It was necessary for the magistrate, an ancient solid squire better known for his ability to ride to hounds than his jurisprudence, to raise his voice quite loudly to be heard over the questions and cross questioning and bring the gathering to some sort of order.
While he was thus engaged Mr. Bennet escorted his second daughter down the hall to a quieter corner where they could converse.
“Quickly my dear, tell me. What has happened? And, if you can, save your entirely justified distress until later.”
Lizzy gave a sharp nod but did not raise her gaze from the floor, therefore she did not see that Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy had positioned themselves near to hand.
“Oh, papa, I am so sorry.”
Mr. Bennet laid a hand over Elizabeth’s chill fingers.
“I am certain you did nothing wrong.”
Lizzy shook her head and in a bare whisper began: “After you left the house Mr Collins solicited my mother for an opportunity for private speech with me. I knew his intent and tried to turn him from his purpose but mother insisted I stay and hear him.”
Mr Bennet muttered a barely heard curse and Lizzy nodded. “Yes, she must have waited for you to leave. I felt it was arranged between them. He was so smug.”
“I am certain. What happened next?”
“He made the oddest speech about his patroness encouraging him to marry, his role as your heir, and then became quite … overly familiar.”
There was an indrawn breath that caught both their attention. Father and daughter looked up to see Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy watching them. Mr. Darcy looked quite shocked and disturbed by that intelligence. Elizabeth gave a small cry and turned her face away.
“My dear,” said Mr. Bennet, urging her to raise her chin. “You will have to tell the tale before the inquest. These gentlemen, at least, will be sympathetic listeners.”
Lizzy sighed and nodded again.
“What manner of familiar, Miss Bennet?” asked Darcy. “It is necessary to be clear.”
“He did not touch me, if that is what you mean. At least. Not in the parlor.”
“Were you in the parlor when this began?” Mr. Darcy’s voice was soft. There was a gentleness to his manner, the set of his shoulders. His whole form surprised Elizabeth. Never in the weeks of their acquaintance had he been so approachable and mild in his countenance.
“Must you know? We were alone for the barest moment. I assure you he did not … impose upon me in any significant manner. It was only that he made a proposal that I rejected and he refused to accept my word.”
“I did not mean to suggest such a thing, Miss Bennet. Only they are about to convene an inquest. You should settle your thoughts, prepare to give your description of events.”
“You have some experience in this field?” inquired Mr. Bennet.
“I read Law in Cambridge in expectation of assuming the duties of magistrate in my neighborhood when the current office holder retires.”
“Excellent. If you might assist my daughter with her preparations while I shall speak to the magistrate and coroner. But before I leave, my dear, how did this come to pass? The death. You have not yet told me.”
“Briefly, papa, Mr. Collins made the most preposterous proposal, refused to believe I would presume to decline the honor and when I departed the room he followed me. On the stairs…” Elizabeth hesitated. “He… I am not certain but suddenly he … he fell.”
“Down the stairs,” said her father. “To his, forgive me, my child, to his death?”
“Immediately or… after some little time?”
“No, father. By the time we reached his side he was not breathing.”
Mr Bennet patted his daughter on her hand. “Mr Darcy, if you would be so kind as to help her prepare? You are acquainted with the progress of an inquest?”
“Indeed. I would be honored to be of assistance to her.”
“Thank you. Then you should perhaps adjourn to my book room for pen and paper and a moment of privacy so she might clear her mind.”
“Mr. Darcy, I apologize,” began Elizabeth, as the door closed behind her father.
“Not at all, Miss Elizabeth, I am more than willing to be of assistance.”
Elizabeth huddled down further into her chair, but her attention was directed toward the closed door.
“What are they about?” she asked in the softest voice he had heard her use. “What shall they require of me?”
In all the time Darcy had the benefit of knowing Miss Elizabeth he knew she valued honesty and directness of speech, therefore he was as practical as he would be to any young gentleman in a similar situation.
“First they will decide if the inquest should be held today. Since your father will be presenting the death as a simple accident and there is not reason to conduct a search for a attacker… no reason to raise a hue and cry there is little enough reason to delay.”
“Because I am here.”
“Because you are not an attacker,” said Darcy, firmly. “Since this is a legal gathering it is necessary that do not accuse yourself. If anything you should remind them you, a young lady in your own home, were fleeing an intolerable situation.”
