Having left Georgiana in the care of Lord and Lady Perryton less than a week prior, Anne and Fitzwilliam did not feel obliged to call on her before leaving for Kent. They would be in Town for less than a day as it was.
It was decided that Miss Catherine would take young Anne for a tour of the gardens when they first arrived at Rosings. That would keep her away from Lady Catherine during the initial confrontation.
“We should speak to all the staff who have served at Rosings since you were born,” Darcy suggested. “Can you remember many of them?”
“Not really. As a child I never paid too much attention to such things. However, I do know that most of the servants from my childhood are no longer in our service.”
“Mrs. Stuart should be able to assist us.”
“Stuart – Did you know she was my mother’s lady’s maid before she became housekeeper? And now that you mention her, I recall a conversation we had right before I married you.” Anne gasped at the memory. “Fitzwilliam, she told me that she was the only one who remained at Rosing who had served my father!”
“There are no servants left at Rosings from that time but her?”
The implications were clear to them both. There may be a very good reason why the older servants were gone – there were none left to accuse Lady Catherine, or Maggie Stuart.
Anne Darcy invited Mr. and Mrs. Bennet to the nursery so they could meet with Elizabeth in private. Anne could tell the older woman was very anxious to hold the child that was likely her first grandchild. The Bennets had seen little Elizabeth, but that was only for a short while and in the company of many. Anne dismissed her daughter’s nursemaids and brought her child to Mrs. Bennet, who was now seated in a chair waiting to receive the precious bundle. Mr. Bennet stood behind his wife and leaned over to get a closer look.
“Is she not the most beautiful baby you have ever seen?” Mrs. Bennet asked her husband.
“As beautiful as our own eight children?”
“Oh yes, for she is Elizabeth’s.” Mrs. Bennet realized what she had said aloud when her husband nudged her. “Oh, please forgive me, Mrs. Darcy! I should not say such things until we speak with your mother.”
“I know you mean no offence, Mrs. Bennet, and unless we are sorely mistaken, you spoke nothing but the truth. I may have to resign myself to being known as Elizabeth.”
“And now you have spoken too hastily,” Mr. Bennet interjected. “I think there is much to learn and then much yet to discuss before any decisions should be made. For now, let us enjoy the wonder of a child.” He looked back down at the baby. “She is beautiful.”
Anne thanked him and decided to leave them alone for a few minutes. Elizabeth would be safe.
“Oh George,” Mrs. Bennet spoke when Anne was gone, “For all these years I have ached for the child I would never hold again. God has been so good to us to return her, and to give our Elizabeth a daughter,” Mrs Bennet looked down adoringly at little Elizabeth Darcy,” to fill her mother’s rightful place in my arms.”
Mr. Bennet understood his wife’s joy, but he was afraid of what tomorrow would bring. If Lady Catherine de Bourgh denied Anne Darcy to be anything but her own offspring, his wife would be devastated.
“I pray you are correct.” Surely God could not be so cruel as to rip away his daughter from him again; not after he had suffered for twenty years knowing he had failed to keep her from harm.
The party’s departure from London brought about a change in their traveling arrangements. Miss Catherine and Miss Anne rode with the Darcys while Elizabeth and her nursemaid rode in the Bennet carriage. Anne Darcy was interested in becoming better acquainted with her two “sisters” and the several hours’ ride to Kent was a fine place to begin. This also afforded Mr. and Mrs. Bennet more time with little Elizabeth. Miss Anne proved to be an entertaining traveling companion. Catherine Bennet was not as clever as her younger sibling, but the young woman was pleasant enough company and the time passed quickly.
Soon the palings of Rosings Park were seen. Anne told her new companions that they were nearly there. She tried to put on a cheery façade, but her emotions were awhirl.
It was obvious they were unexpected. Servants scurried to unpack the trunks and maids were dispatched to precede the master and mistress and ready their chambers. Mrs. Stuart came out to greet them, along with Gibbons, the new butler. Darcy greeted the two chief servants with a large package in his hands.
“Mr. Darcy, shall I have a footman take that from you?” Gibbons asked.
“No, no. I would prefer to see to this personally.” Mr. Gibbons displayed none of the disbelief he felt. “Is Lady Catherine engaged at present?”
“Yes sir, Mr. Collins has called. I do not expect him to be much longer.”
Anne rolled her eyes in annoyance. She tried hard to forget the new rector of Hunsford. After the death of the previous holder of the living in January, it was Anne who convinced Darcy to allow Lady Catherine to select the new clergyman for the parish. She reasoned that as Lady Catherine was, for the most part, the sole resident of Rosings, her mother might as well pick a man whose sermon-making she preferred. After so many years of the kind service of Mr. Lawton, Anne thought Lady Catherine would find someone of his ilk to replace him. Instead she had chosen a young man, newly ordained, with little experience in the care of a congregation, and worse, no aptitude for preaching. His main qualifications were his malleability and devotion to his noble patroness.
