© Riana Everly, 2020
The small stream threaded its way through trees and brush, across the landscape of gently sloping fields, past hedgerows and under bridges, until it entered—and a scant distance thereafter emerged from—a thickly wooded area near a small town. Swollen from several days of unusually heavy rains, the stream nonetheless kept mostly to its muddy banks, bubbling cheerfully over the stones and pebbles that formed its bed, splashing at the larger rocks and tufts of earth that interrupted its headlong flow. In the spring, the higher banks would be a riot of wildflowers, glistening under a gentle sun. Nearby trees would present pink twigs to the crystal blue sky, proudly offering delicate green buds and fragrant white blossoms to the world. In summer, the leaves would darken to various shades of emerald and pine, and the fields would colour the earth with the golden shades of ripening corn. Even in winter, the weak sun would yet illuminate the pristine blanket of white snow lying protectively over the fertile land, shimmering and perfect in its icy embrace, the bare trees standing as sentinels until the earth awoke once more to bestow its bounty upon its inhabitants.
But it was yet autumn, and the flowers had long since faded and the harvest mostly brought in for the year. The trees stood bare, but for a few stray leaves that had yet to relinquish their hold upon dormant branches, the colours of autumn’s glorious palate now faded into browns and duns. The sky on this day lay leaden and heavy, for the rains – although they had ceased for the moment – had not yet passed, and the brown mud was tinged with the grey that preceded the advent of winter. Through all this, the stream yet flowed, cheerful and insistent, carrying on its conversation with itself, though its waters were dark and grey, mirroring the sky above.
And yet there was still some colour to brighten the burbling waters. A delicate trickle of bright red eddied in the water as it swirled around a protruding stone, spiralling in the flow before gradually spreading out into the rush of the current and disappearing from view. A dog from one of the local farms sniffed at the unaccustomed odour of the water and followed its interest some feet upstream, where the origin of the red trickle could be found. Step by step, the dog sniffed at the water as the red trickle skirted a black shoe, so inappropriate for the rural scene, flowed blithely over a submerged knee, and decorated the prone torso with a delicate pattern of droplets and streaks. The decorations meant little to the beast, for they carried no further distinctive aroma to tempt his nose. Far more interesting was the weakening flow that originated so very close by, only inches away, beckoning to the sensitive canine nose.
The dog sniffed once more at the body. It cared not that the man lay half submerged in the rippling brook, one hand flung outwards as if in supplication to a god who no longer cared, a leg bent at an unnatural angle, eyes wide and unseeing; only the unexpected presence and the tang of blood in the air captured the dog’s attention. A more critical observer would soon realise that it was not the cold waters or the broken limb that seemed to be the cause of the man’s demise, but rather the slit in the side of his neck, from which the bright red blood oozed to decorate the currents. The dog sniffed once more at the vacant face and the outstretched hand, and then at the blade with the decorated handle that lay so close, and with a low growl and a whimper, returned to the brown boot upon which he had been chewing with such contentment.
Chapter One ~
An Unpleasant Morning
Mary Bennet sometimes wondered whether she had been born on a full moon, or on some day sacred to the pagan druids, or whether she had been cursed in infancy with some hex, for she seemed to have been granted the dubious gift of invisibility. Neither her parents nor her sisters, or even the household staff, seemed to notice her comings and goings unless they somehow interfered with or otherwise interrupted some planned activities. Or, she considered, perhaps her invisibility was a skill developed during her eighteen years as part of the Bennet family, a trait to ensure survival, or an attribute to mirror her personality.
Mary had always been called the quiet one. Being the third of five daughters, she had much competition for her parents’ attention and had learned, consequently, to rely on herself for amusement. Jane, the eldest, had a disposition that was all sweetness and kindness, and was blessed with a face and figure to match. Next to Jane in age and beauty was Elizabeth, whose slight deficiency in physical perfection was more than compensated for by her quick mind and her sparkling wit. Whilst Mary had few doubts about her own intelligence, she could not match her sister in the art of sharp repartee or uttering bons mots that would astound the room. It was usually best to remain silent when Lizzy was around.
Nor did Mary have much patience for the childish games played by Kitty or Lydia, her younger sisters. She had no desire to chase after red-coated officers or redo the same bonnet for the fifth time. These were inane activities, so unsuited to a young woman of sober and serious thought such as herself. Her time, she considered, was far better spent improving her mind or practising her scales and etudes at the keyboard. And it was only at these times, when the clattering of another sonata or the recitation of the advice from the books or sermons she often read impinged upon the attentions of the other members of the Bennet household, that she was noticed.