“Yes, intolerable.” Her voice continued soft and the palor of her lips and cheeks were beginning to concern him. He went to where Mr. Bennet had a tray with a decanter of brandy and small glass. When he pointed to the glass Miss Elizabeth declined with a shake of her head.
“Come. Come, Miss Elizabeth. Are you not the woman who told me that your spirit rises at any attempt to intimidate you?”
“Oh, heavens.” Lizzy gave a shaky laugh. “Foolish child that I was. I cannot imagine such a circumstance occurring.”
“I have faith in you. Miss Elizabeth. You have the strength to endure this.”
“Thank you.”“Perhaps I should ask Mrs. Hill to keep you company,” suggested Darcy. “A dish of tea? Would that restore you?”
"That would be most welcome, Mr. Darcy.”
“Then so I shall. Bear up, Miss Elizabeth. I have faith in you.”
He glanced about finally sighting the bell-pull behind the master’s desk. A sharp tug summoned Mrs. Hill herself who stared at Miss Elizabeth as if she had never seen the girl before. Darcy cleared his throat catching the housekeepers attention. The woman gave a belated curtsy.
“Miss Elizabeth is overset," said Darcy, "as you can see. She would benefit from a dish of tea, and can you see if a blanket or a shawl could be fetched?”
When Mrs. Hill left Darcy busied himself with the fire. At this time of the year a low fire shimmered in the grate but now Darcy could see that Elizabeth needed more than mere warmth, she needed restoration. A high burning blaze, Darcy knew, gave strength with the light as well as heat. Elizabeth confirmed his supposition by coming to stand beside the fireplace, staring into the blaze and holding her pale hands out.
When Hill returned she placed a tea service on a side table before warming the blanket she carried before the fire.
“Shall you take some tea, Mr. Darcy,” offered Miss Elizabeth, with the same courtesy he remembered from her mother’s dinners.
“Thank you, yes,” said Darcy, automatically. "And when you are ready, if you would come to your father’s desk, we shall begin working on your deposition. Shall I prepare a pen for you?”
Elizabeth stood, the blanket falling away as she gave a shallow laugh.
“Pen? I can mend my own pens, thank you.”
“Excellent.” He smiled and held out a hand, then his gaze focused and he stared at her bodice. “Wait. What is this?”
Lizzy halted, looking down, then cried out and pulled the blanket back.
“No, Miss Elizabeth. Show me. When did this happen? Did that scoundrel strike you?”
He caught hold of both of her hands and examined her left arm. The thin muslin cap sleeve hung down, torn clearly free of its stitching where it joined the bodice at the back. Along the length of her smooth upper arms were lines of reddened skin that foretold coming bruises.
“What did that scoundrel do to you?”
“Nothing? Nothing I assure you.”
“No, Miss Elizabeth,” Darcy’s voice was low, soothing. “Quite obviously he did do something. You would not be so bruised unless that man tried to lay hands on you. I hold him entirely responsible but I must know, why did he take hold of you?”
“I… I don’t entirely recall.”
"In the parlor?"
"No. No, I left the parlor before he could approach me."
"then it must have been when you were upon the stairs."
"Possibly, I cannot be certain."
Darcy frowned at her arm for a moment, considering, then the chiming of the clock caught his attention.
“Sit here,” Darcy held her father’s chair away from the desk. “You should prepare. Should they decide to hold the inquest today you must have a declaration ready, written, that you must read for the coroner and jury to hear.”
“A declaration of events.”
“Very well. What shall I say?”
“The truth. The facts. Simply and clearly.”
“I wish I could say I could do that but I fear, I cannot say.” She looked down at her bruised arm. “I do not recall. When did he take hold of me? Surely I should be able to say…”
“Please sit, and we shall go over the matter slowly.”
“As you say.”
“Begin. How did this day, this interview, come about?”
I do not remember. I cannot recall at all. Did I push him?
“Do not write that. Surely that would not be your action. I know you well enough that you would not lay hand upon a gentleman unless he gave you significant motivation. Only consider, what do you recall? Go back to the beginning of the day.”
“I remember being angry.”
