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Captain Vordarcy's Alliance

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Captain Vordarcy’s Alliance

I

On the afternoon after the Netherfield ball Lord Fitzwilliam Vordarcy gave Antenor his head across the fields for a long, hard mile, as much for the stallion’s sake as his own, but even in the backwaters of Hertfordshire his ingrained caution would not let him outpace his armsmen by far or for long. They caught up with him a minute after he slowed, bringing Antenor to a steady trot along the eaves that marked the Netherfield–Longbourn boundary, and he ignored the expected glare from Bothari as he and the others resumed their proper stations — but there wasn’t much heat in it, for the armsman knew just how frustrated Vordarcy was becoming.

This little country jaunt was supposed to be relaxing, useful, and safe — a pleasant month or six weeks with Bingley to look over his newly rented estate and guide his first steps in its management, away from the political and matrimonial dangers of London as the autumn season began. And so it would be, save that an old problem had reared its extremely unappealing head with desperate vigour, and was severely worsening a new and far more attractive problem.

The old problem was Bingley’s ghastly sister Caroline, who had decided several years back that, despite the impossible presumption of such an ambition in a commoner barely out of trade, being Lady and eventually Countess Vordarcy would suit her very well, and so had taken to regarding him as her destined possession, whatever the evidence to the contrary. Bingley couldn’t honourably have excluded his younger sister from a first Bingley estate, but couldn’t control her predatory delusions, and Vordarcy had felt so besieged, night and day, that he had of necessity gone to permanent full alert, with an armsman always in the room and his bedroom door locked and guarded at all hours. In consequence, he was also in all but permanent full ton mode, with stone face, frozen demeanour, and no word spoken until he had inspected it from every angle — and that was playing the very devil with the increasingly intense desire that had been provoked in him by a quite exceptionally fine pair of eyes.

Miss Elizabeth Vorbennet was, in High Vor terms, very nearly nobody — the second of five daughters of a minor provincial landowner, without dowry or connections to speak of, and nothing to recommend her save her self. But what a self! Vordarcy had felt the punch of carnal desire on his first meeting with her, and for a short while supposed it ironically fortunate that even before that, at the country assembly to which Bingley had dragged him, he had managed to insult her while fobbing off Bingley’s demand that he dance. He had been in a foul mood, and the remorse he’d felt later for his boorishness had been qualified by his recognition, when they were properly introduced, of just how attractive she was, and how easy it would be to reveal his feelings ; he had even been sufficiently distracted to mention his admiration for her eyes to Miss Bingley, who now loathed Miss Elizabeth almost as much as Miss Elizabeth had come to dislike Vordarcy. If only he could relax, safe from the presumptuous covetings of Miss Bingley, and be the man he was at Pemberley, among family and friends, he could begin to repair the damage ; but locked behind his stone mask he could do nothing, and seeing no solution to the dilemma, short of surrendering to impulse and wringing Miss Bingley’s scrawny neck, or simply running her through with his swordstick, his frustration was rising towards danger levels.

There were other problems as well. Miss Elizabeth’s family was, with the exception of her elder sister and ailing father, a study in vulgarity. Mrs Vorbennet was no worse in her obsessive and mercenary matchmaking than the malignant High Vor matrons of the ton, but she was a great deal louder about it, and by any standards an astonishingly silly woman with a screech of a voice. True, her husband’s estate was entailed in the male line, and she had borne five daughters, all already out and none yet married, which was enough to distress any mother ; and Mr Vorbennet, though a learned and witty man, had a bad heart that left him looking as if he might drop dead at any moment. True also, his heir was Vordarcy’s least favourite aunt’s imbecilic and fawning parson, which would distress anyone, even if the toad-eater hadn’t been even now in residence at Longbourn, leering at all the Vorbennet girls and expecting the younger four to compete for the privilege of his fat and sweaty hand and not being made homeless when their father died. But still — no amount of explanation could render Mrs Vorbennet sensible, and her two youngest daughters had no more wit or decorum than she did herself, while lacking what little tempering their mother’s age and girth managed. The middle daughter, Miss Mary, was the plainest, and given to prosing from Vordyce when she was not playing the pianoforte badly, while the eldest, Jane, Miss Vorbennet, was a classic Vor beauty and Bingley’s current angel. If his friend was serious this time, as he seemed to be, Vordarcy had nothing against her in that role, save that she smiled too much, laughed too little, and seemed to find it wholly beyond her to think ill of anyone, a general benevolence that even allowing for considerable naïvety bordered on insensibility ; but a beautiful and thoroughly respectable Vor maiden would be a good catch for Bingley, even if her dowry was small, and her next sister, now — that was altogether another story.

After the last weeks Vordarcy knew it wasn’t just his baser instincts at work either. His physical admiration for Miss Elizabeth’s face and figure, salted by appreciation of her vivacity and wit, had been stirred into more as he had discovered her responsibility for running Longbourn, and the shining quality of the estate, with the praise directed at her by her father’s tenants ; and fanned into passion by her teasing conversation, even as he recognised that it was fuelled by justified irritation with his own bewildering mix of rapt attention and stony indifference. One skill Vordarcy had inherited from his formidable father, and honed on his own account, was the knack of spotting talented staff, and every instinct he had told him that Miss Elizabeth would make a truly great future Mistress of Pemberley and Countess Vordarcy, if only he could persuade her to accept the honour of his hand. Or that I have any honour at all. The thought rankled, but that simply brought him back to the need to show her who he was when not having to fend off her self-appointed rival, la beldame sans merci, always sheathed in immodestly burnt orange and either clinging to his arm like a strangler vine or manoeuvring towards him with the look of an emaciated ginger cat spotting a restorative mouse. Swordsticks spun and glittered in his mind.

His melancholy musings and Antenor’s brisk energy had brought them further than he’d intended, closer to Longbourn than Netherfield, and dusk was gathering as the last light clung to the treetops. He should return, if only because any lateness for dinner would draw from Miss Bingley yet another insupportable catechism demanding he account for every minute of his time and reproving his failure to do as she wished. Casting a longing glance in the direction of Longbourn, shrouded behind the trees, he found his gaze arrested by a patch of yellow just inside the wood, and stared as he made out Miss Elizabeth, standing stock still, head half-turned towards him. Tentatively he raised a hand to wave, and was disappointed when she didn’t return it, until a much sharper unease filled his mind : Miss Elizabeth hadn’t simply not returned his gesture, she hadn’t moved at all, and he was abruptly certain that far from slighting him she had not seen him at all ; even with four armsmen around him, all riding horses almost as fine as Antenor. And that bespoke a real distraction, which in turn spelt trouble. Hope abruptly flared, and he was snapping orders even as he walked Antenor towards her.

“Bothari, field perimeter when I dismount. Something is wrong.”

Dismounting at the eaves, he gave Antenor’s reins to Armsman Roic while Wallace fell in behind him, and Bothari and Redchurch stayed astride, facing out on watch. Miss Elizabeth didn’t move until he stopped a few feet away and called her name ; nor did she start, as he had expected, but turned her head slowly to look at him with an empty gaze. She looks as if she is drowned. Anger joined his unease.

“Oh. It’s only you.”

He blinked surprise, feeling imperatives shift, and something sparked in her eyes.

“I mean … Forgive me, Lord Vordarcy. I was wool-gathering.”

“There is nothing to forgive, Miss Elizabeth. It is I who should apologise for intruding, but your distraction worried me. May I be of any assistance to you? Forgive me again, but when you said it was only me I had the feeling you might mean only someone you dislike and very reasonably think rude, rather than someone you fear meeting.”

It was her turn to blink in surprise, and intelligence returned to her gaze though the palpable misery emanating from her did not lessen.

“That is surprisingly acute, my Lord. And … just surprising.”

“Heh. Because, I dare say, you did not suppose me aware of how boorish my behaviour towards you has been? Or indeed, capable of much self-awareness in the first place.”

Her frown deepened but abruptly became a wince, and Vordarcy realised that what he had though merely the gloom under the trees was a spreading bruise on her cheek, surrounding a ragged welt. Someone wearing a ring had backhanded her, and his rioting emotions fused into cold rage.

“You’re injured.” He half-turned, raising his voice. “Roic, medical kit, lantern, and two shooting-sticks, at the double.”

She tried to protest but the edge in his voice had Roic presenting the requested items very swiftly, and once she was seated on one of the shooting-sticks, and the lantern had been lit, he gave her the mirror from the medical kit. Her soft oh of surprise at the state of her own face spoke volumes, and she fell silent as he carefully bathed the welt before soaking a clean cloth in medicinal alcohol.

“This will sting fiercely, I’m afraid, Miss Elizabeth, but it will help to clean the wound so that it will not scar, and if you can bear to keep it to your cheek the evaporating alcohol will work like ice to cool and lessen the bruising.”

She nodded slightly, bracing herself, and though she could not stop a huff of pain at the first contact immediately raised her hand to keep the pressure on herself. On impulse he lent towards her and very gently, very briefly, kissed the back of that hand before at once withdrawing several feet and seating himself on the other shooting-stick. An emotion he could not identify had joined the shock, sorrow, and fear in her eyes, and he shrugged slightly, rejoicing in the fluency that returned to his voice as he let the Captain fully loose.

“Doubtless I should apologise for that shocking liberty, Miss Elizabeth, but I sha’n’t. Some sorry brute — by which I mean a brute who will soon be very sorry indeed — has struck you, and driven you to your present misery. As I indicated a moment ago, I am well aware that I have done nothing to earn your liking, let alone your trust, and that I have indeed earned your cordial dislike. But do you know, Miss Elizabeth, I find that I cannot bear the thought that you are alive in the world and thinking ill of me. And as it happens, I have a history of rescuing damsels in distress. You qualify, in spades, so I shall shortly ask you for the name and particulars of the sorry brute in question, and proceed to free you from whatever he has done to bring you here in such a state. First, however, I owe you some consideration, an apology, and an explanation. When was the last time you ate?”

She blinked, adorably. “Ate? I … at breakfast.”

“So I imagined from your look. And most kinds of trouble are not helped by hunger. Please allow Armsman Wallace to offer you one of the stuffed rolls he invariably carries in case his dinner is late.”

For the first time he thought he saw amusement touch her eyes, but when Wallace rather solemnly unwrapped the waxed paper and offered her the roll she reverted to blinking.

“A nice bit of cold ham and cheese, miss, in this morning’s bread.”

“Oh. Thank you, ah, Armsman Wallace, but I don’t—”

“No, no, miss, you go ahead. Milord’s right about trouble, and he’s only ribbing me. His cook at Pemberley serves such wonderful food none of us would risk being late, you see.”

An inward look became brisk decision.

“Then thank you very much, Armsman. I find I am hungry.” She took the roll in her free hand and frowned slightly. “How odd.”

“The body’s needs do not go away when we are distracted from them, Miss Elizabeth. As simple care restores you to yourself, you are reminded that we were not made to live on empty stomachs.”

She had already taken a bite, and he waited patiently for her to swallow, rejoicing in the gleam that returned to her eyes.

“Or not so simple care, Lord Vordarcy. I had taken your armsmen for guards necessitated by your wealth and your parents’ political position, and did not realise what they seem to carry, in saddlebags or pockets.” Her focus sharpened. “Do all armsmen do so?”

“The sensible ones. It’s no good having equipment at home when you need it somewhere else. But you are right that in my own case political issues can never be forgotten, especially in time of war.”

She nodded, chewing again, aware as everyone was that his father was leading the army in the Iberian Peninsula from one victory to another, while his shocking American mother wreaked who knew what radical havoc on Portuguese and Spanish society in her husband’s wake.

“For an heir they can seem an affectation, I know, but thanks to them I have survived several politically motivated attempts at kidnap and rather more avaricious attempts at compromise. Which is also, Miss Elizabeth, why I have developed such a stone-faced demeanour. Tell me, if you will, have you ever seen the matchmaking High Vor mamas of the ton in full cry?”

She almost choked. “I don’t believe so, my Lord.”

“It is not a pretty sight. But you have seen Miss Bingley’s determined pursuit.” This time she did cough. “Quite so, Miss Elizabeth. Yet Miss Bingley is, however unpleasant and determined, a rank amateur, I assure you. Now imagine, if you will, a ballroom filled with a hundred or two far more accomplished professionals, accompanied by their more-or-less well-funded and long-memoried mamas ; and throw into the mix that any one or a dozen of them may have been suborned, bribed, or simply manipulated by persons acting at the behest of foreign powers.”

She had paused between hungry bites, eyebrows high.

“It sounds perfectly dreadful, my Lord.”

“Often enough, yes. But it explains the equally dreadful Lord Vordarcy you have seen me exhibit here. Before I get to that, though, I must apologise for my disgustingly rude remark at the Assembly. I know you heard me, and I have felt increasingly guilty. I am so very sorry. I was in a dire mood, and should never have allowed Bingley to coerce me into attending when I was not prepared to be civil. In any case, I was talking bilge. You are not merely tolerable, but among the handsomest women of my acquaintance, and I am an insufferable fool for ever having said otherwise. Allow me to explain, however, that there are in sober fact three Lord Vordarcies.”

Her eyebrows remained high, above an increasingly bemused look. “Three?”

“Yes, Miss Elizabeth, three. At home in my father’s District in Derbyshire, among family, friends, staff, and tenants I have known long enough to trust, I am an affable fellow, hard as it may be for you to imagine. I smile, you know. I even laugh, sometimes. And I don’t scare anyone unless I’m uncommonly cross.”