When they had been at Rosings the previous spring, Anne and Darcy had been appalled by Lady Catherine’s choice, but now that Mr. Collins was installed, there was little they could do but to try not to grin in church and to bear his effusions with poise and graciousness, all the while trying desperately not to encourage such fawning behavior.
“We will wait in the music room, then. As soon as the minister is gone, we will see her ladyship.”
“Very good, sir.”
Anne then spoke. “Mrs. Stuart, the Bennets are to stay in the family wing. Place the Misses Bennet together in the Rose Room and Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in the Venice Suite. Please see the Misses Bennet to their chamber, and make sure a footman is nearby. They have expressed an inclination to explore the gardens after they have refreshed themselves from the journey.”
Maggie took a quick look at the Darcys’ guests. Her eyes narrowed for a moment before she schooled her features. “Yes ma’am.”
“And Stuart, we will speak to you after we have spoken to Lady Catherine. In the library, if you please,” Darcy instructed.
She nodded her understanding, whispered an instruction to a nearby footman and asked the two girls to follow her upstairs.
Darcy, package still in hand, led the remainder of the party to Music Room. Giving instructions not to be disturbed until Lady Catherine was at liberty to see them, he closed the door.
The music room opened to a large parlor that was the preferred room to entertain guests. Anne recalled many evenings where she would be obliged to play for those assembled in the parlor. In that room also hung one of Darcy’s favorite pictures of his wife. It was painted shortly after Anne turned twelve. The background of the painting was the very room in which it was exhibited. Anne wore a lovely pale blue dress and stood next to the piano. The artist had even put in miniatures of the pictures on the wall, including the one he was painting, in anticipation of it being displayed there when it was completed. Anne’s left hand was resting on the keys of the opening notes of the score of music in Anne’s right hand, Scarlatti’s Sonata K404 in A Major.
Darcy pointed out the painting and both Mr. and Mrs. Bennet gasped. But for the shade of hair and eyes, the portrait looked like it could have just been taken, and that the subject who sat for it was Anne Bennet.
“Anne was twelve when this was done,” he explained, somewhat needlessly.
“The resemblance is remarkable, even more than between the portrait you hold and Mrs. Darcy. I think she has my eyes and not her mother’s, just like my Anne.”
Anne Darcy, being the object of the newest discovery linking her to an insignificant family in Hertfordshire, had not recognized how much Anne Bennet looked like her. Of course, she could not remember much of what she looked like as a girl unless she was looking at one of the several portraits she was forced to endure sitting for as a child. Darcy, on the other hand, could easily discern how much Anne Bennet looked like his wife before she had matured into a woman. Anne stared at the familiar picture. Darcy came to stand at her side and slid his arm around her waist.
“Courage, beloved,” he whispered in encouragement.
“What can she possible say to explain this?”
“We shall find out shortly.”
Anne did not reply.
“Did your butler say the local clergyman’s name is Collins?” Mr. Bennet asked, breaking the silence.
“Yes. A Mr. William Collins. He was installed at Hunsford, the village attached to Rosings, this past Easter.”
“I wonder if the man is my cousin. If we had not had any sons, Longbourn would be entailed on a relation named William Collins. He was studying theology last I heard; I believe is now old enough to have a living. That would be another extraordinary coincidence if it were the same man.”
“Yes, it would be. However, I should wait to make any inquires on the matter until later. We have other business that is more pressing.”
“Oh, most certainly.”
“Perhaps you might recognize him if you saw him leaving?”
“I highly doubt it. I have never seen the man in my life. His father and I had a dispute of longstanding duration. I had not seen his late father since before his son was born. I only know what I do by a few letters we exchanged for the sake of the conveyance of Longbourn after my death. It is wise to keep informed on the mortality of your heirs.”
Before they could further explore the uncomfortable subject of heirs, Gibbons informed them that Mr. Collins had just left and that Lady Catherine was at leisure to meet with them.
“Darcy, Anne! What a surprise. Where is Elizabeth?” Anne resisted the urge to answer “Here.”
“She is in her nursery,” Anne said instead.
“You should have brought her to see me first.”
“She was tired and hungry, Mother.”
“Then I will see her later. Who are your guests?”
Darcy did the honors. “May I present to you Mr. and Mrs. George Bennet of Longbourn in Hertfordshire. This is Anne’s mother, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Anne and I met Mr. and Mrs. Bennet at a ball in the town of Meryton, which is near the estate where my good friend Charles Bingley is now ensconced as tenant.”
“You are very welcome to Rosings.”
“Two of their daughters are also here, but they wished to rest after the journey and then see the gardens.”
Lady Catherine nodded. “What have you there, Darcy?” she asked, referring to the package he still stubbornly clung to.
Darcy set his jaw. It was time.