Today, however, Mary was not unhappy to be ignored and left to her own devices. The entire day had been one of upheaval and chaos, almost from the moment she arrived downstairs for her tea and bread. The family had slept late after the revelries of the previous night’s ball at Netherfield. Mr. Bingley, who resided at the neighbouring estate, had certainly put on a grand affair and his sister Caroline had outdone herself in ensuring that no detail was overlooked. Miss Bingley’s motives, Mary was certain, arose more from wishing to assert her own superior taste over that of the society of Meryton than from a real desire to please her guests, but the results of her efforts were commendable. There had been food and wine and music aplenty, and of excellent quality as well, and it was not until long after midnight that the Bennet family carriage rumbled back along the lanes, carrying the tired family to their home at Longbourn.
The sun had risen too early upon the household this morning after the ball, and with aching feet and tired eyes, the family had emerged from their bedrooms. Mary had been the first awake and downstairs, but she had not taken two sips of tea when her mother’s voice had penetrated the fog of her sleepiness.
“Where is my shawl, Jane? Did I have it when we returned last night from Netherfield? I was certain I had it, but now I can find it nowhere. But never mind that. Jane, you must tell me once more. How did he look at you? Did his eyes wander to seek out other ladies, or did he keep his regard entirely upon you for the entire dance? Did he look at his feet, for that is very bad form, although it is excusable should he be taking special care not to step on your foot or damage your gown. What did he say to you after supper, before the next dance? You must tell me again, Jane, or I shall not be easy and you know how my poor nerves cannot abide uneasiness. Where is my shawl?”
As Mama and her eldest daughter entered the room, Mary willed her gift of invisibility to shield her from their view. She quite expected her mother to prattle on all the day about the ball, about the great riches Mr. Bingley must surely command, and about the inevitability of Mr. Bingley finally offering for Jane’s hand. Mrs. Bennet seemed determined not to disappoint her middle child.
“And he danced with you three times, Jane. Three! You must know what that means, for a gentleman does not raise such expectations unless he is determined upon a path. What colour was his waistcoat? I did not see it so closely as you did. Was it white? My missing shawl is white, with green embroidery. It is a custom in my family to wear white when one is contemplating a proposal…”
Jane laughed and poured her tea. “No, Mama, his waistcoat was grey, but it was everything proper and most becoming. And I have never heard of such a custom, not in our family or in any other. Where did you last see your shawl?”
“But what of his eyes, Jane? Did he take your hand to lead you in to supper, or merely offer his arm? These things matter!”
Mary sighed. She seemed, once more, to have been forgotten. And so the morning continued. Kitty descended the stairs with red eyes, followed by Lydia, face triumphant, clutching a shawl that Mary knew had been given to Kitty the previous summer, the silent remains of a bitter argument still fomenting between the two. Then Papa walked in from his study, took a cup of coffee and a small plate of toast and eggs, and without more than a nod and a curt “Morning,” to his family, returned whence he came. At last, Elizabeth entered the breakfast room as well, although not from the stairs. She must have been outside walking, for the clouds were lighter than they had been in many days and promised a short respite from the succession of rain. Her cheeks were rosy from the cool autumn air and she wore the air of resplendent health from her exercise. Now only one person needed to appear before the company was complete.
The tea was cooling in its pot when the final resident of the house found his way to the breakfast room. Mr. Collins was a tall, heavy-looking young man of five-and-twenty, a cousin on Mr. Bennet’s side of the family and the heir to Longbourn. He had imposed his presence upon the family in a sort of peace offering to atone for a rift between Mr. Bennet and his own father and had further proposed to soften the blow of his position as heir by taking one of the Bennet sisters as his wife. To that end, he had fawned and simpered and made every attempt to ingratiate himself into the good graces of Elizabeth, who had shown not the first sign of reciprocated interest. Even the previous night, when Mr. Collins had claimed his dance with his fair cousin, Mary had observed Lizzy’s carefully contained expression of dismay and distaste at his clumsy dancing and poor conversation.