Roic’s quiet mutter of Much drew a quirk to one lovely eyebrow and Vordarcy waved a hand.

“Armsman Roic has a low scare threshold. It’s an occupational hazard, and he also has a fixed dislike of sleigh racing as a means of passing the Derbyshire winters.” A smile ghosted on her lips, and his heart beat harder. “In any case, Lord Voraffable does not survive the trip to Town, where Lord Vorstony of necessity takes over whenever I am in public.” Some of his frustration went into a slightly dramatic shrug. “I had hoped not to need the wretched fellow here, talking estate management with Bingley, but his stick-witted sister decrees otherwise, and so I turned back into the frightful man you have encountered — by habit taciturn to the point of dumbness, yet struck to the quick by your beauty and wit, and simultaneously petrified of orange necessity. The insults Miss Bingley hurls at you are also my fault, alas, for I made the grave error of retorting to one of her more idiotic assumptions that I greatly admire your eyes. But—”

Vordarcy sat straighter, and met her wide-eyed gaze directly.

“Living as Lord Vorstony is very bad for me, and after a while, if occasion demands, leads to the violent emergence of my third self, whom I call Captain Vordarcy. That gentleman, in so far as I deserve the appellation, is what happens when Vorstony cracks under pressure, and I wield the power I have in whatever way is necessary for whatever I have decided matters most.” He knew his grin was feral, but could no longer care. “It is the Captain to whom you are presently speaking, and I hold my title because during a previous emergence, back in ’98, I summarily commandeered a Royal Navy frigate and abused my natal rank horribly to order her to sea. The outcome was that the wife and daughter of a certain Count, kidnapped by Irish rebels, were restored to their home, unharmed save for the terrors of the experience. Captain Vordarcy, you see, gets things done, and if you will honour me by telling me what has happened, I will do whatever is necessary to relieve your distress. Oh, and without obligation, of course — perhaps you might consider it an apology for my previous rudeness.”

Her eyes were very wide, but she had kept all her wits.

“That is … an extraordinary offer, Lord Vordarcy, and very kind of you, but I can have no claim on you. And it is … a family dispute. I should not—”

“Discretion is part of the service, Miss Elizabeth. And if I am right that the name of your problem is the egregious Mr Collins, which seems likely as I am aware of no-one else in your family who would strike you with a ringed hand, I must claim some interest of my own. I cannot after all have my Aunt Catherine’s parson behaving in such a manner.” His mind spun. “And if Mr Collins is using the threat of evicting your mother and sisters when he inherits, please be assured that I can and will ensure that your family never wants for a sound roof and adequate sustenance. My personal holdings are more than adequate to that task.”

This won him a look of astonishment.

“Why on earth would you undertake such an obligation, Lord Vordarcy? I grieve for my family’s situation, but it is hardly your responsibility. And I know you rightly disapprove of my mother’s and younger sisters’ vulgarity and misbehaviour.”

“I do, Miss Elizabeth, as anyone with sense must. But anxiety and ill-guided youth are explanations, if not excuses, and I would do a great deal more than that to have you think well of me.”

“I … You would?” And then in a murmur, “How odd”, followed after a pause by the equally reflective observation that “Things could hardly be any worse, after all.”

Despite the temptation to misinterpret, this time he let her think, and after a long moment was rewarded by a sudden nod and a brisker voice.

“You are quite correct, my Lord, that it is Mr Collins who has acted wrongly. He arrived intending to take a bride from among my sisters, and has been encouraged by my mother, who as I am sure you realise is terrified of losing her home if my father dies. I have avoided him as assiduously as I could, but late this morning, with my mother’s complicity, he cornered me and proposed.” Her eyes flashed. “In the most ridiculous and offensive manner, I might add. I had to refuse him no less than five times before he would believe that I meant it, and he then called in my mother to berate me. After a while she called in my father, who supported my refusal, as I knew he would.”

Her face had tightened as she spoke, and after a moment’s silence Vordarcy prompted her gently, though his fury was immense.

“And then, Miss Elizabeth?”

“Then, my Lord, Mr Collins showed himself a violent bully as well as a toad-eater. He refused to accept my father’s words, saying that your aunt had ordered him to marry one of us and I was his choice. When I said I had no interest in your aunt’s orders he struck me, and when my father intervened, struck him too, and while he was winded took his heart cordial from him. My mother had fainted, and when Mr Collins advanced on me saying he would compromise me and have done, I ran, but he called after me that my father would go untreated until I returned, and that if I did not return alone he would evict us all the moment my father dies. I have been trying to summon the courage to return and submit ever since.”

“Ah.” Vordarcy swallowed his fury, seeing that such a threat would also have prevented her from involving any tenants. “How about the courage to return well accompanied and see the abominable Mr Collins wholly undone?”

“Undone?”

“Undone, Miss Elizabeth. At the least that entail needs breaking, and such a parson should also be unfrocked. It would be quicker just to run him through, as a commoner who has struck a Vor” — her hand rose to her mouth, and he saw that ancient legal doctrine had never crossed her mind — “but we can hope it needn’t come to that.” Then a thought struck him, and he grinned. “Either way, my ludicrous aunt will be sadly discommoded, which is only as it should be. Do please say yes, for everyone’s sake.”

She looked at him for a moment before giving a slight shrug.

“I seem to have little choice, Lord — Captain — Vordarcy, so I will gratefully accept your astonishing offer. And I have always said that my courage rises with every attempt to intimidate me, so it is past time I found some, I believe.”

He gazed at her with admiration. “I do not believe you have ever lacked courage, Miss Elizabeth, only the means to deal with this problem as it deserves. Come.” He held out a hand. “Let us go and rescue your poor father.”

With a deep breath she took it.

 

II

Elizabeth’s head was spinning, but at least the stinging ache in her bruised cheek had retreated. From the moment Lord-so-surprisingly-turned-Captain Vordarcy had begun his absurd, heartstopping offer her dominant emotion had been astonishment, overlying the shock and fear of a day that had gone from bad to worse to … she wasn’t at all sure what. And once she had accepted it she had found herself caught in a breathless rush. Her instinctive demurral at his command to sit astride his enormous horse had simply brought a quirked eyebrow, and the brisk observations that side-saddle would not answer the need for haste while his armsmen would all swear there was no compromise, before she had found herself all but thrown into place, with his arms enclosing her as he held the reins. Without another word all the armsmen had fallen into a close formation and the whole party had set off towards Netherfield at a gallop as exhilarating as it was terrifying.

A part of her mind was digesting that she had misjudged the Vordarcy armsmen as badly as she had their master. The liveried guards had attracted a good deal of local comment, Meryton being unused to High Vor ways, never mind those of Counts’ families, and their generally grim demeanour in public had been like an orchestration of their master’s stony countenance. After a thoughtful conversation with her father she had not questioned the necessity, seeing both the simple if despicable threat to a young man of extreme wealth and the more shadowy but perfectly real menace generated by the political and military prominence of his parents, especially in this troubled time of war ; but she had, she realised, nevertheless somehow supposed the armsmen to be as proud and dour as she had thought Lord Vordarcy. Armsman Wallace’s kindness, and above all Armsman Roic’s impertinent mutter with Vordarcy’s amusing response, told her clearly she had been a blind fool, and that there was liking as well as loyalty at work, despite the differences in rank. The senior armsman, Bothari, still worried her, for his face was not so much stony as blank, as well as brutally unattractive, yet his eyes seemed to miss nothing and she thought him very probably a man capable of great violence. But then so was Vordarcy, it seemed. And her ghastly cousin Collins. The trick must be to have them on your side, a small voice whispered rather shockingly in the back of her mind, but she had no time to think about it as Vordarcy slowed their pace and gave quiet orders that saw Wallace and Roic ride swiftly ahead, not directly to Netherfield but on a course that would skirt the house in cover and bring them round to the main stables.

“We need some equipment, Miss Elizabeth, but it would be better if you were not seen by such as Miss Bingley, who would … fuss. And gossip.” Vordarcy’s voice was soft in her ear. “When we enter the stables, my coach will be being prepared but not yet ready. Please enter it, closing the door, and make sure the blinds are down. There will be some food and wine for you on the rear seat, if little light to consume it by, I’m afraid.”

He slowed his horse as they approached an open stretch visible from the house, and as one hand left the reins she felt him twist in the saddle. The hand returned, and a snap of his wrist settled a fine grey cloak on her shoulders, though the wrong way round.

“Perhaps you might hold that in place, Miss Elizabeth. Your dress is delightful but rather eye-catching in this gloom.”

Silently she did as she was asked, and he urged his horse to a canter again, along a hedge and past a small coppice to join the drive that led to Netherfield’s stable block. The absent owners had once kept a considerable number of horses, so the stables were large, and for the convenience of those leasing the property had been adapted to double as a coach-house, allowing direct and covered access via some steps from a side door of the house. Vordarcy’s imposing coach was, as he had promised, by the access, with the trailing couple already in harness and the lead couple just being hitched on. Additional armsmen were waiting for orders that Vordarcy started giving even before he dismounted, and as he swung her down from his horse, relieved her of his cloak, and held the carriage-door for her she saw several of them take off at a brisk pace into the house.

Even in the dim light allowed by the blinds she had obediently drawn Elizabeth could see, and feel, that the coach was luxurious, and as her eyes adjusted she made out a hamper on the opposite seat, and an uncorked bottle of wine with two glasses on a flap-table to one side. Despite Armsman Wallace’s roll food was the greater attraction, and investigation revealed two plates of cold cuts, with a half-dozen rolls and a crock of butter, as well as two generous slices of what looked like a heavy fruit cake. Momentarily amazed at the swift efficiency of Vordarcy’s servants she nevertheless tucked in, feeling her spirits rise as her hunger receded, and by the time she had cleared one plate, demolished two rolls, and set about a slice of the excellent cake, she felt sufficiently in command of herself to pour a half-glass of the wine, a superior Spanish red that she supposed had been sent home by Count Vordarcy. With the cake finished she was wondering if she dared risk a further half-glass when voices outside and a soft thud as something was set down sent her scooting across her seat to pull the blind out a fraction and peer cautiously through the narrow gap.

The thud had been two armsmen setting down a chest, by which Vordarcy knelt, obviously itemising its contents. After a moment he looked up, giving orders for additional items in a voice soft enough that she couldn’t make out his words, but had the armsmen vanishing back up the steps into the house. He remained kneeling for a moment, before taking from the chest a plain but well-polished and heavy-looking walking stick, and after a further moment’s cogitation a small pistol that he checked and slipped into some pocket. A clatter of boots sounded from the steps, and he spoke without turning.

“Do you need something, Ivan?”

“No, Fitz, you do.” Elizabeth had met Lord Vordarcy’s military cousin Colonel Lord Vorfitzwilliam only at the ball, and thought him a pleasant enough Vor lordling, if clearly without the wit that she had had to acknowledge Vordarcy possessed in abundance, even when she had thought him insufferably haughty. “Miss Bingley has noticed that you are alone and intends to pounce.”

Vordarcy rose and spun so swiftly that he seemed to blur.

“Really? Here? Dear Lord but she’s a fool. And one of whom I have had more than enough. Shadows please, Ivan.”

“What?” Vorfitzwilliam peered at his cousin suspiciously. “Fitz, are you …” He saw the chest. “You are! What on earth are you doing letting the Captain out here?”

“Needs must, Ivan. Don’t argue.”

“Of course I shall argue, Fitz! Have you taken leave of your senses? The last time I saw that damned chest was when you fell in love with that Rani in Bombay, and we were all attacked. What in God’s name d’you need it for in Hertfordshire?”

A fascinated Elizabeth saw Vordarcy take a deep breath.

“I did not fall in love with her, Ivan, I rescued her. And the attack was defeated soundly. As I recall, you got a medal out of it.”

“It did not compensate for the headache. Or that ghastly butter we had to eat.”

“Be that as it may, Ivan, I have urgent business in hand, and while the Captain is out to play I am going to put a stop to Miss Bingley’s nonsense once and for all, so if she is indeed intending to pounce for a compromise now, get yourself out of sight at once, please.”

Appended politeness or no, the crack in Vordarcy’s voice had his cousin obeying without further demur, and withdrawing with a look of some trepidation to the shadows at the side of the access steps while Vordarcy knelt again by the chest. Elizabeth’s view was restricted but the armsmen also seemed to have vanished. She could not but wonder what the true story of the Rani and the attack might be, and how butter had figured in it, but a moment later all thought of it was driven from her head as the orange-clad figure of Miss Bingley slid silently down the steps. The silence was explained by a glimpse of a thin, stockinged foot, and when she reached the last step Elizabeth found her hand at her mouth, stifling a gasp as Miss Bingley, eyes scanning feverishly and disgustingly lighting with triumph as she decided Vordarcy really was alone, pulled aside one strap of her dress, exposing a small breast, and visibly prepared to launch herself at her intended prey’s back.

“Alone at last, my Lor—aawk!”

Miss Bingley’s voice had been as gloating as anything Elizabeth had ever heard, but turned to a shrill squeak as Vordarcy again whirled blurringly fast and the walking stick abruptly transformed into a length of wood in one of his hands and a three-foot sword in the other, its point pressed to Miss Bingley’s exposed flesh.

“Not so keen to throw yourself on me now, Miss Bingley?”