“This is the reason we have come and why I have asked the Bennets here as well.” Lady Catherine looked over at the couple, and then looked back at Darcy. Anne had been watching her mother intently for any signs that she knew or recognized either Mr. or Mrs. Bennet. So far, there had been none.
“Let us see what has brought you to Rosings.”
Darcy set down his burden and began to unwrap the painting. He was careful to situate it so that the back was to his mother-in-law. He talked while he worked.
“How amazed we were to meet the Bennets. We had gone to Hertfordshire to fulfill a pledge to Bingley to visit him at his new estate. Imagine my surprise then at the reaction of Mrs. Bennet when we were introduced.”
“She fainted, madam.”
Lady Catherine looked confused. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet had not said a word.
“Yes, she took a long look at Anne and fainted. You may sympathise with our confusion when Mrs. Bennet called Anne ‘Elizabeth’ and then lost consciousness.”
Lady Catherine grew angry. “I do not understand. What game are you playing?”
“I assure you, this is no game,” Darcy said tersely, then continued. “The next morning we called on the Bennets at Longbourn, and there we were told a most heartrending story and then shown the painting I hold in my hands.”
“Enough, Darcy! I demand you show me what has caused you to come in such haste and speak so discourteously to me. I am not accustomed to such behavior from you or from anyone.”
Darcy turned the painting around and after a moment, Lady Catherine gasped. Darcy went on determinedly.
“Can you please explain to me, madam, why this portrait taken of Mrs. Bennet nearly four and twenty years ago looks like my wife? Is it only coincidence that twenty years ago Mrs. Bennet gave birth to a daughter who was stolen from them only a few days later – a few days before you gave birth to Anne? And then there is the picture of Anne in the music room, the one where she is standing by the piano. The youngest Bennet daughter, who is somewhere in this house at this very moment, and named Anne, believe it or not, looks like a twin sister of the Anne in that painting. For the love of God, at least reassure my wife that she cannot be the missing daughter of the Bennets?
Lady Catherine looked to the other older woman sitting in the parlor, and then her daughter, and then to the painting and finally back to her daughter Anne. Lady Catherine stared directly into Anne’s eyes as she spoke.
“I wish to God I could tell you that you are not their daughter, but I cannot give you that comfort. I swear to you that I did not know where you came from, but know that I have loved you as my own flesh and blood ever since you were brought to me.”
“Then Anne is adopted?” Darcy finally asked.
Lady Catherine still held her only daughter’s gaze. “Yes.”
The room was still; no one said a word. Anne stood, her face ashen. She started to take a step toward the only mother she had ever known, but faltered. She then looked at the woman who had by all appearances given birth to her, and faltered again. Finally she sat back down next to her husband, covered her face with her hands and began to sob.
Lady Catherine looked at Anne, unable to move or comfort her daughter, the horror of the situation written across her face. Mrs. Bennet sat transfixed, an equal measure of sadness and joy on her visage. Mr. Bennet stoically held his wife’s hand. Darcy embraced Anne, but his eyes burned with condemnation towards Lady Catherine.
Anne took several minutes to begin to control herself. Darcy’s quiet words of encouragement soothed her anxiety. When she was able to speak, she addressed the woman she had always called mother.
“Why Mama, tell me why? Please tell me how you could do such a thing!” she said, stuttering the words through her still flowing tears.
Lady Catherine closed her eyes and sighed. She suddenly looked much older. When she was ready, she looked at Darcy and nodded and fixed her gaze on Anne.
“No words can ever be said to justify what has happened to the Bennets, but please, let me explain what part I played. I swear to all of you that until today, I believed Anne came to us under very different circumstances.
“After I married your father, we tried and tried for an heir, yet I still could not conceive. Sir Lewis knew how disappointed I was to not have become with child. He did his best to comfort me, but nothing could take away the shame and embarrassment I felt from my inability to provide him with at least the hope of an heir.
“And then one day he told me he had come to a decision. It seems that he had become aware of a girl who was in trouble – unmarried and with child. I questioned him, trying to discover who the girl was, but he would never reveal her identity. Now I know why. He would only tell me that she had been brought to his attention by an old friend. I assumed it must have been this friend’s daughter or niece. Sir Lewis proposed that we take this child as our own and I then wondered if the girl could be a relation.
“At first I was adamant; I would not allow it. I did not want the child to usurp the inheritance of any son I might still be able to bear, as much as I despaired that ever happening. Sir Lewis understood my concerns, for he held them too. He suggested that if the child were a boy, then he would become our ward. However, if it were a girl, he was prepared to claim her as our own. Sir Lewis was also planning to visit his properties in the West Indies and would be gone for many months. His plan was that we would still continue to try for a child, but if I had not conceived, I was to act as if I had. This would ensure that there would not be an untimely birth to foil his plans.
“I did not fall with child and so I obeyed my husband’s wishes. My maid was brought into the conspiracy, for I needed her help. A few others knew, but Sir Lewis arranged for most of those details. All I knew was that I was to feign a normal pregnancy and when the time came, I would be told when I was to go into childbirth and that everything would be taken care of from there. If it were a boy, my ‘child’ would not survive. If it were a girl, then she would become my daughter.”