“At his presumption. At my mother. Forgive me, I must appear to be most disrespectful of my mother but I had told her several times that Mr. Collins did not inspire my regard and yet she pushed the attachment. Then, when he came to the point, Mr. Collins did not so much as propose to me as to give the strangest speech I have been encountered. He described to me, as if I did not know, that he admired this house, his inheritance. Then he presented the arguments your aunt, his patroness, gave instructing him to gain a wife. As if the opinions of a person so removed from me would influence me in any way, and then he outlined who having a wife would suit his health and happiness. The whole of the time he described how it would serve his good, his advantage, his patroness as if I were a… some useful tool he was contemplating purchasing. It was most odd, then, without actually forming a proposal he declared his warm feelings, at which point I decided I could not longer endure the nonsense.”
“When did he touch you?” asked Darcy, in as disinterested tone as he could manage despite the burning in his chest. How dare that pretentious parson dare aspire to touch Elizabeth. Did he not realize how far above him the woman was? How intelligent? How witty? How wise and beautiful?
Elizabeth paled but answered in a voice that did not waver.
“He was about to, I think, but no, not in the manner you think. He might have kissed me, he was preparing to kiss me, but I interrupted and declined his offer. Then he declared my mother had already accepted his suit on my behalf and he was certain that my father would agree. I was so angry at my mother for saying that to him that I declared my intent on making clear my wishes on the subject to her and I left the room. I had to speak to her. That was my only thought at that moment.”
“And he followed?”
“Yes. I knew my mother was upstairs and my father was away with the gentlemen, shooting. Otherwise I would have gone to his bookroom and my father would have made clear my refusal would stand.”
“You were that certain of your father’s support? Mr. Collins was your father’s heir, after all.”
“I am completely certain. I know my father despised him. No. I cannot write that.”
“But you are clear in your mind that your father would support your refusal? Viewed impartially, it is a good match for you.”
Fire snapped in her eyes for the first time during the interview and Darcy rejoiced. His Elizabeth was returning.
“Impartially, do you say? How can you, sir? All sensibilities revolt. He is, was, an ignorant toad. He has no address, no grace, no education at all. He is an embarrassment to us all. Besides my sister Jane and I have long declared we would never marry where there is no affection and certainly there was no inducement in Mr. Collins appearance, manner and general address to suggest any woman expend the effort to learn to like him.”
Darcy’s silence suggested his confusion.
“It has always been my ambition, my dream," continued Elizabeth, "to marry where there is true affinity of mind. A true affection. I know that you will despise me and think me provincial beyond all reason. Marriages between those of your rank and standing will always be to advance in society, but for me, with little to offer my husband beyond myself, I have hoped for some similarity in the turns of our minds and hearts. Forgive me, I should not waste your time with my romantical nonsense. It is not important.”
“No. No, this makes matters clearer to me and I know that, under the circumstances, you would not be eagerly running to notify your mother of an engagement. I agree, Mr. Collins does not impress upon close acquaintance. Therefore I must ask, your father, are you completely certain that he would have supported your refusal?”
“I can say that with complete certainty."
“Very well. But after you left the room. Not able to seek your father’s sanctuary, what did you do?”
“I realized arguing with my mother would serve no purpose and since Mr. Collins left the parlor after me, I determined that I should go to my room and lock the door, never to emerge until father returned.”
“Did you fear Mr. Collins would attempt … to force his attentions upon you?”
“No. No. I was fatigued with his company and sought solitude. If I could have left the house I would have but it is still my home, not his and I will not be driven from it.”
“Excellent. Remember to write that down. Now, what happened next? From where did Mr. Collins fall?”
“The stairs. He came after me. Followed me upstairs, intending, I think to continue to argue his case before my mother.”
“He came after you?” Darcy frowned. “Be careful to phrase it exactly as you did now.” When Elizabeth gave him a quizzical stare he continued: “It implies that you were frightened of him. That his manner was aggressive at worst, and impolite at the very best. The jury’s sympathy will be engaged.”
“Are you certain I need to perform in such a manner? That I need to imply I was a weak fragile female?”
Darcy smiled. “Those who know you well will know you are strong enough - in your spirit. Your form, forgive me, is small. Even an ill-made youth as was Mr. Collins might seek to intimidate you.”
“Very well.” Elizabeth considered the still blank page without enthusiasm.