Vordarcy laughed, a rich sound so full of menace that Elizabeth’s spine tingled. Miss Bingley could do little more than gape at him.

“Understandably. Now, while we wait for your appointed witness — Charles, I assume? — allow me to explain several things, Miss Bingley, beginning with the fact that your entire design was as ill-judged as your intent was mean-spirited. Frankly, madam, I would not marry you were you to strip yourself naked and waltz in circles before the entire population of Meryton, and if you did by some miracle manage a genuine compromise I should simply turn the matter over to authorities competent to deal with you.”

Miss Bingley found her voice, sharp with shock and outrage. Elizabeth realised with some astonishment that she seemed to have forgotten her self-exposure, despite a thin trickle of blood now marking her breast.

“What do you mean?”

Vordarcy laughed again. “Well, my grandfather would probably just have had you killed, but my father is a more civilised Vor than that, so I think my dear mama would be a better bet. She would have your dreadful morals and what passes for your brain scrubbed clean and set to rights in a heartbeat.”

“How dare you!”

“How dare I, Miss Bingley? Very easily, I assure you, for I have made it crystal clear, on more than one occasion, that I have no interest whatever in your person, and yet you have continued to pursue me relentlessly, and have with this feeble attempt at a compromise shown your character to be as vile as your dress sense is risible.” Miss Bingley gasped in outrage but Vordarcy only laughed yet again. “Truly. Even when you are properly in it, that dress makes you look like an especially wanton and underfed carrot. In short, Miss Bingley, you are an upstart amateur, of very limited appeal, less talent, and thoroughly dubious character, who would make a truly dreadful Mistress of Pemberley. You’re also in Armsman Bothari’s way.”

Elizabeth had been so intent on the shocking confrontation, and on stifling the laugh that had risen in her chest at Vordarcy’s cutting similitude, that she had not seen the senior Vordarcy armsman ghosting down the steps — how did such a big man move so quietly? — and it was clear Miss Bingley hadn’t heard him either, for she squawked again, trying to turn as Vordarcy withdrew his sword, only to find herself bare inches from Bothari. The armsman’s gaze at her still exposed breast — or, it disconcertingly occurred to Elizabeth, the blood on it — was disturbingly intense, and his voice seemed hoarser than usual.

“You could be compromised with me, missy. Never had me no rich frill.”

“Bothari, the horses, now.”

“Milord.”

Vordarcy’s voice had held a different edge, and Bothari’s obedience was immediate, eyes flattening as he slid past Miss Bingley and his master towards the front of the coach and out of Elizabeth’s view. At the same time a renewed clatter from the stairs announced Mr Bingley, his face puzzled as he surveyed the scene.

“The chest, Fitz? What the devil is — Oh dear God, Caroline, cover yourself at once.”

Even as an abruptly scarlet-faced Miss Bingley did so, her face clashing appallingly with her dress, she began a whining excuse that a wave of Vordarcy’s sword towards her throat cut short.

“Save your lies, Miss Bingley. Your brother and I have discussed the likelihood of your attempting a compromise several times, and in any case there was a Vor witness, as well as that of the armsmen. Ivan?”

Colonel Lord Vorfitzwilliam stepped out from the shadows by the stairs, nodding as Miss Bingley yet again squawked surprise. Other armsmen also drifted back into Elizabeth’s spellbound view.

“Sorry to have to say so, Charles, but your sister exposed her own dug, and would have thrown herself on Fitz if she hadn’t found it meant skewering herself.”

“I don’t doubt it, Ivan.” Mr Bingley’s disgust was obvious. “So now what? Scarborough?”

Vordarcy nodded sharply as Miss Bingley’s mouth fell open in obvious dismay. “I’m afraid so, Charles. And as I cannot possibly remain under your roof while your immoral sister is there, no later than tomorrow morning, please.”

“Of course, Fitz.” Bingley shook his head, the blue eyes Jane admired so much looking for once hard and cold. “Caroline, you’re a prize idiot, and a menace. You heed me so little that I’m tempted just to disown you and have done, but for father’s sake I’ll let Aunt Eunice have one more go at beating some sense into your head.”

“Charles, you cannot—”

“Oh yes I can, Caroline, and I do. Not one more word while I take you to your room.”

To Elizabeth’s surprise Vordarcy laid a hand on Bingley’s arm.

“Actually, Charles, there is something else I need to tell you, privately.”

Bingley looked his own surprise. “Something more important than this?”

“Yes indeed. Captain’s business.” Bingley’s eyebrows rose higher, and his eyes flicked to the chest. “Ivan, would you please take Miss Bingley to her room and see the door locked?”

Colonel Lord Vorfitzwilliam did not seem pleased.

“Always the donkey.” A suddenly sharper and altogether Vor gaze swept up and down Miss Bingley. “Alright, Fitz, if only because I want no part in whatever you’re up to. I do want her hands bound, though. Those nails aren’t safe for man or beast.”

“Fair enough.”

Vordarcy turned and bent to the chest, scooping something up ; as he straightened again, his eyes caught Elizabeth’s covert gaze and to her astonishment one eyelid fluttered in a wink. But his movement remained brisk and exact as he spun Miss Bingley round with one hand on a bony shoulder, drew her arms behind her back despite a renewed squeak of outrage, and fastened them with a rope — a pre-tied set of rope manacles, Elizabeth realised with some astonishment, wondering what else the trunk might contain.

“There you go, Ivan. And swiftly, please.”

The Colonel was still grumbling under his breath, but nodded, and forced Elizabeth to stifle another gasp as he simply bent, planted one shoulder in Miss Bingley’s stomach, ignored her outraged oof and with one arm binding her legs to his chest straightened with her over his shoulder.

“You owe me for this, Fitz. And for God’s sake don’t come to any harm, doing whatever it is. M’mother’d never forgive me. Nor yours.”

“Thank you, Ivan, and no, I won’t.”

“Huh. Make sure of it.”

And the Colonel was gone, climbing the steps with a stunned Miss Bingley clashing as badly with his scarlet uniform as she had with her own face a moment before. Looking after her, Bingley again shook his head.

“I’m so sorry, Fitz. I’ve warned her and warned her, but she wouldn’t listen.”

“I know, Charles, but please, forget your sister a minute. The Captain’s business won’t wait.”

“You meant that, then? What on earth needs his attention here?”

“Shenanigans at Longbourn, I’m afraid.”

“What?” Bingley’s voice became as intense as Vordarcy’s. “What has happened? Is Miss Vorbennet involved?”

“In some measure. Hush, Charles. Out riding I found Miss Elizabeth, shocked and injured where my aunt’s ghastly parson struck her after she refused his proposal.” Bingley’s jaw dropped. “Still worse, he seems to be terrorising the whole household in an attempt to force her compliance, and the Captain is going to stop him.”

“Good God! Terrorising, you say?”

“Apparently so. He also struck Mr Vorbennet, and I may yet see him hanged for it, but some more discreet answer will probably be needed.”

“Yes, of course. Do you want me to come? I feel that I should.”

“No, I don’t think so, Charles. I have men enough. And you are needed here to despatch your sister north at the crack of dawn.”

“Yes, alright.” Bingley’s usually cheerful countenance was dark with worried fury, but he abruptly frowned. “Is Miss Elizabeth in your coach, then?”

“She is.”

“So she also saw Caroline disgracing herself?”

“I would imagine so, Charles, but you have no fears for her discretion, surely?”

Vordarcy’s voice had sharpened, and Elizabeth felt a sudden anger at the thought that Mr Bingley might believe she would gossip about such a shocking thing as his sister’s behaviour.

“No, no, Fitz. Of course not. Just tallying witnesses.” That was not unreasonable, and Elizabeth’s anger subsided, but Bingley wasn’t done. “But if Miss Elizabeth refused Collins despite the entail …”

“Ah. Yes. But there’s no time to waste, Charles. Just ask her, if you want to.”

Elizabeth was wholly confused by this, but Bingley had nodded sharply, thanking Vordarcy, who turned to the coach, and as the door swung open she found herself the object of Bingley’s intense gaze.

“Miss Elizabeth.”

“Mr Bingley. Have no fear, sir, that I will say anything about your sister.”

“Thank you, Miss Elizabeth. I have no doubt of it.” He peered at her in the gloom of the interior, and his eyebrows shot up. “That’s some bruise you have. The toad-eating parson truly struck you?”

“He did, sir.”

“Then hanging’s a great deal too good for him. But I can assure you you could not now be in better hands. You must be frightened half to death, but Captain Vordarcy is a man for these occasions, truly. Saved my life, once upon a time, and I trust he’ll now save yours.” He offered her a quick bow that was oddly reassuring amid so much that was unprecedented in her experience. “Thing is, Miss Elizabeth, I wondered if you’d be willing to answer two very rude but far from impertinent questions. Would you?”

Elizabeth’s mind was spinning again, but she pulled herself together.

“I give you leave to ask them, Mr Bingley.”

“Fair enough, Miss Elizabeth. You must have seen how I feel about your sister, Miss Vorbennet?”

“You have seemed very … partial to her company.”

“More than seemed, Miss Elizabeth. I had all but decided to make her an offer of marriage, despite Caroline and Louisa insisting I shouldn’t and that she didn’t care for me at all, but—”

“They said that? How dare they!”

“Oh, they dare much, Miss Elizabeth. But it’s not true, then?”

Caution gripped Elizabeth.

“I cannot and will not speak for Jane, sir, but she has told me she has never met a more amiable or pleasing man than yourself.”

“Ah.” Bingley looked very happy. “Excellent, thank you. And may I also be assured that, if she does not care for me as I hope and believe, she would refuse me, as you did that toad Collins? Not say yes for … prudent motives?”

A coldness came over Elizabeth.

“Why would you think otherwise, sir? Jane hasn’t a mercenary bone in her body.”

Bingley obviously heard her displeasure.

“Please, Miss Elizabeth, I didn’t suppose Miss Vorbennet had any such design. And I am very much aware that in aspiring to her hand I am reaching above my own station, whatever my wealth. But last night, at the ball, I could not but overhear your mother proclaim our match a fait accompli, and a financial triumph, and that I should certainly be providing all your younger sisters with increased dowries and opportunities for more of the same. Forgive my bluntness, but with both my sisters insisting that Miss Vorbennet was indifferent to everything but my fortune …”

Elizabeth was mortified, closing her eyes as she felt the familiar flush of embarrassment at her mother’s grotesque displays, made all the stronger by the rush of memories from last night forgotten amid the horrible events of today. She had tried to silence her mother’s triumphant prating, well aware of how audible it was, and how premature as well as grievously ill-mannered, but if it was next to impossible to silence Mrs Vorbennet at any time, it was wholly so once she had piled into the strong punch traditionally served at balls. Forcing her eyes to open, Elizabeth nodded.

“I quite understand, Mr Bingley, and I must apologise for my mother’s poor behaviour. I can only say that she is, not unreasonably, terrified of what will happen to her when my father dies. But, please believe me, sir, she does not speak for my elder sister, nor my father, and Jane has already refused one offer of marriage from a wealthy man my mother then favoured. She and I are both determined to marry only for true affection and love.”

“Most admirable, Miss Elizabeth, and a pleasure to hear. Forgive my doubts — though not in Lord Vordarcy’s league by a long chalk, I have had to beware fortune hunters, so your mother gave me quite a turn, I’m afraid.”

“Of course, sir. But be aware I have no secrets from Jane.”

“Ah. Naturally. Well, whatever you choose to tell Miss Vorbennet, perhaps you might add that I shall be seeking a private interview with her as soon as may be. And with your father, of course.” Bingley hesitated. “And while I would appreciate your extreme discretion about what you have just witnessed, please feel free to inform them at least in outline of what has happened. Though she was always gracious to them, Miss Vorbennet must have seen my sister’s disapprobation, and I would not have her believe that she is the occasion of any break with Caroline.”

That was an unexpected trust, and Elizabeth nodded.

“Thank you, Mr Bingley, though I am not sure I will say anything much to Jane. My sister has some difficulty believing ill of anyone” — a thought hit Elizabeth and her voice faltered — “though Mr Collins may have changed that today.”

Bingley’s face darkened. “If Fitz doesn’t run that fool through I’ll be sorely tempted to do so myself.” He shook his head, as if to clear it. “But you should be on your way. Trust the Captain and all shall be well, Miss Elizabeth. Go with God.”

He swung away, spoke briefly to Vordarcy while Elizabeth heard armsmen lashing the trunk to the coach roof, and headed back to the house, taking the stairs two at a time. Then her view was blocked as Vordarcy, having acquired from somewhere a lighted storm lantern, climbed into the coach, hanging the lantern on a hook set in the roof and taking a seat beside the hamper. A more pronounced rocking signalled armsmen taking positions on the seat and rear guard-steps, and without any further signal from Vordarcy they were underway, drawing out of the stable-block and onto Netherfield’s drive. He had flipped open the hamper, and was busying himself with the other plate of meats, though a full mouth did not seem to impede his ability to talk.

“I must once again ask you to forgive my manners, Miss Elizabeth, but as I shall be missing dinner, and the Captain burns a lot of energy, I need to eat while I can.”

She nodded faintly. “Of course, my Lord. I was quite famished myself.”

“Thank you. Perhaps I might also impose on you to pour me a half-glass of wine — the flap-table has a recess to hold the glass steady — and refresh your own.”