Lady Catherine wove the tale she and Maggie Stuart had spent the past twenty years perfecting. So well did she know her lines that she wanted to believe she spoke nothing but the truth. Fortunately for her, the conviction in her voice lent credence to her story; her audience was absorbed in her narrative…
“Unfortunately, Sir Lewis did not return until after you came to Rosing, Anne. His trip was extended and by the time he came back to England, it was time to christen you. I was worried that he would not accept you as he had sworn. I should not have doubted him. I have never seen a man so enthralled with a child. He loved you as his own the moment he laid eyes on you. When you reached out and grabbed hold of his finger, you gained his eternal devotion. I even envied you for it.”
“My father orchestrated everything?”
“Of course, how could I, a woman, have done what he did?”
“But I do not understand the need for such an elaborate scheme.”
“Your father wanted no questions asked. The whole world would think you our daughter. Surely you know that the adoption of an illegitimate child by another family member is a not an unheard-of occurrence. Sir Lewis wanted no stigma attached to you. And for all that he went through to find you, he was right. Had you not looked so much like your real mother, no one would ever have been the wiser.” Lady Catherine decided to press the point.
“No one need know, still. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, while I am mortified that you lost your daughter for so long, can you not see how much she has been given? She has always been treated as a de Bourgh. She was granted Rosings. Had she not become our daughter, Rosing would have been mine. Yet I never begrudged her that. She has been and will always be my daughter, at least to me. Let the world remain ignorant of her real birth. If this gets out, you will always hear whispers, Anne. Darcy you know I am right.”
“At this time, I am at loss to know anything, Lady Catherine,” he retorted.
“You do believe me?” she petitioned the Bennets. “I knew nothing of Anne’s true parents until today.”
“Please excuse my lack of pardon. My wife and I have had twenty years with our Elizabeth stolen from us,” Mr. Bennet answered icily. Lady Catherine turned her attention to the one person she was afraid to address.
Wracked by confusion and doubt, Anne stood and fled the room. Lady Catherine meant to follow, but her progress was arrested when Darcy put his hand on her arm.
“I do not think she wants to talk to you now. I will go after her.”
After Darcy left, Lady Catherine felt all the awkwardness of being left alone with Anne’s true parents. Her conscience assaulted her: she could not remain in their presence one moment longer, and Lady Catherine retreated to her chambers without a word.
Darcy had a good idea where his wife had fled. It was their favorite retreat, the place where he had asked her to marry him, the place where they had shared their first kiss, and the place where they had finally declared their love to each other.
Darcy had just returned to Kent prior to the wedding. Since the engagement, he had been to Town and to Pemberley to prepare to take Anne as his bride. The changes he had deemed necessary to welcome Anne as the new mistress of his possessions were now complete. The legal documents pertaining to the match were signed. All that was left to do was to wait until the month before the wedding had passed.
Both Anne and Darcy struggled to keep their passions in check. Two months before, they had discovered how much they desired each other. Being satisfied with a mere kiss was becoming more and more difficult.
Wanting to be alone, they agreed to go for a walk. As always, their footsteps led them to their favorite glen. So many precious memories were associated with the spot that they went there by silent agreement. Once assured of their privacy, they were in each other’s arms.
“I have missed you so!” Anne whispered as her lover trailed kisses down her neck.
“No more than I have you.” His lips had reached the fabric of her bodice. He wished to explore lower but knew it was dangerous. Instead he reversed his course and eventually came to repossess her lips. Their mouths did battle for several minutes until Darcy realized he must stop them. He knew she could feel his ‘reaction’ against her stomach.
He ended their kiss and pulled her more tightly against him. Disguise was useless now, so instead he would relish the feel of her body against his.
“Forgive me,” he pleaded.
“For what? For giving me as much pleasure as you took? We marry in a month.” Then she added in a whisper, “I do not know how I can wait either.” Her response pleased him beyond measure. She struggled as much with her desire for him as he did with his desire for her.
Darcy looked down at her and she lifted her chin to look at him.
“Would you allow me to tell you how much I have come to love you, my dearest Anne?”
Anne’s face was radiant, full to overflowing with extreme joy. “Oh Fitzwilliam, only if you allow me to return the sentiment. I love none but you – fully, completely and passionately.”
Far from restraining their ardor, their declarations only increased it. Suddenly their hands were exploring places they had never been given freedom to explore before. They came to be lying next to each other and Darcy was beginning to reach down to lift Anne’s skirts when rationality returned. He found himself apologizing again. Anne would not let him shoulder the blame alone, but it was sobering enough that they realized the danger they were in and stopped before they went too far.
Darcy also remembered how they had returned to their glen after they had married. They gloried in reliving their encounter and enjoyed seeing it to its natural end as a husband and wife could.