“And on the stairs, Miss Bennet? When did he seize hold of you?”
“I do not recall. Indeed, until you pointed out the bruises I would have sworn he had not.”“I went upstairs. He followed, still taking. Then, when I was about to reach the topmost stair he … he fell. I heard him cry out.”
“Is that when he seized your arm?”
Elizabeth looked down at the bruise. Now she knew it was there it began to ache. Mr. Darcy held her elbow gently and turned the limb.
“I do not remember him doing that.”
“And yet, your arm bears the mark of his fingers. Did he catch hold of you to stop your flight? To continue his argument? Or, to stop his own fall?”
“I do not recall,” whispered Elizabeth. “Truly, I do not!”
“Think of the events. You were walking up the stairs…”
“Running,” corrected Elizabeth.
“Yes, of course,” Darcy grinned at her and was delighted when she grinned back. “And Mr. Collins, was he attempting to catch you up or progressing with dignity?”
“Hurrying. I have the impression he was not pleased with my escape and wanted to reach my mother’s side before I did.”
“A good word to use.”
“Yes. You are a lady with delicate sensibilities, aware you have just disappointed a young man’s hopes and were seeking to escape. Perfectly understandable.”
“Oh, yes, I understand.”
“So you were running, hurrying to get away and he was close on your heels.”
“No, actually I was a few steps ahead of him when he cried out.”
“He cried out? As he fell or before?”
“I…” Elizabeth considered, biting her lower lip.
Darcy waited, watched, patiently. She was uniformly wonderful. There was no other way to describe it. Despite her trauma she was everything ladylike and charming. His only wish at this moment was to comfort, to protect. The responsibility had been yielded to him by her father and if it had been the transfer that occurred before the altar during a wedding Darcy could hold it no less sacred!
“I think I … yes, I was turned away. I heard him cry out, I turned and Mr. Collins was already falling. Fallen.”
“You turned. Might it be because he caught your arm?”
“Now you say it, yes. I felt him touch me and was offended by his touch.”
“Did you move away? Brush him away?”
“No. That is, as he was falling I was reaching out to the banister, holding it so that I would not fall!”
“Excellent. Now we both have a good understanding of today's events, yes?”
“Yes, indeed. Thank you, Mr. Darcy for aiding me.”
“It is my honor, Miss Elizabeth. Now, I should like to know what the gentlemen are saying. If you are able, I shall leave you to write out your declaration.”
Elizabeth looked down at the blank sheet and did not answer.
“Thank you,” she said, then as he turned away she added: “Mr. Darcy?”
“I am certain, that is, I want you to know I do not believe I should ever push a person. Not even Mr. Collins.”
“Miss Elizabeth, I never doubted you.”
Elizabeth sat at her father’s desk staring at the closed door while Mrs. Hill picked absently at her apron and gazed about at every familiar thing in the room - except Elizabet. The whole morning was a confusion of thoughts and feelings. Elizabeth’s horror at Mr. Collins’s proposal warred with the memories of Mr. Darcy’s unaccounted kindness. Who would have thought such a stern, unyeilding, man could speak with gentleness? Could hold her wounded arm with tenderness and concern and look at her, after all she’d told him about the morning, as if she were worthy of his regard and respect. Previously she had thought he looked at her only to find fault and yet this morning when her conduct did not bear close examination he was respectful. Who could account for such a man? What was one to think of him? Oh, teasing, teasing man, what must she think of him?
Lizzy confused by kindness but mind is caught with struggling with her memories. Did I push Mr. Collins? Did I mean him to fall. The picture refused to form in her mind. How close had Mr. Collins been when she’d reached the topmost step. Had she been at the top? Surely not. She’d been able to touch the carved wooden ball at the top of the banister and that meant she was second from the top. And Mr. Collin’s, where had he been? Had he reached the step with the torn carpet?
How odd that she couldn’t recall something that had happened - she glanced toward the clock - good heaven’s, where had the morning gone? Two hours had passed since Mr. Collins imposed his presence upon the parlor. It felt as if it had been minutes. Or hours.
Grasping her courage she addressed the page before her and began outlining, as clearly as possible, the dreadful events of the morning. She very much wanted to explain to herself, and to the coroner and magistrate, how it came about that a man now lay dead.