She did not think more alcohol was advisable in her own case, but carefully poured for him, balancing herself against the motions of the coach and admiring the recess that steadied the glass. Such a simple and elegant idea — assuming, of course, that one was the sort of person to ponder the problem of drinking wine in a coach. The touch of humour was welcome, but Elizabeth was acutely aware that in a few moments she would have to re-enter Longbourn to confront her vile cousin and whatever he had done. Her father had looked so grey and ill when she had been forced to run. Was he even still alive? She swallowed hard, and found herself glad of Vordarcy’s brisk voice, forcing her to concentrate.

“Besides ejecting and punishing Mr Collins, Miss Elizabeth, and restoring your father to his rightful authority, we will need to ensure that there is no gossip about this. I imagine you would agree that your mother and two younger sisters present a difficulty in that regard?”

Suppressing a shudder, Elizabeth nodded.

“Quite so, my Lord. An insuperable one, I’m afraid, short of glossectomy.”

He laughed, a sound she was beginning to enjoy.

“Tempting as that may be, Miss Elizabeth, there may be ways. Your mother’s great fear is the entail, yes? And that will have been greatly exacerbated by today’s revelations of Collins’s true nature. Plenty to work with there. But your youngest sisters now — tell me, have they read Mrs Vorradcliffe’s The Italian?”

Feeling her bemusement return, Elizabeth nodded again.

“Oh yes, several times.”

“So San Stefano is a name that will signify. Good.” Elizabeth stared at him, mind whirling. “But what of Miss Mary? I must confess that, finding Vordyce a thorough dullard, however worthy, I have paid her little mind. Will she need any … persuading to secrecy?”

“Mary does not gossip, my Lord, as it would be wrong to do so. And she has not read The Italian or any other novel, they being in her view full of ungodly lies.” An old memory surfaced, and Elizabeth winced. “But she does not always … heed the world as she ought, and I am reminded that she once quite inadvertently revealed a … disobedience of mine by audibly reminding me at the table that we are bound to honour our mothers as well as our fathers.” Seeing Vordarcy’s amused eyes and raised eyebrows, she blushed and looked down. “I had climbed a tree, my Lord, to which my mother had taken an especial dislike.”

He laughed again, shaking his head slightly.

“I will forbear for now to ask how the poor plant had so offended. But clearly there is an issue with Miss Mary. Would a particular oath on the matter enforce her, ah, heedfulness?”

“Certainly. She knows what a Name’s Oath sworn on the bible means.”

“Good. Now, please forgive me my impertinence again, but how loyal are your servants, in particular to you and your father?”

However unexpected, the question was logical, and Elizabeth nodded.

“Mr and Mrs Hill and my father’s valet are wholly so, my Lord, and the maids and John Footman have all been with us for several years at least. But how much they have seen I cannot say, and I do not know what if anything Mr Collins will have said to any of them, nor what any who have left the house may have said. If my father dies, they would be as vulnerable to his cruelty as my mother and sisters.”

“Yes, of course.” Vordarcy looked thoughtful. “We shall have to see. But given the loyalty you report a combination of reassurance, reward, and High Vor command should suffice, for long enough that it will not matter, anyway. Good, again. And last question, Miss Elizabeth. You said Collins took your father’s heart cordial — that little phial with which he treats himself?”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“Some form of foxglove, I imagine?”

“Yes. A diluted tincture.”

“And did you see what Collins did with it?”

“When he took it he put it in his pocket, my Lord. I cannot of course vouch that it is still there.”

“Mmm. Which pocket?”

Elizabeth closed her eyes for a moment, visualising.

“Left. On that parson’s frock of his, with the little flaps.”

“Perfect, Miss Elizabeth. You are true Vor.” She blinked surprise, and he quirked an eyebrow. “But you are — observant and level-headed under great pressure, despite shock, insult, and injury, not to mention a wholly unsettling and unexpected association, with a man you dislike who claims three personalities, that has already exposed you to Miss Bingley’s inanities and undress, the shedding of a little blood, and Charles’s rather forward questions.” Vordarcy’s voice became thoughtful. “I’m glad you could answer them so straightforwardly, though. I’m very fond of Charles and he seems altogether smitten with Miss Vorbennet. I could not believe her mercenary, and nor could he, really, fortune hunting not being in the nature of angels, but your mother did rather hand Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst her head on a platter. Ah well. No matter now.”

Somewhere amid her thoroughly renewed astonishment — not that it had dwindled much — Elizabeth felt the coach slow and turn and heard the familiar crunch of the gravel on Longbourn’s drive.

“And here we are. Ready, Miss Elizabeth?”

The coach drew to a stop, and she heard armsmen’s heels landing on that same gravel as they dismounted. She drew a deep breath.

“As much as I shall ever be, my Lord. And whatever comes of this, you have my deepest gratitude for your care of my family, despite my dreadful misjudgement of you.”

“Not in the least, Miss Elizabeth. You judged Lord Vorstony very justly. But come, let us hasten to your father’s rescue.”

An armsman opened the coach door, and Vordarcy slipped out before turning and again holding out a commanding hand. With another deep breath, she once again took it and let him hand her down.

 

III

Captain Vordarcy habitually operated more by instinct than forward planning, thought the contents of his trunk were carefully selected, and he had more-than-half-expected someone to rush out from Longbourn. Miss Elizabeth had after all been gone for hours and, if he was any judge of men, Collins must be in almost as much of a lather as the Vorbennet family at her continuing absence. Vordarcy was not altogether surprised the fawning parson had a thoroughly mean streak, for he had seen the signs in the man’s striking combination of self-satisfied strut before his parishioners and oily deference to his noble patroness, though he was taken aback at how far Collins had gone. Summary execution might be an archaic and rarely enforced penalty, but for a commoner to strike a Vor in his own home, and to strike a Vor maiden, was egregious. Aunt Catherine’s role in promoting this behaviour was a troubling thought for another day, if one he had every intention of pursuing ; for now, he had a closed door to contemplate, and no indication of any response from the house. The armsmen had their orders and were in position, the trunk was unloaded to the gravel, and Vordarcy shrugged, nodding to Bothari. The knocker boomed once, twice.

“Ahoy the house!”

Bothari could bellow with the best of them, but it was several moments before the door opened a bare crack and a female voice answered with a distinct quaver.

“Who calls the house?”

He had only to glance at Miss Elizabeth for her to speak, pitching her voice for him alone.

“Mrs Hill.”

He stepped forward, pitching his own voice so the servant could hear, but no-one much further inside.

“Lord Vordarcy calls the house, Mrs Hill, and is come to deal with Mr Collins. Miss Elizabeth is safe, and with me. Please step aside at once to allow my armsmen entrance.”

Miss Elizabeth had stayed at his side, and her soft voice did the trick.

“I am here, Mrs Hill. Let us in and all shall be well.”

Her trust delighted Vordarcy, but requiting it gave him no time to luxuriate. As the door opened, the elderly housekeeper peering out, he stepped back, allowing Bothari, Roic, and Wallace to pass him and enter, heels ringing on the wooden floor. Offering Miss Elizabeth his arm he stepped forward again, thinking to ask Mrs Hill what the situation was, but sudden shouts closely followed by the ring of metal striking something had him unthinkingly sweeping Miss Elizabeth behind him and striding past the housekeeper.

The sight was bizarre — the whole Vorbennet family seated around the hall on wheelback chairs taken from the dining room, Mrs Vorbennet and the younger girls sniffling, Miss Mary stone-faced, Miss Vorbennet grey with fear but hanging on, and Mr Vorbennet blue and shaking, wheezing harshly, while Collins, shouting and squirming, was held by Wallace and Roic as Bothari approached him. A kitchen knife spinning on the floor to one side explained the noise, and there was to Vordarcy a degree of genuine animus in his senior armsman as Bothari cut off Collins’s noise by stabbing an iron finger into his midriff while simultaneously thrusting a ball of wadded cotton into the parson’s mouth. Never one for niceties, Bothari didn’t bother to check the man’s left pocket, but simply inserted two fingers and ripped it loose, deftly catching the phial and letting a soiled handkerchief fall to the floor. Miss Elizabeth had come to his side, and despite a gasp was already moving forwards again as Bothari spoke, holding out the phial.

“This what you need, Miss Elizabeth?”

“Yes. Thank you, Armsman Bothari.”

She was at her father’s side in an instant, hands busy with the phial, and he opened his mouth without speaking. She let three drops fall onto his tongue, frowned, and added a fourth. His relief was evident within seconds, the blue shade retreating, and as his breathing eased he looked at his daughter.

“Dear Lord, Lizzie, your face!”

“I am well, Papa, and the wound has been tended. Please do not let it distress you now.”

Mr Vorbennet searched her eyes, but nodded. “No. I have had enough distress today. But I shall not forget.” His breath caught again, slightly. “One drop more, I think, Lizzie.”

She frowned again but complied, and Vordarcy saw Mr Vorbennet’s face slacken a little as pain lessened. A glance showed him the other women also slumping in relief, and before any of them lost composure he took a long stride forward and gave them a sweeping bow.

“Mrs Vorbennet, ladies, you have borne up magnificently under the most terrifying ordeal, as has Miss Elizabeth. I assure you that it is over, that Miss Elizabeth’s injury has been treated, and that Mr Collins will rue his actions this day. But much needs to be done to ensure your safety and reputations, so please remember still that you are Vor, and remain seated and silent for now.”

The two youngest Vorbennets, and their mother, each briefly received a full Captain Vordarcy stare, but Miss Mary’s face was down, and meeting Miss Vorbennet’s gaze, her eyes tearful with relief, he softened his look.

“Miss Vorbennet, Mr Bingley was horrified to hear of your ordeal, very sorry his situation prevented him accompanying me here at once, and hopes to comfort you with his company tomorrow, if you feel up to receiving him.”

Her eyes widened, and he inclined his head briefly before looking at Collins as one might at a mangy dog, and lifting an eyebrow at Roic.

“He was holding the knife?”

“Yes, m’lord. No idea how to use it, mind. And he’s cut off some of Miss Mary’s hair.”

The armsman nodded aside, and Vordarcy followed his direction to see a cut tress by Miss Mary’s chair, before rising to meet her — very angry — gaze.

“I told him he was serving Satan, my Lord, and he seemed to believe I meant his patroness and became incensed at me.”

Vordarcy fought an urge to laugh, and only nodded gravely.

“My aunt is a perfect harridan, Miss Mary, but not that bad.” There was a muffled bleat from Collins. “And I promise you this man will be threshed and beaten small, even as the mountains.” Vordyce was notoriously fond of quoting Isaiah. “Are you otherwise injured?”

A firm headshake. “No, my Lord.”

“Then please contain yourself a little longer.”

He crossed to Mr Vorbennet and went to one knee by the older man’s chair, laying a hand gently on his arm and speaking softly enough that only Elizabeth could also hear his words.

“Mr Vorbennet, please forgive me but I am about to usurp your authority most shamelessly, and in your own home.”

The eyes inspecting him were still shocky and careworn, but as sharp as ever, and Mr Vorbennet’s voice only a murmur.

“You have made an excellent start on it, my Lord, besides caring for my Lizzie, so do please carry on.”

“Excellent. My thanks, sir, and I assure you both that you will approve the results, and that any financial matters I mention will refer strictly to my own charge. But I must also warn you that I will need to tell some white lies, and, I fancy, exaggerate my own bloodthirstiness in dealing with my aunt’s vile parson.”

“I imagine I will be able to bear with that, my Lord.”

Vordarcy felt more than a flicker of admiration : were he to have been held for a day, ill and helpless, fearing the worst, he doubted he would manage such gentle resilience.

“It is clear where your daughter’s true Vor spine comes from, sir. Now, excuse me.”

He rose and turned.

“Bothari, the chest.” The armsman strode back towards the door and Vordarcy looked at Mrs Hill, watching proceedings with wide eyes and open mouth. “Mrs Hill, where are the other servants?”

“Locked below stairs, my Lord, all day. That man” — the words were spat out — “only let me out to answer the door and demand I serve him wine.” The old woman took a breath. “And he said if we didn’t obey him, or if anyone left the house, we’d all be turned off without a penny.”

“That shall not happen, Mrs Hill. You have my Name’s Oath as Vordarcy on it.” He hadn’t thought her eyes could get any wider, but she nodded and dropped a shaky curtsey. “Is any servant injured, or otherwise in need? No? Then I must ask you to leave them as they are for a little while, though you yourself should bear witness on their behalf.”

Puzzlement joined astonishment in her eyes, but his attention shifted as Bothari and Redchurch brought in the chest and set it down.

“Ah, good. Thank you, Armsmen. Now then.” He knelt and lifted the lid, taking the flat case he wanted from a side-pocket in the chest’s lining and setting it on the reclosed lid. “Ladies, forgive me for obliging you to see another knife, and for some of the words you will hear, but it is necessary as well as fitting.”

Opening the case he took out the wickedly curved steel blade, stood, and walked to stand a few feet in front of Collins, contemplating the odious man and letting his rage and contempt be clearly seen.

“The gag, Bothari.”

The armsman plucked out the wadding and Collins heaved a breath, but before he could speak Vordarcy began, his voice deadly flat.

“What you supposed you were about is beyond me, Collins, but do not try to claim my aunt’s instructions ran to this kind of criminality. She may be a harridan but she would never condone a commoner striking a Vor, nor any man striking a Vor maiden. Nor do I, and I would gladly see you run through for it, as would the Council of Counts.”