Lizzy was too well bred to display her sentiments openly, but Mary knew her well, as sisters are wont to do, and was a keen observer of the world in which she participated but little. It had not been a chore to scrutinise Lizzy’s expressions, after all. Mary had not danced, but had sat silently, invisibly, amusing herself with her own games, in which she drew inferences from the subtlest details of what she observed. Compared to some, Lizzy’s carefully schooled features were as an open book. She resented every moment she was forced to spend with Mr. Collins, and to be honest, Mary did not disagree with her.
Mary had thought, at first, that Mama would have steered Mr. Collins towards her rather than to Lizzy. It ought to have been clear that Lizzy and the parson would never suit, but Mama seldom looked beyond her own needs and desires. Mary ought, at first blush, to have been a more appropriate choice for a young clergyman. She was always reading her sermons, after all, and spouting words of censure and inspiration from the Good Book to all who would listen. It was, she admitted, easier than finding some other subject on which to speak, for she had little talent for falling into the witty repartee of her older sisters or the inane babblings of her younger. She was certain her mother figured Mary as the ideal candidate for a clergyman’s wife.
Mary had even, for a while, considered that her older sisters thought her to be a good match for their cousin. Mary stifled a giggle at the thought! First, she reprimanded herself, refined ladies do not giggle; it is most immature and unseemly, almost as bad as rolling one’s eyes. Second, it would not do at all to call attention to herself. There were times when her ability to melt into the walls was something she appreciated and being in Mr. Collins’ presence was one of those times. The man bored her! Yes, he had been subjected to an education of sorts and was of a bent that lent itself to her pious inclinations, but he was a fool! An educated, pious fool! He could recite pages on end from Fordyce, but had little understanding of the words he parroted so freely. He could sermonise and pontificate but could not discuss the material he had so clearly committed to memory, for he comprehended not a word of it. No, with his high sense of self-importance and his low intelligence, he might be amusing for an afternoon or two, but Mary would never have him as a husband. Lizzy seemed to understand that, for after the first day of Mr. Collins’ visit, wherein she attempted to include Mary in every conversation, she ceased her efforts completely, offering her sister a wry smile in place of a tempting question.
And thus it was that she felt her eyes dart this way and that as Mr. Collins settled himself at the breakfast table and asked after the tea pot. It would be most impolite to stand up and leave without good reason, but she had little desire to remain and listen to his prattlings and meaningless compliments, strewn as straw before swine.
“I believe the tea is cold, Mama,” she spoke quickly, drawing the eyes of all at the table to her.
Lydia blinked, as if noticing her sister for the first time that morning. Kitty snickered into her napkin, and Mrs. Bennet voiced her surprise. “Oh! Mary.”
Yes, Mama, I have been here all the while. You choose not to take any regard, but I am here. The thoughts raced furiously through her brain, but she kept them unvoiced, replying with simple tones. “I shall ask cook at once to fetch us a fresh pot for Cousin Collins. Please excuse me.” She stood and curtseyed once, and then with all haste vanished in the direction of the kitchens, most grateful for her escape.
What to do next had been a simple decision. The one room into which neither her mother nor her cousin tended to enter was the small salon at the back of the house. Too small for the entirety of the Bennet family to sit comfortably and too far from the kitchens for real warmth in the winter, it provided a welcome retreat where Mary often hid herself to read, undisturbed, for an afternoon. There was a chair by the window that was mostly obscured from the door, upon which a warm blanket often lay waiting to warm a young lady’s toes, and it was there that Mary hid herself. It was also directly across the hall from the front parlour where Mrs. Bennet and her daughters often sat and provided an excellent place from which to overhear conversations from that room.
As she sat and considered her book—a shocking and most edifying treatise on the rights of women to an education by Mrs. Wollstonecraft—a most uncommon sound reached her ears. Mary heard her mother hustle Kitty out of the parlour and close the door upon whomever it was that remained within. No! Could it be that Mr. Collins had decided to press his suit? Oh, poor Lizzy! How would she refuse him? With a gentle word and a sympathetic smile, or with a sarcastic eye and a string of words that stung? Mary allowed her book to close, and she sat perfectly still, listening for any sound that might reach her ears from the sequestered pair inside.
Her efforts were soon rewarded. The door was pushed open, slamming against the wall behind it, and Elizabeth’s voice could be heard, tight and angry. “To accept you is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.” Then she ran, as quickly as her upbringing would allow, upstairs to her room to escape her unwanted suitor.
