
“So you admit you have feelings for him?”
“I can no longer deny it. Seeing how hard he worked to rescue the villagers, I just find myself thinking of his selflessness and determination. How could anyone not admire him?”
“And Mr Bingley’s broken leg?”
“I am very sorry for him, of course, but he really should have been more careful.”
“Indeed. Well, I declare you in love and will not tease you further.”
“Me? Well. Like you I seem to making it a habit to fall in love with unsuitable men. At least the General appears to be trying to prevent me as much pain as possible.”
“He is a good man.”
“And that, of course, makes it all the more difficult to bear. Still, it must be borne. We shall continue on and hope for the best.”
Lady Matlock looked in on the three in the music room, spent a few minutes contemplating Georgiana's resemblance to her mother, and then made her way to the still room. If she had reached her destination she could have joined Elinor's amusement in watching Jane fret over the absent Colonel. Instead, she was intercepted by Miss Bingley.Miss Bingley. I missed you at breakfast."
"Yes," she smiled superciliously. "I find town hours much more reasonable than country hours. I expect you understand how it is."
"I can't say that I do. I've never understood the appeal of living most of one's life after the sun has set. Unless, of course, that was the schedule preferred by my hosts. It is only basic courtesy to respect the timetable of those kind enough to welcome you into their home."
Miss Bingley heard the implication and blushed angrily. "Shall I call for tea?" she asked, trying to change the subject.
"If you wish. I'm sure that whatever he may ordinarily feel, your brother appreciates your preference for fashionable hours now. I expect you sat up with him all night while we slept. How was he when you left him?"
She knew Caroline had done no such thing, Mrs Hurst had received a report from his valet before breakfast and relayed it to them.
"He was still asleep. The doctor did say he was unlikely to wake till this morning."
Lady Matlock had hoped she could shame the girl into doing as she ought, but she lied shamelessly without even a hint of a blush. Lady Matlock was disgusted. Caroline was saved from a reprimand by the appearance of the other young ladies. Miss Marianne was complaining to her sister, who patiently ignored her and told her that she could return to her beloved Haydn after having some tea. And eating something, for Miss Dashwood had seen how little she consumed at breakfast.
"We could have had refreshments in the music room."
"Where you would have ignored them. Besides, I'm sure Aunt Helena wishes to spend some time with Georgiana and she can't do that if you keep her tied to an instrument."
"Oh Georgiana, Lady Matlock, I'm so sorry. I did not think."
"There's no need to apologise, Miss Marianne. I looked in on you three and was very pleased to see how much Georgiana was enjoying herself. In fact, my dear, you reminded me of your mother."
"Oh yes. She was as indefatigable as Miss Marianne. She had the harp in the window, just as you did, though I did not see it very often as I was drafted to accompany her on the piano."
Georgiana was thrilled with this glimpse of her mother. Elizabeth wanted to hear more as well, and not just for Georgiana's sake but for Darcy's. "Had she a favourite composer?"
"I believe she considered them all to be her dear friends. Do you know she occasionally composed her own songs?"
"I did not, how lovely," Georgiana replied.
"Did she keep any?" Marianne asked excitedly. "Oh Georgiana, just imagine how pleased your brother would be if we played something of hers for him!"
"Oh yes! That would be wonderful! Do you know where any are, Aunt?"
"I shall come with you to the music room after tea and we'll see what we can find."
"Music is such a pleasant occupation, I think," Miss Bingley said.
"Do you play?" Lady Matlock asked.
"Of course," she replied. "All educated ladies play."
"That's not true at all," Marianne said immediately. "I don't believe Jane plays, though she sings beautifully. And Elinor is completely incapable of music."
Elinor laughed, while Jane blushed and said, "It's kind of you to say so, Marianne, but now you've heard Lizzy I expect you can see how inadequate my abilities are."
"I understand you draw, Elinor."
"Yes, Aunt Helena. And if it will not make her too self-conscious, I should like to try my hand at Georgiana and her harp."
"Because I think it would please your brother."
"Now you've done it, Elinor!" Lizzy laughed. "You know she won't say no if it's for her brother."
They all laughed, except Miss Bingley who merely smiled tightly. It galled her to hear a penniless girl with no connexions addressing Lady Matlock so familiarly.
"I was not aware you were acquainted with Lady Matlock, Miss Dashwood. Pray, where did you meet?" Her tone, implying disbelief in Elinor's knowing anyone in the first circles made Marianne bristle in indignation.
Elinor, however, answered quite easily. "We met yesterday on the carriage sweep."
Lady Matlock smiled at her bland tone and added, "I felt an instant kinship, as if you were my own daughter."
That made Elinor blush, and Lady Matlock was pleased to see it.
"I confess myself surprised, Lady Matlock, that you are so willing to invite intimacy with such complete strangers."
"But they are not strangers, Miss Bingley. My son, my nephew, and my niece have told me all about them."
Miss Bingley's expression soured even further, though more than one of them had thought it impossible. Her thoughts were clear to them all -- she had known the Darcys longer and so the intimacy with the Countess should be hers. Most of them were hoping that she would be put-out enough to leave, but Lady Matlock was almost as powerful a draw as Mr Darcy.
Mr and Mrs Hurst came in just then, which changed the subject as everyone asked after her brother.
"He's awoken and the doctor is with him now," she said. "We'll know more once he is done, but he didn't expect any problems, especially since Charles awoke hungry."
"He was not pleased when we told him he could not eat until after the doctor had seen him," her husband said, sharing a smile with her. He'd used some quite colourful language, which had shocked Louisa, but the doctor said it was due to the last of the laudanum and assured them he'd recover his self-control once he ate.