His voice carried the pure truth of it, and he could see the man’s sweat doubling and the sudden fear in his bulging eyes.

“But simple death, however richly merited, will not do for you, Collins, if only because one reason Miss Elizabeth could and would not assent to your absurd proposal — besides your being a sweaty, inane, and dim-witted toad-eater who bathes far too rarely — is that she was in the process of considering my proposal.”

The room was utterly silent.

Considering, Collins, for I have deficiencies to overcome to make myself worthy of her acceptance. You are no more worthy of her than a slug in the garden. And don’t you dare parrot my aunt’s delusional fantasies about my engagement to my cousin Anne, either, which have no reality whatever. Not that you’re going to be parroting anything, Collins, because you have had the unmitigated gall not merely to propose to, but to strike and threaten to impose yourself upon, Miss Elizabeth, with her father and her whole family, and frankly I have never been more enraged with anyone. You are, I imagine, familiar with my aunt’s anger. But she is only a Vorfitzwilliam. I have the same Vordarcy rage as the Count my father, and you are about to suffer it in the fullest measure.”

He turned the knife, letting the candlelight from the wall-sconces gleam on the blade.

“This, Collins, is a gelding knife in Damascus steel, once used to provide eunuchs for the harem of the Grand Turk. And it will find its proper use once I have relieved you, very slowly, of your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, thumbs—”

Vordarcy had a nice long list in mind but found it unneeded as Collins, who had gone various interesting shades of pale puce and dirty white as he spoke, simultaneously soiled himself and fainted. Vordarcy stared at the slumped form held up only by Roic and Wallace, and the growing puddle at his feet.

“Huh. A true coward as well. Still, fainting’s the first useful thing he’s ever done, I dare say.” Someone behind him stifled a snort. “Lug the guts outside, please, armsmen, dump over his head and trousers the bucket of water Mrs Hill will be kind enough to provide, and continue to whisper the sweetest nothings in his jug ears until sent for.” He turned. “And Mrs Hill, besides that bucket, perhaps we might have, first, a maid with a mop, so the flooring takes no harm, and then all the servants for a moment, bringing strong, sweet tea with a dash of brandy for everyone.”

A chorus of ‘Yes, my Lord’s started a flurry of activity as Vordarcy returned the knife to its case, and while an intensely curious but silent maid was dealing with the mess surveyed the Vorbennet women. The crying had stopped, but they were all still clearly in the grip of shock and looked fragile, save for Miss Mary whose fury remained but had been tempered by surprise. Miss Elizabeth’s look of bemusement had returned, but as he crossed to her there was also a flash of amusement in her gaze.

“The harem of the Grand Turk, my Lord? I confess that I am becoming very curious about the other contents of that chest.”

Her voice was soft, pitched for him and her father alone, and he suppressed a laugh, replying in kind.

“One of my white lies, Miss Elizabeth. It’s actually Japanese, I believe — they make splendid swords, too, apparently — but I doubt Collins even knows where that is. I do apologise for the other white lie and the gross impropriety of my speech, however they served their turn.”

He received a measured look.

“I am not repining, my Lord.”

“Nor I, however I may be surprised.” Mr Vorbennet’s colour had improved considerably, Vordarcy was glad to see. “I am not usually a vengeful man, my Lord, but after today I confess to having taken considerable satisfaction in that scene. Lizzie’s whispered account of Lords Voraffable and Vorstony, with Captain Vordarcy, also now seems oddly more plausible.”

“Miss Elizabeth spoke truly, sir, as ever.”

He was saved further answers by the arrival of the remaining servants bearing the tea and brandy he’d asked for, and while it was distributed he winked at Miss Elizabeth and returned briefly to the chest, removing two items. Miss Elizabeth was helping her father, whose hands still trembled, and with the other Vorbennet women drinking gratefully he assembled the servants in a group, Mrs Hill and her husband to the fore. Automatically he tallied them — the Hills as housekeeper-cook and butler, a kitchen maid, a parlour maid, and a single lady’s maid the women must share, Mr Vorbennet’s valet, one footman for heavy work, and a stablehand, all watching him warily. He gave them a short bow.

“You have all undergone a terrible experience, and shown great fortitude. The actions of my aunt’s parson are unforgivable, and he will be punished. You have my word as Vordarcy on it. But I also require your co-operation and oaths of silence. Mrs Hill, has anyone save Miss Elizabeth left the house since Collins began his assault?”

“No, my Lord.” She hesitated, and he raised an eyebrow. “But there are things several of us, and the young ladies, were supposed to do today, and I’ve had to tell several callers the family was indisposed, so there will be questions asked.”

“I see.” He let himself begin to pace, though always looking at those to whom he was speaking. “Miss Elizabeth tells me you are all loyal to the Vorbennets, as you should be, and I am sure none of you would wish their good name to be tarnished. But it goes beyond that, I’m afraid, and not only because of my own involvement. As the appointed parson of Hunsford, serving my aunt, Lady Catherine Vordebourgh, Collins’s appalling behaviour threatens the standing of two families of the High Vor, and no hint of scandal can or will be tolerated. Do you all understand me?”

There was a ragged chorus of assent.

“Excellent.” He held out the book he’d taken from the chest. “A first edition of the Vorstuart Bible. Your name’s oaths of silence on it, please.”

After a long moment Mrs Hill spoke, confusion in her voice.

“But we’re commoners, my Lord.”

“So, Mrs Hill? You have your honour nevertheless, do you not? I require it to be fully engaged. And you surely worship the Lord, keeping His commandments.”

“Yes, of course.”

The housekeeper still seemed flummoxed, but her husband understood, and offered a bow.

“We appreciate the honour, my Lord.”

He swore, his example was followed, the kitchen maid and stablehand concentrating mightily on the necessary words, and Vordarcy nodded.

“Thank you. Loyalty in exceptional circumstances, and the bearing of additional burdens, also deserve reward. This, Mrs Hill” — he handed her his other appropriation from the chest, hearing the meaty clink — “is one hundred golden guineas, twenty apiece for you and Mr Hill, as the seniors, and ten for each of the others. It is only an earnest of my trust, for I will also arrange with Mr Vorbennet for your annual wages to be doubled — for as long as your silence endures.”

That was a generosity to make a lifelong difference, and the thanks variously offered were as sincere as surprised before Mr Hill met his eyes.

“And when we are asked awkward questions, my Lord, what story would you have us tell?”

“Simple and not untrue is always best, Mr Hill. I believe Collins became so excited while praising my aunt that he fell into a thrashing fit, during which one flailing hand struck Miss Elizabeth’s cheek, and another Mr Vorbennet’s chest, as they sought to aid their cousin. If pressed for detail, you should hesitate before confiding that he also soiled himself, and foamed at the mouth. Truly. Can you believe it of a cleric? He being the parson of a High Vor lady, whom he had deceived concerning his falling sickness, and she being most irate about it, the matter is naturally not to be spoken of.”

Rejoicing, he saw both Miss Elizabeth and her father suppress smiles, and received a broad grin from Mr Hill.

“Right you are, my Lord. I dare say there might be some embellishments in the telling, but I’ll make sure them as matter know how it truly was.”

“I have every confidence in you, Mr Hill. Now, perhaps you would see the whole family to the front parlour, with some more tea and some light food, and restore these chairs to their rightful place — save two that I will need, with a small writing-desk and its equipment, in the parlour. Then I must ask all of you to return below stairs and remain there while I do what else is necessary, but perhaps you might also prepare a simple but proper meal for the family, to be served in two hours’ time. And food for yourselves, of course, and for my armsmen, if you would.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

A bustle began, and Vordarcy considered escorting Mrs Vorbennet, but Miss Vorbennet and Miss Mary were seeing to it, the younger girls fluttering around them, so he assisted Miss Elizabeth with her father, feeling the man’s frailty but also a hard grip on his arm.

“What are you about now, my Lord?”

“A little economy, sir — why settle for two birds with one stone if you can have four or five? And the silence of your wife and younger daughters is just as necessary as that of your servants.”

Mr Vorbennet snorted softly.

“Good luck with that, my Lord.”

“Oh, there will be no luck involved, sir. It is necessary to Miss Elizabeth’s welfare that they be silent, and silent they will be. Please extend your trust a little further.”

Mr Vorbennet peered up at him suspiciously, before turning his head to his daughter.

“Lizzie? Is this wise?”

Vordarcy was struck by the man’s appeal to his daughter’s judgement, and an underscore joined his mental note, made a week past, that if he did manage to tempt Miss Elizabeth into matrimony a truly competent steward for Longbourn would need to be found. In her brief glance he also saw new emotions he could not identify, save a certain curiosity.

“We have no more choice than we did before, Papa. And I believe I should like to see my Lord Captain securing Mama’s and Lydia’s … co-operation.” She frowned slightly, her eyes returning to him for a moment. “In any case we are not delivered while Mr Collins remains your heir. Did you not say you would take that in hand also, my Lord?”

“I did, Miss Elizabeth, and I will. Out of interest, Mr Vorbennet, does the entail end with him?”

“It does, my Lord.”

“Good. That makes things easier.”

He and Miss Elizabeth saw her father settled at one end of the longest sofa, and Mrs Hill brought the older man both tea and a plate with some pastries — both eagerly accepted. Vordarcy allowed the other women a few minutes to eat, and directed Mr Hill to put the chairs and writing-desk he’d asked for in the middle of the room, before indicating that all the servants should withdraw. Once they were safely below stairs, Bothari and Redchurch brought the chest through, and he took from it a roll of thick cotton, that the armsmen spread below one chair, so that it stood in isolated splendour, and some lengths of rope, which he put on the table. These preparations had returned everyone to an uneasy silence, and Vordarcy took ready advantage.

“Ladies, some re-arrangement in the seating is needed. Miss Elizabeth, please remain beside your father. Mrs Vorbennet, will you and your other daughters kindly stand and form a line, in order of age save that you, madam, should be in the middle, between Miss Mary and Miss Catherine. Swiftly, now.”

It was a preposterous demand, but Vordarcy allowed his voice no hint of anything except a High Vor expectation of immediate obedience, and once a puzzled Miss Vorbennet had risen the others followed suit, helping their mother to stand and shuffling with apprehensive looks into the required order.

“Excellent. Thank you, ladies. Now, kindly attend to me very closely, for your silence is required as much as that of the servants. In your case, Miss Vorbennet, and yours, Miss Mary, I have no doubt of your capacity for discretion, nor of your understanding that your father and sister can have no wish for Mr Collins’s assaults on them to be known to any more persons, of any rank, but I must still ask for your Name’s Oaths on it. Would I be right to suppose, Miss Mary, that you would wish to swear on the Vorstuart bible as well?”

He was, and she and Miss Vorbennet gave their oaths readily enough. With Miss Vorbennet he would interfere no further, out of respect for Charles if nothing else, but after thanking them gravely he did offer Miss Mary an austere smile.

“I commend your piety, Miss Mary, but would offer a word of guidance. I understand from Miss Elizabeth that you believe the novel should be reviled?”

She blinked. “Yes, my Lord. They are ungodly.”

“Many are indeed so, but allow me to inform you that His Grace of Canterbury, who is an old friend of my father’s, mentioned to me a few weeks ago that rather than reviling the form altogether, he and His Grace of York are minded to seek the writing and publication of novels that embrace and display a proper Christian sensibility, yet harness the fascination the form has for so many young ladies and turn it to godly uses. You might, therefore, consider reading some of the most popular examples, however disagreeable the task, to determine wherein that power of fascination lies, and perhaps consider how you would meet Their Graces’ forthcoming request.”

He had lost count of her blinks.

“Truly, my Lord? An … evangelical novel?”

“It need not entice converts, Miss Mary, though that would of course be desirable ; yet simply to give good Christian comfort, and dispense wisdom while entertaining, are no mean ends, surely. Think on it.”

He made the mistake of meeting Miss Elizabeth’s eyes as he handed Miss Vorbennet to a seat on the sofa beside her father, and had to bear down hard on the laughter that rose as he saw her own barely suppressed mirth. Nor did Mr Vorbennet’s ironic look help as he repeated the process with Miss Mary, but losing his countenance now would be fatal and he let the Captain draw briefly on Vorstony before he turned back to Mrs Vorbennet and her two youngest daughters.

“And now, what of you three ladies? Were I to demand your Name’s Oaths, could I have any confidence whatever that they would be strictly observed? Alas, much as it grieves me to have to say so of any Vor, I could not, for you are all three not only very silly, but voraciously given to utterly unthinking gossip. So I face three problems.”

Mrs Vorbennet’s jaw dropped in outrage and he took a stride closer to her, his gaze boring into her eyes.

“Will you be so hypocritical as to deny it, madam? Can you think back as far as last night, when your crass and mercenary twitterings about an engagement that has not yet occurred were to be heard all evening long? Or even as far as this morning, when your profoundly ill-judged determination to foist the ghastly Mr Collins on your second daughter began this whole mess? Oh yes, madam, you have a share of the blame for your daughter’s injury, and the terror to which you and your family have been subjected. Your judgement appears to be non-existent. And not only do you blether, madam, you blether loudly, and often, and without the slightest regard for who can hear you. And it will no longer do, in this matter or in anything else.”

He raised one hand, to allow him to count in his most menacing manner on his fingers.