“You are uniformly charming!” Mr. Collins cried up the stairs after her. Mary caught herself before her laugh became audible. Did the man not understand that he was being abused by this “charming” Miss Bennet? No, it seemed not, for he continued, “and I am persuaded that when sanctioned by the express authority of both your excellent parents, my proposals will not fail of being acceptable.” He shuffled his feet loudly enough that Mary could hear each motion, and she could imagine the looks Mrs. Hill would cast upon him if she caught him so damaging her polished floors. There was no reply from above, and Mary wondered if Mr. Collins had given up his ill-fated suit. But then, in a resolute voice, the parson called out, “Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Bennet, I must talk with you at once!” and his footsteps disappeared in the direction of Mr. Bennet’s study.
Mary heard little else that morning, save for vague rumblings of discontent throughout the house, punctuated by Mrs. Bennet’s agitated cries of “Elizabeth Bennet!” and “Lizzy, this will not do.” After some time, the shouts ceased and Mary imagined her older sister had left the house, all the better to escape the demands of both parents and erstwhile lover in the brief respite from the rain. She nodded in approval. Escape was exactly the course of action she herself would have taken. Satisfied, she crept out of her hiding place and ventured to the kitchens, where she procured a tray of chocolate and muffins, before disappearing once more into her secluded den where her book awaited.
The treatise was fascinating and the chocolate drink warming and the hours passed as if they were minutes. A later foray into the kitchen in the early afternoon proved the house to be unnaturally quiet. A quick chat with Mrs. Jackes, the cook, revealed that Lizzy had indeed left the house in a hurry after a short but tense interview with her parents shortly after the failed proposal, and that Mr. Collins had stormed off shortly thereafter, but not without waiting for a basket of cakes and fruit to be prepared for him. Mr. Bennet had not emerged from his study since the interview with his daughter, and Mrs. Bennet had retired to her rooms in a fit of nerves, demanding that her remaining daughters attend her at once! Returning to her chair and blanket, Mary tried to read further, but she was warm and well fed and her eyes grew heavy and she soon fell asleep.
The sun was well past its zenith when she awakened to the sound of a slamming door. Her little salon, being towards the back of the house, was proximate to the servants’ door and the door to the back garden, through which Lizzy was known to come and go as the mood took her. Mary could see nothing from her nest, but heard everything. Her ears awake before her mind, she was aware of the reverberation of the heavy door as it swung on its hinges, of the sound of wood against wood, metal upon metal, as it was closed again with great force, and of her sister’s footsteps—for she most certainly recognise d each sister by her unique gait—as she passed into the house and towards the stairs. But… something did not seem right. They were Lizzy’s footsteps, to be certain, but there was a slowness to them, some dragging quality that pulled Mary from her chair. She rose and moved to the doorway and gasped at the sight of her sister.
There, in the dim light of the hallway, stood Lizzy, barely standing upright, skirts streaked in mud and shredded about the hem, her petticoats in disarray, her boots unrecognisable from the mire in which they were encased. But these were nothing compared to the look on her sister’s face. She seemed stricken, her complexion ashen, her lips white. The sparkling eyes were vacant and the accustomed impish expression replaced by one that bespoke sheer horror. And when she turned in Mary’s direction and held out a hand, begging for help, that hand was scratched and injured and covered in blood. The same blood, Mary could now see as her eyes grew accustomed to the unlit hallway, which covered the front of Lizzy’s dark green walking cape.
Eyes still wide with shock, Lizzy turned to her younger sister, mouth open as if to speak, but then turned away immediately and ran up the stairs towards her bedroom. Too stunned to move, Mary stood in the hallway, wondering whether to go after Lizzy or to leave her in peace, until there came an insistent knock at the front door. It was too late for unexpected company, and no guests were due for dinner or cards. It required only a few short steps from where she stood for Mary to have a good view of the door, and within seconds she was at the corner of the hallway from which she could observe all.
Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, opened the door and stepped back unsteadily. “Sir William,” she curtseyed, her voice unsteady. “Is Mr. Bennet expecting you? I had not been informed, but I shall set another place—”
“That will not be necessary, Mrs. Hill,” the man replied. “I am not here on social matters, but on ones of business. I am here in my position as local magistrate.” He stepped inside, followed by two large men whom Mary knew worked at the smithy and functioned as constables on the rare occasions that they were so needed.
Mrs. Hill stepped aside, mouth agape. “Sir William?” she asked, as the master of Longbourn rounded the corner from his study.
Without a nod or greeting to his friend, Sir William intoned, “I am here to arrest Miss Elizabeth Bennet on suspicion of murder.”