He slowly ambled toward the sanctuary. Darcy knew his wife needed time to consider all she had learned over the course of the past four days. Until today, they held out a slim hope that this was all a gross misunderstanding, but Lady Catherine’s admission of her daughter’s unknown parentage had shattered the last encumbrance to the acceptance of Anne’s true birthright. To this point, she had managed to remain calm, but in the face of Lady Catherine’s confession, Anne had finally lost her composure. He wondered what was going through her heart and mind.
Sure enough, Darcy found his wife exactly where he expected. She sat on a bench he had placed there on their last visit. Anne must have heard him approaching because she looked at him when he appeared.
“I knew I would find you here in our refuge.”
Anne bit her lip and turned her head to look away from him. Darcy was afraid she might react that way. He strode over and sat next to her on their bench.
“Please, dearest, do not turn from me now.”
Anne stood up and walked a few paces away. She still would not face her husband and her arms hugged her body.
“I should not have come here. I thought in this place I might find peace. Instead I feel like an interloper and an impostor.”
Darcy moved behind her and put his hand on her shoulder. “Anne…”
She whirled away, “Please, please do not touch me. It only makes it more difficult for me, especially here where there are so many memories.
“I… I have come to a decision. I will not challenge it if you wish to annul our marriage. I fully understand if you wish to repudiate Elizabeth as your lawful heir. I plan to ask Mr. and Mrs. Bennet if I may seek refuge with them as their daughter…”
“Stop it, Anne.”
“Elizabeth, Elizabeth Bennet!” Anne cried.
Darcy had had enough. Before Anne could react, he had his arm around her and pulled her sobbing body to his. His words tumbled out. “No. You are Anne Darcy. I thought we had already discussed this. You may have been born Elizabeth Bennet but you were christened and raised as Anne de Bourgh. I took you as my wife, and until death do us part, you will remain Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy.”
Darcy ceased speaking for a moment and relaxed his grip on Anne. She did not try to escape his embrace. When he began again, his tone was much gentler. “I know why you are reacting this way, but I am not going to allow you to doubt me. I love you, Anne; I have for a long time. You may not be my cousin by birth, but you are my wife by covenant and it will remain that way. I will allow nothing else.”
He kissed her then, a possessive kiss leaving her in no doubt of his intentions. At first Anne tried to break away but he would not allow it. Before long she was kissing him back with equal desperation. Soon they were in a frenzied renewal of their vows.
Within minutes it was over and they were shocked at the spontaneity and intensity of their encounter. It was what they had most needed to reassure each other that they would remain faithful to their love.
After righting themselves, Darcy and Anne made their way back to the house. Upon entering, they were told both the Bennets and Lady Catherine had retired to their rooms.
“We should go to our rooms as well before we see Mrs. Stuart,” Anne suggested.
“No, I think it is better that she sees you as you are.”
“My clothing is in disarray, not to mention my hair, and I desperately need to wash my face. Anyone who sees me will know I have been crying.”
“Which is why I think we should go and confront Stuart now. She knows the truth about your adoption. She’s fiercely loyal to you and the signs of your distress may induce her to say more than she would otherwise.”
Anne really did not want to face her devoted servant as she was, but she acquiesced to her husband’s wishes.
Maggie Stuart was shocked when the Darcys arrived. They always sent word well in advance when they returned to Rosings. This time, however, no one had any warning that they were coming. Maggie was delighted to catch a glimpse of the baby before she was whisked upstairs to her newly decorated nursery. Only then did Maggie take a look at the people who had accompanied her master and mistress. She could barely keep her jaw from dropping when she saw the unknown girl. The shock was that the girl, while a stranger, was recognizable. Suddenly Maggie knew these people must be Miss Anne’s true family. Somehow they had stumbled onto each other. This day had become the day of reckoning.
Quickly schooling her features, Maggie did as she was instructed and saw the two young girls to their room. From there, she made her way to the library, leaving directives that she was awaiting the Darcys and was not to be disturbed unless necessary until she had seen her employers.
In the solitude of the library, with books as her only witnesses, Maggie had to decide what she would do. She had no doubt that Lady Catherine would adhere to the story that the entire plot was Sir Lewis’ idea. They had spent years perfecting the tale; Maggie knew it as well as Lady Catherine. Thus she could corroborate Lady Catherine’s story or she could reveal the truth. Either way, Anne would be unhappy with her mother.
However, if she did stick to her bargain with Lady Catherine, Anne would eventually direct her anger towards her father and the relationship with her mother would be spared. She would also be saving her own position in the household. Maggie could still very well be turned out for her role in the deception, but if she supported Lady Catherine’s position, she would stand a good chance of remaining Rosing’s housekeeper.