“Specifically, madam, there are three matters on which I have the gravest concerns. First, you have heard me say that Miss Elizabeth is still considering my proposal, and that I know myself as yet to be unworthy of her hand. I shall allow her all the time she wants, and accept her decision without demur, whatever it may be. But, madam, can I trust you not to badger, and push, and cajole, and berate her, ordering and soliciting her immediate acceptance, the whole punctuated by strident wailings about her supposed need to marry in order to provide you and these absurd younger daughters of yours with opportunities neither you nor they even remotely deserve? Of course I cannot, yet you cannot be permitted any such badgering and wailing.”

A second finger extended, drawing Mrs Vorbennet’s nervous glance before his voice drew her eyes back to his face.

“And then, madam, should I ever have the great good fortune to welcome you as my mother-in-law, do you suppose I could or would permit, at Pemberley or in Vordarcy House, such preposterously vulgar behaviour as I have regularly seen you and your youngest daughters exhibit? On the contrary, madam, I assure you. Indeed, without the greatest alterations in your manners and habits of address, you would not be allowed within ten miles of either location under any circumstances whatever — but am I then to seek to pursue my suit with Miss Elizabeth knowing that she must consider acceptance of it a permanent parting from half of her family? Because that is not acceptable, either, madam, not for one moment.”

That had gone home, he thought, extending a third finger.

“And last, madam, but very far from least, there is security. I do not walk about surrounded by armsmen for fun, Mrs Vorbennet, nor because they need the exercise. The threats I face are real, and often enough French in origin, so anyone connected with my household must be trustworthy, as you, madam, are decidedly not. Dear God, were Napoleon himself to ask you a question of my whereabouts, you’d think nothing of telling him all while you wondered aloud about the cost of the bullion trimming his hat! And none of it will do. So I must ask you, Mrs Vorbennet, assuming that you would not be unhappy to see your daughter a future Countess Vordarcy, what is to be done about the wanton looseness of your tongue, and the unbridled impropriety of your manners?”

A part of Vordarcy very much wanted to see how Miss Elizabeth was taking this address to her mother, and he regretted that Mr Vorbennet’s illness had allowed his wife to become so far out of control that such harsh plain-speaking was necessary to break the shell of her conceit. But his tactical brain merely noted that the ordeal she had already been through today had done some useful softening work, and that it was time for the carrot to follow the stick.

“But do you know, Mrs Vorbennet, there is one thing that gives me a glimmer of hope. Tell me, do I understand correctly that the reason for your inability to control yourself is the suffering you endure from your nerves?”

She stared at him for a moment, but then nodded.

“Speak up, Mrs Vorbennet. Is that an agreement?”

“Yes.” She took a breath. “Yes, my Lord, it’s my nerves. Oh, no-one knows how I—”

“On the contrary, Mrs Vorbennet, I believe everyone knows, for you announce it often enough. And the reason for these overexcited nerves of yours is the entail, yes?”

This reply came more swiftly.

“Oh yes. I hate that thing. To take a widow’s home awa—”

“Quite so, Mrs Vorbennet. They have their uses, but they can also be perfectly vile millstones, I do agree. But the thing is, Mrs Vorbennet, entails can be broken.” The force of her attention became palpable. “Smashed to pieces, in fact. Oh, it takes plenty of money, and impeccable High Vor standing, and a deal of political influence, none of which your estimable husband has ever had. But I have them, Mrs Vorbennet. I have them all. And it is well within my power to hunt down your particular entail, and break it into small pieces, and deposit it to starve in the hedgerows of Longbourn, where you could beat and revile it as it starved, to your heart’s content. In short, Mrs Vorbennet, I can guarantee that you will remain the Mistress of Longbourn until your dying day. What are you willing to undertake to do in return?”

The silence hummed as she stared at him, processing his words, and a light grew in her eyes.

“Broken?”

“Utterly and for ever.”

“Truly?”

“Oh yes. My Name’s Word as Vordarcy on it — but the price is absolute.”

“What … what must I do?”

“Three things, Mrs Vorbennet.” His fingers closed and one re-extended. “First, you must never again, outside your own bedchamber, speak in any voice save a whisper. A whisper, Mrs Vorbennet, so soft that any interlocutor must lean towards you. If you need the relief of screaming yourself hoarse, you may go to your bedchamber, bury your head beneath the covers, and howl as loudly as you will. But outside it, Mrs Vorbennet, whether within Longbourn, or in Meryton, or anywhere else, anywhere else wherever, you whisper, always. And you will be able to do so, Mrs Vorbennet, because with the entail broken, into very tiny pieces, you will have no nerves. They will be soothed with the balm of its breaking. And with that soothing, you will learn always to be quiet. Am I clear?”

She nodded, and at his raised eyebrow gave an answer he barely heard.

“Yes. The entail will be broken, so my nerves will recover and I will whisper.”

“An auspicious start, Mrs Vorbennet. Well done. Second, you must never again, in any conversation, make any mention of the cost of an item of clothing or furniture or jewellery. You do so obsessively because you worry about money, and are envious of others’ wealth and status, real or imagined, but the High Vor of my circles do not, Mrs Vorbennet, because they already have that wealth and status, and find harping on it vulgar.” Well, some of them did. He uncrossed the fingers of his other hand, behind his back, where Miss Elizabeth could see it. “By all means offer a light complement on a fine dress, or bracelet, or even such a tastelessly expensive fireplace as my Aunt Vordebourgh favours, but not one word about their cost. Again, am I clear?” He leaned forward.

“Yes, my Lord. No price tags.”

“Precisely, Mrs Vorbennet. Well put. And the third thing is that you will never, ever again speak disparagingly of or to Miss Elizabeth.” Vordarcy allowed a more minatory note back into his voice. “Do not suppose I have not heard you at it, Mrs Vorbennet, often and long. Visiting Netherfield when Miss Vorbennet was ill, and Miss Elizabeth — Miss Elizabeth, Mrs Vorbennet, not you, as it should have been — was caring for her devotedly, you spoke of her and to her in such terms that, frankly, madam, were you a man, I would have called you out for them. And again, last night, when she, very rightly, warned and begged you to moderate your voice, to cease your prating mortification of Miss Vorbennet, you indignantly dismissed her wise and timely advice, denying the plain truth she spoke and impugning her person and motives alike. How you can hold so exquisite and capable a daughter in such idiotic and offensive disrespect is beyond me, Mrs Vorbennet, but it is not to be borne, and will not be. I do not say you must always agree, however foolish disagreeing with Miss Elizabeth is likely to be, but you must not and will not express your disagreements — your whispered disagreements, Mrs Vorbennet — in so cruel and dishonourable a fashion, ever again. Ever. Again. For the third time, am I clear?”

Her eyes were slightly glazed but she nodded again.

“Yes, my Lord. Whispering, no price tags” — she hesitated, frowning slightly — “and … not upsetting Lizzie?”

He doubted he’d get more, and it was enough ; if he had his way, the new Lady Vordarcy would in any case be far way from her mother most of the time.

“Exactly, Mrs Vorbennet. Never upsetting Miss Elizabeth, in word or deed. Swear to me by your Name as Vorbennet and your hatred of the entail that you will amend your behaviour, permanently, in those three ways, and I will swear to you by my Name as Vordarcy that I will see the entail broken. It shall starve in your hedgerows, a pale and sorry thing, and you shall always be Mistress of Longbourn.”

Roic held out the Vorstuart bible for a third time, and she swore, receiving his reciprocal oath with a look of astonished glee. He leant forward and took her hands.

“The entail will be broken, Mrs Vorbennet, broken small, and you will never again have a problem with your nerves. You are cured.”

“I am cured. I have no nerves.”

“Nary a one, Mrs Vorbennet, from this day forward.”

He escorted her to a seat by her husband, Miss Vorbennet and Miss Mary scooting down the sofa to make room, and could not avoid meeting Mr Vorbennet’s eyes, at once sardonic, wondering, and admiring, and the older man gave him a faint nod, which he respectfully returned. To meet Miss Elizabeth’s eyes was harder, and they seemed fathomlessly dark and deep, though she also offered a nod he could return.

“Mr Vorbennet, the entail shall be broken.”

“I believe it shall, Mrs Vorbennet.” Her husband patted her arm gently. “And I am so glad about your cured nerves.”

Vordarcy again glanced at Miss Elizabeth for a second, but then turned and strode to a position before Miss Catherine and Miss Lydia, both standing slack-jawed.

“So I come to you two young fools. Does either of you have the slightest idea of how unutterably disgraceful your behaviour was last night? Of course you don’t. You’re both so bacon-brained and selfish I doubt anything resembling an idea has ever taken up residence in your heads, but I tell you both, flatly and truly, that if it was your intention to have rendered yourselves permanently unmarriageable you could hardly have done more. And you especially, Miss Lydia, with your forward ways and utter want of sense. To steal an officer’s sword? And run shrieking through a crowded ballroom waving it about? Had he been Vor he would have been well within his rights to run you through there and then. Nor can I see any point in trusting either of you to keep an oath, as your heads would empty of all honour and restraint as soon as you next saw a red coat, so I must judge you to be incorrigible delinquents, and act accordingly.”

He favoured them with his most menacing stare, thinking that it was in fact only really necessary to cow Miss Lydia, for Miss Catherine was little more than an echo, and after pinning the younger girl for a long moment tapped his foot loudly enough to make them both start.

“And there are tried and trusted ways of dealing with incorrigible girls. You are, I imagine, familiar with the Convent of San Stefano in Mrs Vorradcliffe’s tale, where Signora di Rosalba was imprisoned and so cruelly mistreated. Well?”

He received two scared nods.

“It is in part based on a model a little closer to home than you might think, though only a little. The Convent of the Holy Spasm, ladies — in so far as either of you can claim that title — is located in the far north of Scotland, on an island in a loch. The currents are savage, and the weather always abysmal. It is where the High Vor send their unwanted daughters — foolish girls who lose their virtue to rakes or cads, or prove themselves wilfully and inveterately disobedient, or for some other reason need to be kept permanently silent. The regime is extremely harsh, as it needs to be. On arrival every girl has her head shaven, and the hair is never allowed to regrow. There are compulsory church services thrice every day, and for the rest of the time every girl works, hard and unremittingly, sewing clothes for the poor, or picking oakum until their fingers bleed, and beyond. Any impertinence, any error, anything but immediate and full compliance with every order brings a severe whipping. And, ladies, no girl who enters there ever leaves unless their family decides to reprieve them. From the Convent of the Holy Spasm there is no other escape save death, and, believe me, ladies, that last release is always deeply welcomed when it comes. But thither you shall both go, tomorrow — unless you can persuade me there is indeed some hope of your observing, to all save those of your family now present, in guaranteed privacy, an absolute silence concerning every last one of today’s events, and some hope of your permanent and profound amendment of your characters, manners, behaviours, and speech.”

The silence stretched.

“Well, ladies? Do you have so little to say, all of a sudden? Unless you have a hankering for a bald and beaten life in Scotland, I suggest you think hard and fast.”

Even in pleading with him on their knees it was Miss Lydia who led, and Miss Catherine who followed, and the promises of obedience and amendment were as frantic as they were vague, save in vowing silence about Collins. He gave it a moment, but the weeping girls were painful to hear, as well as tedious, and a hard tap of his foot brought a welcome renewal of, if not silence, then at least unspeaking attention.

“So, you profess a willingness, and offer many promises. But words are empty without deeds, Miss Catherine, Miss Lydia, and your reprieve is contingent on your absolute obedience to my directives. You will, for one year, apply yourselves every morning to reading a passage of scripture as determined by your father, and to writing not less than one thousand words about its meaning and the lessons you must — must, ladies — take from it into your hearts and lives. You will, for that same year, neither make nor request any purchase whatever, not even of a length of ribbon, and on the occasions when you may — may — be allowed to walk into Meryton, you will speak with no soldier, nor any unmarried man. And you will have no new garments, save one each.” He frowned heavily. “A hair shirt would not be adequately decent, but I shall procure two hair gowns, which you will wear throughout your mornings of work. And for any infringement, even the least, as judged by your father and your father alone, you will lose one inch of hair. Should your scalps be reached, you will be despatched to Scotland without delay. Am I understood?”

It seemed he was, and after a moment he tapped his foot again before handing both girls to their feet and seeing them to the last places on the sofa, their sisters squashing up slightly to accommodate them. Miss Mary had a faint look of satisfaction, and Miss Vorbennet was as wide-eyed as her mother, but Miss Elizabeth had her hand in front of her mouth and the look in her eyes had both become thoughtful and regained a slight twinkle. She offered him another faint nod as her father spoke, his voice very dry.

“I shall look forward to receiving these hair gowns, my Lord, though I believe I may need some physical assistance in enforcing your edicts. Is it possible to hire the services of one of the Sisters of the Holy Spasm?”

Vordarcy again came dangerously close to a laugh, but only nodded.

“I shall enquire, sir. If not, I can certainly hire away a female prison warder or two from His Majesty. And provide a man of the cloth to deal with the theology, should you so wish. But speaking of men of the cloth, I must now deal once and for all with your regrettable cousin. Fetch him in, Bothari, but knock and wait before entering.”

“My Lord.”

As the armsman left Vordarcy stood straighter.

“Mr Vorbennet, that Miss Elizabeth was struck, I know. She told me you were also?”

“Yes, my Lord. Twice.”

“Then you and Miss Elizabeth must each render a choice, for Collins is a commoner who has struck two Vor. The point at which it would be acceptable simply to run him through is past, but if either of you wishes it I can and will present him before the relevant sub-committee of the Council of Counts, and see him hanged. The drawbacks are, first, that you would both have to testify, and second, that while proceedings would be in camera, and the matter hushed, more people would know. Do either of you wish it?”

To his surprise it was Mr Vorbennet who replied immediately.

“I do not wish him executed, my Lord, however I want him both punished and gone.” The older man now looked reflective rather than angry. “He is of weak understanding, and much fear. His father was a truly dreadful man, and” — Mr Vorbennet gave him a look with some trepidation in it, and some steel — “though it pains me to have to say so, my Lord, from his ramblings during the day, it seems he is quite obsessed with obeying your aunt’s apparent order that he take a bride from among my daughters.”

Vordarcy nodded.

“I fear you are not wrong, sir. My aunt is always overbearing and almost always favours the imperative mood. I shall be having strong words with her, sir, though in her defence I can assure you that she would never have meant for her parson to interpret any order as he has.”

“So I should hope, my Lord. But if she is a woman of any sense, surely she would realise that—”

“But she is not, sir. After all, she appointed Collins to the Hunsford living, and will not have thought of him beyond his toad-eating.” He shook his head. “She is the sister of the Count my father’s first wife, and few of the Vorfitzwilliams have ever been noted for sense, but my uncle Count Vorfitzwilliam is, fortunately, one of the exceptions, and will have words for her also, I am sure.” He looked at a pair of very fine eyes, now troubled. “And your choice, Miss Elizabeth?”

“I do not wish to be responsible for any man’s execution, my Lord.” Her voice hardened. “But I do not believe that I can in conscience allow him to remain a priest, for what honest spiritual guidance can come from a man willing to act as he has today? He must be unfrocked, even if that means my giving testimony to an ecclesiastical court. And as the Hunsford living will then necessarily fall vacant, I would be glad of some assurance that a … more pious and … independent man will succeed him. One can only suppose that his parishioners must be in sore need of a more capable shepherd.”

This time Vordarcy couldn’t suppress his laugh, despite the startlement it caused.

“Oh, marvellous, Miss Elizabeth. I would certainly have ensured his unfrocking — I shall escort him direct to Lambeth tomorrow, and have a word with Canterbury — but I had not got as far as using his disgrace to give the Count my uncle a lever to oblige his harridan of a sister to appoint someone who will actually stand up to her. It’s a delightful plan, and I assure you the Count my uncle will agree. The Count my father too, come to that — he always enjoys good strategy.” He sobered. “And for yourself, Miss Elizabeth? What other justice must be done?”

She frowned.

“I … if he is not to be hanged, my Lord, or otherwise prosecuted by law, but is to be unfrocked, and displaced as my father’s heir — by common recovery, I assume?”

Vordarcy nodded, hearing Bothari’s knock.

“Then what other punishment is legal? And what will he do? Upon what other innocents will he be driven to batten?”

He nodded admiringly. “Good questions, Miss Elizabeth. If you mean legal by statute, nothing without formal prosecution. But you perhaps do not consider that as the Count my father’s voting deputy on the Council of Counts, during his necessary absence in Spain, I am in many ways not bound by statute law. I can certainly order Collins flogged, mutilated, or transported.” He shrugged. “As you were a maiden struck, in your own home and the presence of your father, the Count my uncle could, if I recall the Vor Code correctly, have him flayed and salted, but we try to avoid the messier punishments these days, if only because the screaming is so very trying and unpopular.” She didn’t smile, though her eyebrows twitched. “As to what he might do, I confess myself at a loss, though I do take your point about his likely … predations. Hmm.”

She gave him a speculative look, and his heart twitched.

“I am sorry to impose my cousin on anyone, my Lord, but as my father has only Longbourn, and you are the one pulling miracles from the air, do you perhaps have — or know of — a remote property where he might both spend some time doing sensible, manual work — he gardens quite well, I believe — and have the presence of an … adviser, the local priest, perhaps, who could … encourage him to … reform his mind and manners? A one-man Convent of the Holy Spasm, as it were?”

He smiled very widely.

“Of remote properties, Miss Elizabeth, I have several and know of many, particularly in Scotland and Ireland. A local priest of sufficient quality for this task is trickier, but I can and will make urgent enquiries. Canterbury will have someone who knows. And may I add that I find your judgement generous, inventive, and useful. Admirable, in fact. Will you concur, Mr Vorbennet?”

The older man thought about it for a moment, then nodded.

“Yes, my Lord, I believe so. He is punished for his actions, yet given a chance to make something better of himself, while others are protected from his behaviour. And, dear Lord, his droning. As vegetables are deaf, gardening would be most appropriate.” He patted his daughter’s arm. “Thank you, Lizzie. You’re good with this sort of thing, as you are with the tenants when they’re feeling disputatious.”

Vordarcy stored that morsel away, without surprise. It had been clear that Longbourn estate ran very smoothly, however chaotic the domestic life of its manor.

“Then we are agreed. So now it’s playtime again.” He dropped Miss Elizabeth a fractional wink, and raised his voice. “Come, Bothari.”

The silence in the room seemed to deepen despite the noise as Bothari and Redchurch all but carried in a damp and very white-faced Collins, placing him in one chair and swiftly binding his legs to the chair’s equivalents, and one arm behind him. The parson stared at the cotton spread round his chair, and blenched even further. Reclaiming the swordstick from the chest, Vordarcy swivelled the other chair around and sat, facing Collins over its wheelback. He sprang the stick’s case, and brought the point of the blade to rest on Collins’s nose.

“You, Collins, are an exceptionally lucky man. Despite the injuries they have suffered at your idiot hands, both Mr Vorbennet and Miss Elizabeth have asked me not to bring you before the Council of Counts to be hanged. But they have not foresworn justice, Collins, and neither have I.”

He withdrew the blade a little, seeing Collins’s eyes cross as he focused on it, and nodded to Redchurch, who set the writing table by Collins’s free hand, and dipped the quill for him.

“As you value your reprieve, Collins, write — legibly, mind — exactly as directed. I, William Collins, … presently of Hunsford Parsonage, Hunsford … in Vorsmythe’s District in the County of Kent, … and being the next heir by entail … of the estate and manor of Longbourn, near Meryton, in Vortashpula’s District in the County of Hertfordshire … do hereby inform the tenant-in-residence at Longbourn … Mr Thomas Vorbennet … that I formally renounce, abjure, and surrender … with immediate effect … any and all claim of inheritance of the said estate and manor ; … and I inform the officers of whatever court … shall hear Mr Vorbennet’s plea of common recovery … that I have been very generously compensated … for my former inheritance-in-waiting and wholly support the said plea. And sign and date it.”

Collins hesitated, licking his lips, and Vordarcy summoned his most feral grin, letting the blade of the swordstick circle a little.

“Wondering about that generous compensation, Collins? It is your unmutilated life. The entail will be broken whether you sign or not, but your signature would save a few days and some bribes. And if you don’t sign, you will go through the rest of your short and painful life with no more than one of anything. Including ribs.”

Collins signed, and when so ordered, wrote out a second copy as fast as he could, before taking a third sheet of paper.

I, William Collins, … presently of Hunsford Parsonage, Hunsford … in Vorsmythe’s District in the County of Kent, … do hereby confess to His Grace of Canterbury … keep writing, Collins — did you really think I could let you stay japanned when you’ve behaved as you have today? … that I have grievously sinned against Our Lord and my calling … and violated the Vor Code … by striking a Vor gentleman and his daughter, … and that I did so … in an attempt to force a marriage … the lady did not desire … and to which her father refused consent. And sign and date it, and make a second copy.”

When they were done, Vordarcy gathered them, and added to each his own signature in witness ; Redchurch supplied sealing wax and a candle, and he impressed the Vordarcy seal with his heir’s signet.

“As to the rest, Collins, I will spare you one ordeal, for you will never again see or speak to my Aunt Vordebourgh. Tomorrow I will take you to Lambeth to be unfrocked, and thereafter you will be secluded somewhere His Grace and I will choose, where you will be permitted to live simply, undertaking manual labour and receiving sufficient counselling to enable you to better your mind and manners. If — if, Collins — you have after ten years shown that you can comport yourself in a rational manner and are truly repentant, I will consider permitting you to return to society in some humble fashion. A dog-catcher, perhaps. As for the present …” He turned. “Mr Vorbennet, sir, I don’t suppose Longbourn has an oubliette, by any chance?”

He received a dryly amused look, and his estimation of Mr Vorbennet rose again.

“It does not, my Lord, but, some of my ancestors having been recusants for a while, it does have a priest-hole, built into the main staircase, of all places. Lizzie could show you.”

Vordarcy restrained his laugh only because Collins was in the room.

“How just and useful, sir. He shall be removed at first light, I assure you. Miss Elizabeth, might you show Armsmen Bothari and Redchurch the entry and allow them to inspect the recess?”

Her smile was soft but a pleasure to see.

“Of course, my Lord.”

While the three went to look, and his other armsmen unbound and removed Collins, Vordarcy shifted the chair and sat to survey the sofa of Vorbennets.

“Ladies, and even you, Mr Vorbennet, sir, allow me to offer you all one final caution and piece of advice. This day’s events and necessities have created a conflict, for you all must, as you know, keep silence about what has happened, and yet for your own well-being you need to talk about it. You all shared the suffering, yet your experiences were not identical. Mr Vorbennet, besides being struck you were denied your medicine, and your fears must have included your own death ; while your wife and daughters feared what it would mean for their survival. And you, Miss Mary, though less physically injured than your next elder sister and father, were equally assaulted, your integrity equally violated. Miss Vorbennet, as the eldest daughter, and dare I say a woman at least on the cusp of love, must have had her endurance most severely taxed. And all of you endured much. If you speak to no-one about your fears and the dreams and memories that will plague you, they will fester, as a poison, but you cannot speak to outsiders. So it follows that you must speak to one another, and as dinner will not be served for some while yet, may I suggest you begin now? And Mr Vorbennet, perhaps you might arrange for a convenient time when you might all, each day, meet without any other being present and recall fears as needed? I assure you it helps.”

Mr Vorbennet gave him an odd look.

“I confess, my Lord, that I am piqued. How is it you know such things?”

Vordarcy gave a crooked smile.

“I could just say, ‘High Vor’, sir, and that would be a true explanation. The Count my father claims to have lost track of how many assassination attempts he has survived, but each had its terrors. And the Vordarcy estates employ many maimed and physically whole veterans of our wars.”

“Ah.” Mr Vorbennet looked reflective. “Well, I am not entirely sure I approve — forgetting seems wiser than going over everything all the time — but I find I have no desire to contradict you this day. And I dare say Mrs Vorbennet and my daughters will be glad to speak.”

Vordarcy had not heard Miss Elizabeth return, and her voice took him by surprise as she moved past him to stand again by her father.

“No, Papa. You must talk too. We know how you feel about your poor heart, and Lord Vordarcy is right that buried feelings fester.”

There was an edge in her voice that made Vordarcy wonder, not for the first time, what damage the experience of being Mrs Vorbennet’s daughter, and very obviously, if inexplicably, least favourite child, might have done.

“And I will begin, for unless Mr Collins spoke of them during my absence, there must surely be things about this morning’s events that my sisters do not yet know.”

She went on to relate, in greater detail, the story she had outlined to Vordarcy a few hours earlier, and her stark statement that she had fled only because, with both parents incapacitated, Collins has declared his intent to ‘compromise me and have done’, brought gasps from all the women. Why Mrs Vorbennet should be surprised puzzled Vordarcy until he realised that Miss Elizabeth’s earlier statement that her mother had fainted had been meant literally. His ire with the woman roiled, but Miss Mary spoke for him.

“Why did you not mention this earlier, Mama?”

Mrs Vorbennet did not reply, looking down, and Miss Elizabeth sighed.

“Mama fainted when Mr Collins struck Papa, Mary.”

“Fainted? But that is of no use!”

The scorn in Miss Mary’s voice was withering, but Miss Elizabeth merely shrugged slightly.

“No, it isn’t. And Mr Collins was beyond all reason or reproach, so I could only flee, though he shouted after me that if I did not return alone he would evict us all when Papa died. I was trying to summon the courage to come back when I encountered Lord Vordarcy. And once he saw the bruise on my cheek … well” — she glanced at him, eyes unreadable — “let’s say there was no stopping him ; for which I am profoundly grateful. But tell me how he came to cut your poor hair?”

Vordarcy listened as Miss Mary’s and other stories were told, at first haltingly but soon with greater fluency. Even Miss Elizabeth could not coax more than a few sentences from her father, though he did obliquely imply his shame at his own frailty and inability to protect his family, and received his elder daughters’ reassurances. Miss Vorbennet, he saw, had rapidly regained her seeming serenity, and seemed more concerned to excuse Collins, pitying his desperation and lamenting the necessity of his punishment, than to consider her own ordeal. Vordarcy wanted to roll his eyes, but forbore when he felt Miss Elizabeth’s gaze on him, and was rewarded when they flicked ironically at her elder sister and returned to him with a small nod of gratitude. When Mr Hill appeared briefly to indicate that dinner would be served at the family’s convenience, Vordarcy collected the signed documents from the writing table and asked for it and the chairs to be removed. With the door again closed, he offered one copy of the renunciation of inheritance to Mrs Vorbennet, and one of the confession to Miss Elizabeth.