Despite the motive of self-preservation, Maggie was nearly ready to confess. The years of bearing such a great secret had taken their toll, and the opportunity to purge her conscience was a powerful temptation. But just as powerful was the fervent protectiveness she felt for her “Little Anne.” Maggie Stuart was resolved to say only what she believed was best for Anne de Bourgh Darcy to hear.
Her mind was made up when the Darcys finally appeared in the library. Their housekeeper stood in deference to their position of authority. Maggie saw that Anne had been crying and that they both appeared bedraggled. How much had her dear girl endured? They sat; she remained on her feet, hands held behind her back.
“Mrs. Stuart, in the unlikelihood that you have not yet guessed why we are here, I must inform you of the substance of our interview with Lady Catherine.
“While in Hertfordshire, we came to suspect that the circumstances of my wife’s birth were not as we were led to believe. In fact, we came to the conclusion, after some startling evidence came to light, that the people who have arrived at Rosings with us today are Anne’s true family. When confronted with this evidence, Lady Catherine confirmed that she did not give birth to Anne herself and that Anne was secretly brought to Rosings to become her daughter. Furthermore, she told us that you knew Anne was not her real daughter and that you helped conceal this fact for months before Anne was born.”
“That is true, sir.”
“Then I would like to know all that you know. Now.”
Maggie nodded her head and looked at Anne; she knew then she would go to the grave with Lady Catherine’s secret.
“I was Lady Catherine’s maid then, as you know. She came to me and told me that Sir Lewis had asked her to claim another’s child as their own. Lady Catherine believed the baby to be a relation of Sir Lewis, and an illegitimate child. However, she needed my help to pass the infant off as her own. I knew that this sort of thing happened and was willing to assist her. I made sure that all signs of her not being with child were hidden. When the baby was born, I helped bring it, you, Mrs. Darcy, into the house. Sir Lewis was gone across the sea at the time, so it was fairly easy to hide the truth from everyone.”
“Who else knew?”
“The midwife knew, of course. She helped make it look as though a birth had occurred. And there was one other maid who was participated. She was sweet on a footman and he helped a bit, too. The wet-nurse knew; she was the one who brought the child to Rosings.”
“Do you know what became of them? Are they still in service to Rosings?”
“No, sir. The midwife was from London, but I did hear that she had died about five years ago. After Miss Anne was weaned, the wet-nurse, Sally Robinson was her name, was given a generous dowry and she married her beau from Essex. He was the father of her baby, the one who made it so that she was forced to become a wet-nurse in the first place. I heard they were very happy, but that she died in childbirth, unfortunately.”
“What of the other maid?”
“Sarah Simmons was a chambermaid. She married the manservant, Bobby Weeks. They asked for and were given passage to America, as well as a nice sum to get them started in their new country. I received word about a year after they left that they had arrived and then later that they were intending to go west into the wilderness, but I have not heard from them since.”
“Everyone who knew is gone?”
“No, not everyone. Lady Catherine needed the assistance of a seamstress. I could sew some of her clothes, but not enough. I knew of a young lady who wanted her own shop, but lacked the money to establish herself. Lady Catherine’s generous patronage allowed it to happen. You still shop at Mrs. Langley’s, Mrs. Darcy.”
Anne gasped. “She has known all this time?”
“Yes, ma’am. Though she would never tell a soul. You are not the first child brought up in the Quality to have been born on the wrong side of the blanket. Mrs. Langley told me, back during your first season, that there are others, but she would not say who, of course. She is a very discreet woman.”
“Can you think of anything else?”
“Only that Lady Catherine was relieved once your father came home and you were christened in the Hunsford church. She thought he might change his mind, but he did not.”
“Neither of them said where Anne came from?”
“No sir, I assumed what my mistress told me about Miss Anne being the product of some illicit union to be true.”
“You never thought she might have been a foundling?”
“I had no reason to doubt the word of Lady Catherine, sir.”
“What if I told you that Mrs. Darcy was not illegitimate, that she was cruelly removed from her real family and brought here?”
Maggie gasped. She had never truly known where the midwife got Anne from, but she had always assumed she was actually a foundling. “I had no idea, Mr. Darcy! I swear to you, Mrs. Darcy, I never knew you were anything other than a girl who had the great misfortune to be born to the wrong parents, but the greater fortune to be reared by the right ones. Sir Lewis and Lady Catherine never thought of you as anything other than their own offspring. Your father loved you, your mother loves you still.”
Anne finally broke into tears. “But she lied to me! All these years have been a lie.”
“No, ma’am, they have not! You have a lot to learn about love if you think it matters to your parents, or to me, that you were adopted.”
Maggie took a deep breath and kneeled before her mistress. “I have loved you, protected you, cared for you all the more because I feared for you should you ever find out. No, you were not born a de Bourgh, but you became one. You are the pride and joy of your mother, your family and even this household. I have kept your secret for so long and I was prepared to keep it for as long as I lived. I will continue to do so, if you ask, even if you throw me out this very day.”
She felt a man’s hand on her shoulder and looked up through her tears at Mr. Darcy.
“Thank you, Stuart. You may go now.”
“To your quarters. You must rest a while so you may resume your duties. I am afraid things may be chaotic for a few days and we will need your wise guidance of the household at this time.”
“I am not being dismissed?”
“Only to rest. We will discuss your continued employment later, once the emotions of the day have had a chance to calm down.”
Maggie rose and then dropped a deep curtsey. “Thank you, Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Darcy.” With one last, long look, Maggie left her for her room, still housekeeper of Rosings Park.
Anne Darcy was exhausted. It had been an emotional day. Combine that with a poor night’s sleep and a half-day in a carriage, and she wanted nothing more than to retire early. She had no desire to see her “mother,” but her other mother and father, and two of her sisters were her guests. After an hour’s rest, she appeared in the drawing room. All the Bennets were there. Darcy had preceded her downstairs.
When she entered the room, her husband smiled and came to escort her to an empty sofa. Aware that much needed to be said, but could not be as long as Anne Bennet was a part of their company, Anne Darcy asked the two girls about their wandering through the garden.
“At first, everything was fine and manicured, not at all like our gardens at Longbourn. I told Kitty it must take a small army of men to keep everything looking so perfect. But then we passed into a more wild area. I liked the contrast.”
“My sister,” Kitty explained, “likes to ramble about the countryside exploring all woods and glades and clearings in the vicinity.”
“When I was younger, my… Lady Catherine and I disagreed on the styles of the gardens. She wanted more controlled and orderly plots while I preferred a more naturalistic approach. You saw the compromise.”
“Your grounds here are beautiful. I should be thankful to live in such a grand place.” Anne Darcy thanked the girl and they talked at length about the history of the house and the surrounding park. Anne offered to take them all on a tour the next day. Such an offer provided many topics to discuss until Anne Bennet was sent to bed.
“Now that we have the freedom to discuss what has occurred today, I must ask if Miss Catherine has been informed of the events of this afternoon?”
When he was told that she had been, Darcy addressed her directly. “Miss Catherine, I must ask you to not share anything you hear now without your father’s permission.”
She agreed and Darcy recounted what his housekeeper had told him.
“What happens now, Mr. Darcy?” Mr. Bennet asked.
Darcy was sitting next to Anne holding her hand. He looked to her for direction. She shook her head and shrugged her shoulders.
“I had planned to send an express to my uncle, the Earl of Perryton, tonight. He is currently residing at Alton House in Town and should be able to come to Rosings tomorrow. He should be able to help us formulate a plan of action.”
“He is far enough removed to be objective, yet he is an interested party. I believe your choice to be sound. But until then, what about my daughter Anne? Should she be told?”
“She should be told something. Tomorrow Anne has promised a tour of the house and she will see the portrait in the music room. Unless you plan to skip that room, or remove the painting, she must be told something.”
Darcy understood that there was an underlying issue that needed to be addressed. “Excuse us,” he said, and led Anne to the window.
“Anne, I need to know. Are you resolved to claim these people as your parents and family?”
She sighed. “They must be, I can think of no other explanation.”
“Then you must acknowledge it to them, at least.”
“This is so hard, Fitzwilliam. They are total strangers.”
“I know, but we must start somewhere. Will you claim them now?”
“Yes, since you believe it necessary.”
“I am sorry.”
“Come, let us be done with it.”
Anne walked over to stand before the older couple. They rose to meet her.
“My husband has suggested, and I have agreed, that it is time to embrace what we all know must be true. I believe that I am your daughter, Elizabeth Bennet, who was taken from you when I was but a few days old. I ask that you accept me as your daughter and welcome me into your family.”
Mrs. Bennet fell upon Anne, tearfully embracing her. “I had given up hope of ever seeing you again, Elizabeth. God has been good to us at last.”
Mr. Bennet was no less moved. He placed his hand on Anne’s shoulder as his wife was loath to release her daughter. His smiled sadly, mourning all the years they had been denied, but overjoyed at the prospect of getting to know his daughter in the years to come.
There was one member of the party who had not moved. Mr. Bennet addressed his other daughter. “Catherine, come and meet your sister.”
The young woman, not yet eighteen, came to stand before Anne. “Catherine—or do you prefer to be called Kitty?”
“I should not mind if you call me either one,” she said hesitantly.
“Then I will call you Catherine, for it is my own mother’s name.” A frown momentarily crossed Anne’s face. “As hurt as I am by my mother’s – my adoptive mother’s – hiding the circumstances of my birth, I do love her. She is a great lady, the daughter of an earl, and she has been as good a mother to me as I could ever wish.
And it is a lovely name.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Darcy.”
“None of that. We are sisters, you know. You must call me Anne. Oh dear, this might become confusing. We have another sister Anne.” It was the first time Anne had smiled that day. “I would say call me Elizabeth, but that is my daughter’s name.”