“One of each will do for the legal necessities, but I thought you might appreciate copies of your own.”

Mrs Vorbennet’s whisper was vibrant.

“Thank you, my Lord. It shall be framed, for my chamber wall. And the entail shall be broken.”

“Indeed it shall, Mrs Vorbennet. Broken and accursed.”

“Accursed! Yes. Accursed, as it deserves.”

She lapsed into bright-eyed silence, staring at the words Collins had written, until Miss Vorbennet gently touched her arm.

“Come, Mama, though we shall not be changing for dinner, let us freshen up before we eat.”

Miss Mary nodded, and helped her eldest sister escort their mother from the room ; a brief stare from Vordarcy had Misses Catherine and Lydia following in sudden haste. Turning to Miss Elizabeth, he found her air of bemusement had returned, and she shook her head before looking at him.

“I would not have credited it, my Lord. Perhaps I should have tried shameless fibbing before, Papa.”

“I do not believe you could have carried it off, my dear, and rightly so.” Mr Vorbennet gave a sudden laugh with a touch of real merriment in it. “Hankering for a bald and beaten life in Scotland, indeed! You do have a way with a phrase when you want one, my Lord.”

Vordarcy only smiled, but Miss Elizabeth gave a little moan of agreement that thrilled him.

“Oh Lord, yes. My head is ringing with them. Pricing the bullion on Napoleon’s hat, and the harem of the Grand Turk, and depositing the entail in the hedgerows to starve.” Her eyes opened wide. “And an especially wanton carrot! Oh, I do not know whether to laugh or blush!”

“What was that, Lizzie? I don’t recall—”

“It was earlier, Papa, and — oh, I should not — no, I may. Mr Bingley said so, but it is to go no further.”

“What is to go no further?”

“We were delayed, Papa, partly because when Lord Vordarcy took me back to Netherfield, and I was waiting in his coach, Miss Bingley tried to compromise him.” She shook her head again. “It must be the day for such atrocious behaviour. In any case, she did not succeed, and he gave her the most ferocious set-down, ending by telling her that that ghastly orange dress she so favours made her resemble such a carrot.”

Mr Vorbennet’s eyebrows were high.

“You fled one compromise only to witness another, Lizzie? Dear me! Are we fallen into a novel?”

“Several novels, I think, Papa, besides The Italian. But I am reminded. My lord, you said you could not return to Netherfield before Miss Bingley’s removal to Scarborough at dawn tomorrow. Should we then offer to host you for the night?”

“There is no need to trouble yourself, Miss Elizabeth. I shall nap in the coach.”

Her eyes flashed.

“You shall do no such thing, my Lord. We — I especially — owe you a very great debt. It would be the basest ingratitude to let you shiver uncomfortably outside. Or your armsmen.”

She made to rise, but stopped as Vordarcy gently held up a hand.

“I shall not refuse a bed, Miss Elizabeth, though I too shall be gone at first light, to take Collins to Lambeth. And please do not worry about my armsmen once they have eaten. They will not sleep tonight, nor until I am safe returned to Vordarcy House tomorrow, but I assure you they will then have a full day’s relief. But there is something else I must address, and as I suspect you and your father will be glad to retire quite swiftly after dinner, I should speak now.”

He sat straighter, forcing himself not to rise and pace.

“Miss Elizabeth, what I would like to do is to throw myself at your feet, proclaim how ardently I admire and love you, and beg you to marry me as soon as decency permits.” Her hand was at her mouth. “But alas, to do so would be foolishly premature and utterly unconscionable, and for more than one reason. You have had a most frightening and wearing day, filled with surprises, and so are in no state to receive or answer such a question ; nor is it right that you should end the day feeling as cornered as you did beginning it. Moreover, I must tell you, Miss Elizabeth, that while I cannot say I did not desire your gratitude, I beg that you feel no obligation of any kind. Your future remains wholly your own, and I surely wish for no agreement based on anything but respect and, I dare to hope, in time, love.” He took a deep breath. “So what I do ask is that you will allow me to court you, without expectation on either side, for six months. I will return from Town in a few days, and remain at Netherfield for some weeks before going to Pemberley for the Christmas season. The separation will be painful for me, but will offer you time for reflection on what you have by then learned of me. And I very much hope that in the Spring you — in your company, sir, if your health allows, and in any case most properly chaperoned — might care to visit Pemberley for six weeks. It is not only family pride to say it is beautiful.” He felt his energy and coherence sliding away under her gaze. “There are some very fine views and walks, and it is especially lovely in Spring, as the Derbyshire snow melts and the colour returns. You could—”

She had held up her own hand, looking at him so intently he thought he might melt himself.

“Lord Vordarcy, you are right that this has been a day of astonishments, this not the least of them. And I cannot possibly promise not to be grateful. But if Papa consents I will be happy — very happy — to see whether some stronger feeling will grow.”

She stood, and he automatically rose, wholly unprepared for her to rise on tiptoe and brush a soft kiss on his cheek. His heart hammered.

“Nor, my Lord, will I scruple to say that Captain Vordarcy has made a fine start in promoting such a feeling. Now, would you see my father to the table while I repair myself a little?”

He bowed.

“Of course, Miss Elizabeth. It will be my honour.”

She curtsied and left, pausing as she passed the door to thank Armsman Roic, on guard outside it. Mr Vorbennet’s voice recalled him from an imminent reverie.

“You are serious, my Lord?”

“Deadly serious, sir.”

“ You love my Lizzie?”

“So much it hurts, sir. But I meant every word I said. How I shall bear it I have no idea, but I will walk away, if I must.” He met the older man’s eyes. “But I do warn you, sir, that Miss Elizabeth alone has the power to send me away.”

“Huh.” Mr Vorbennet smiled a little. “Your … reformation does not seem too strong a word, of my wife and daughters was not altogether altruistic, then. I am not ungrateful, however little I am flattered.”

“You did tell me to carry on usurping your authority, sir.”

“So I did, my Lord. Well, well. And I am hardly in a position to refuse you consent, or anything else, even were I minded to do so. A courtship without expectations, you say. And one conducted, I hope, by Lord Voraffable, rather than by your present, rather alarming persona?”

“Indeed so, sir. Though outside Pemberley I cannot guarantee the absence of Vorstony if strangers are present. He is a necessary defence, alas.”

“Yes, yes. But he, plainly, cannot court anyone, let alone my Lizzie, so you must regulate the fellow. Or keep clear of strangers. A Lord Voraffable, though, with the wit you have shown tonight … that I must ponder. It promises an invalid entertainment, if nothing else, so let’s see what happens.”

Vordarcy’s fish eye told Mr Vorbennet what he thought of being regarded as entertainment, but the Captain did put on a show, and all of him knew the realities of the Vor Pageant. Besides, he doubted he’d get much change out of his prospective father-in-law tonight, and nodded.

“Thank you, sir.”

“It is I who must thank you, my Lord, and I do so formally now, for delivering my family.”

Vordarcy waved a hand.

“You have already thanked me most amply, sir, some twenty years ago. Oh, and you should indeed expect Mr Bingley’s call tomorrow, regarding Miss Vorbennet. Shall we go through?”

 

IV

Whatever Lizzie had expected of Pemberley — and she had by now heard many panegyrics, from several sources — the reality took her breath away. The luxurious coach Lord Vordarcy had sent to bear her and her father from Meryton had, some half-a-mile into the park surrounding the house, drawn up as it crested a considerable eminence, where the woods ceased, and the coachman had handed them down to find that the view commanded the whole valley beyond. The house was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills ;— and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.

“And of this he would have me the mistress!”

“So it seems, Lizzie.” Her father patted her arm. “Does the thought scare you?”

She glanced up at him, rejoicing to see the colour in his cheeks. Not even Vordarcy wealth and connections could cure his weak heart, but the new regime suggested by the physician despatched from London on the same day Collins had been unfrocked had done much to improve Mr Vorbennet’s stamina and ease.

“A little, Papa. How could it not? But you know my courage rises with every attempt to intimidate me.”

“I do, Lizzie.” Her father looked thoughtful. “But I do not think it quite just to speak of that building as intimidating. It is impressive, to be sure, but not in the manner of Lady Catherine’s coach-and-eight.”

“No indeed.”

Elizabeth smiled at the memory of the great lady’s perfectly absurd and vastly ornate carriage, and Lord Vordarcy’s quiet remark that eight horses were needed just to move the thing, adding that it was very uncomfortable to ride in. Lady Catherine’s stilted apology for her parson’s actions, and misinterpretation of her orders that (as family loyalty demanded) he first consider his cousins as prospective brides, given only under the strong glares of both Lord Vordarcy and his uncle, Count Vorfitzwilliam, had been less amusing, however merited ; but Elizabeth’s recollections of her mother’s many subsequent whispers of rapture at having a Count in her home — a Count at her table — a Count graciously praising the meal he had enjoyed, and commending the Vor deportment of her daughters — were worth a great deal. But the present was claiming her full attention.

“It is not even that it is so large, Papa, nor the magnitude of the estate. The management cannot be so different in principle from that of Longbourn.” Elizabeth cocked her head a little, mulling her words. “But with such a weight of history one could not well argue with it.” She sighed. “I have come to like Lord Vordarcy very well, Papa, but I do worry about being myself, and not being overwhelmed. The Countess was quite helpful about that, though.”

“Was she, my dear?” Mr Vorbennet’s voice was more than a little ironic. “Now she is not a woman to argue with, on any account.”

Elizabeth laughed.

“That isn’t altogether fair, Papa. I did, a little, and I still have my head.”

In the second month of Lord Vordarcy’s courtship an express had summoned him to London, and two days later the newspapers (and everyone else) had been convulsed by despatches announcing the sudden ending of the war, and its manner. Over the winter the French forces had been forced back over the Pyrenees, out of Spain, and Count Vordarcy had been poised to move on into France itself in a Spring campaign, hoping at last to face and beat Napoleon himself ; but as Lord Vordarcy explained on his return, his mother, informed of his courtship and at once becoming very impatient with the French emperor’s interference in her life, had proceeded into Toulouse with a maid and an armsman — Bothari’s elder brother, no less — and returned some days later with Napoleon’s head, bullioned hat and all, in a saddle-bag. Count Vordarcy’s forces were on the move within hours, and in the confusion afflicting the French command had driven clear through to Paris, where almost all of Europe’s diplomats were now assembled to negotiate a permanent treaty.

The Countess was now among them, hostessing for her husband, but in the immediate aftermath she had arrived at Longbourn like a strong gale, or some other force of nature, to inspect Elizabeth and say a variety of quite outrageous things that somehow had the effect of reinforcing and subtly adjusting the changes Lord Vordarcy had begun among the Vorbennets. Mrs Vorbennet became able to manage a murmur as well as a whisper, and after a brisk discussion between the Countess and her father that Elizabeth would dearly have love to have heard, Kitty and Lydia found that, besides fearing the removal of their hair for any infraction, their good behaviour could earn them the privilege of sowing some linings into the hair gowns Vordarcy had sent. Nor had the Countess limited herself to Longbourn, sailing several times into Meryton and so affecting Aunt Philips that she had begged lessons in proper deportment from her husband, and was a changed woman. But the Countess’s main object had been Elizabeth herself, at first with some readiness to disapprove, but as they talked — and several times argued quite briskly — the Countess had softened and by the end of her visit told Elizabeth openly that she greatly hoped her complicated son would do well enough to prosper in his suit, and that Elizabeth would be very good for him. Her parting shot, after commending Elizabeth’s suggestions for Mr Collins (now looking after the kale garden attached to an Anglican monastery on the Isle of Eigg), was a ringing declaration that he would also be good for her, and Elizabeth had, during the remaining weeks Lord Vordarcy spent in Meryton, and the months of their separation over Christmas, come to think that the Countess might well be right.

Elizabeth had, in fact, found herself missing Lord Vordarcy quite ridiculously, and not only for the strong sense of security he had given her. In the absence of Miss Bingley he had been able to be the Lord Voraffable he had described, and as that gentleman had all Captain Vordarcy’s conversational powers and élan, without being quite so alarmingly prone to dramatics, Elizabeth had greatly enjoyed his company. He was also, undeniably, a handsome and athletic man, and her discovery that when he smiled he had the most adorable dimples had induced some warmer thoughts that quite flustered her but proved rather hard to give up, all the same. Whether she might yet call her feelings love she was unsure, but beyond her real and continuing gratitude she knew that she respected him greatly, and liked him dearly ; and as her Aunt Gardiner had said, during a visit to Town to see Vordarcy House, that was a solid foundation for a marriage in which love would be able to grow. There was, moreover, the consideration that with Jane already Mrs Bingley, and Mistress of Netherfield, and a Vordarcy steward seconded to look after Longbourn during her visit with her father to Pemberley, the call of Hertfordshire was ever more muted in her heart. Seeing a familiar figure, to her immediately recognisable despite the distance, descend the steps before the main doors of the house, and gaze towards the coach waiting on the skyline, Elizabeth found herself abruptly impatient, and looked up at her father.

“We should not keep Lord Vordarcy waiting, Papa.”

He patted her arm, looking at her with some intensity.

“No indeed, my dear.” He sighed. “And he is worthy of you. I could not have parted with you to anyone who was not, you know.”

They walked back to the coach, and Elizabeth let her father hand her in. The coachman saw to the door, and in a moment they were headed onwards, towards the house she already knew would be her new home.