“I think Anne would be best, dear,” Darcy interjected. He caught Anne’s attention and looked towards Mr. and Mrs. Bennet.
Anne understood his hint.
“I would have you call me Anne as well, at least in private.”
“Thank you, dear. I am afraid I may slip and call you Elizabeth from time to time,” Mr. Bennet admitted. “But how shall you address us? I will not be offended if you choose to continue to call us Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Lady Catherine is still your mother.”
Ann was relieved by his suggestion. She did still think of Lady Catherine as her mother.
“That sounds like the best solution for the present,” Anne agreed.
Darcy then insisted he be called “Darcy” by his new family. That issue settled, they were about to discuss the situation when the door was opened and Lady Catherine was announced.
Meanwhile, back in Hertfordshire, Miss Jane Bennet was lying feverish in a bed at Netherfield. She and Mary had been invited to dine with the Bingley party that evening.
Unbeknownst to Jane, her hostess, Miss Bingley, had discovered that Jane’s parents had accompanied the Darcys on their sudden journey to Kent. Mr. Bingley had no idea why they had left, but Mr. Darcy had assured them they would return, most likely in less than a week.
Caroline Bingley was very curious why her guests had decamped so suddenly. Since her brother knew nothing, or was not telling her what he did know, she had decided that she would invite the Bennets to dinner to see if they would reveal the mystery. There was nothing like a little bit of new gossip to get the blood flowing!
A note had been dispatched inviting Miss Bennet and Miss Mary Bennet to dine the next evening with the family – Miss Bingley did not want to make her motives too obvious – along with the promise of the use of the Bingleys’ carriage, if it was desired.
At first, Jane was going to decline. Her father had left her in charge of her siblings while he and her mother were away. But Mary had seen how much Mr. Bingley had admired her elder sister at the assembly two days previous, and she finally convinced Jane that one evening away would not constitute an abdication of her responsibilities. Mary would decline the invitation and remain at home with Lydia and their two brothers.
Unfortunately for Jane, as the dinner progressed, she began to feel quite unwell. Miss Bingley noticed her guest’s discomfort – for she had become less and less talkative – and offered Jane the opportunity to lie down. By this time, Jane was really feeling poorly and accepted the offer while she still had the strength to walk. It soon became obvious that Jane was too ill to move, and a note was dispatched to Longbourn advising them of Miss Bennet’s condition.
Mary dearly wanted to attend her sister even that very night, but knew she was needed at home. A servant was sent to Netherfield to tend to Jane and Mary made plans to visit her the next morning, at which time she hoped her sister would be sufficiently recovered to make the three mile journey back to Longbourn.
Everyone was surprised when Lady Catherine was announced. They had not expected to see her until breakfast, at the earliest. However, Lady Catherine was determined not to look guilty.
“I am sorry to have kept you waiting. I was looking for some papers that I thought you might wish to view.”
“Lady Catherine, I thought you had retired for the evening.”
“I am not that old, Darcy. I was merely looking for these papers.” He had enough grace to nearly blush.
“What are they?” Darcy recovered.
“The first,” she handed them to her son-in-law, “is a copy of my late husband’s last will. The original is with our family’s solicitors in London, of course. The second should be more familiar. It is my copy of Anne’s marriage settlements.
“Long ago I thought that if Anne ever learnt she was adopted, she might be concerned about her inheritance. Therefore I decided to have a copy of Sir Lewis’ will at Rosings.”
Anne was caught unawares. “I had not thought of Rosings…”
“After you came to us, Sir Lewis had his will rewritten. His solicitor took specific care to identify you not by birth, but by your christening.”
“Ingenious!” Mr. Bennet said in fascination.
“Darcy, you will see how the will is worded as regards to Anne.”
He finished reading and looked up. “Yes, I see that now, and there is an additional provision for any future offspring. Had there been more daughters after Anne, in order to keep the estate intact for want of a son, it would have devolved to… the eldest surviving male descendant of Sir Lewis’ cousin.” Darcy looked at Lady Catherine. “Arthur de Bourgh,” he deduced aloud.
“Yes, Sir Lewis did not want to see Rosings divided or sold which it would have to have been if there were more daughters and no sons. Though had Anne died before she came into her inheritance, I would have controlled Rosings until my death, and then it would have gone to Arthur.” She looked directly at Anne when she spoke next. “I told you your father accepted you as his daughter. The will proves it.
“Darcy, you will also notice in the marriage settlements that Anne is always identified as the heiress of Rosings Park. Again, our family solicitor had specific instructions left to him when the will was made. If and when Anne ever married, the contracts would be worded thus. Anne’s dowry had been settled on her long ago.”
Anne had not allowed herself to consider the fate of Rosings before this, and she was relieved that apparently it was not an issue. However, this did not stop a bit of unease from drifting into her conscience about who should be the heir to Rosings Park.
Darcy saw her distress returning. “Darling?” he prompted.
“Anne?” Lady Catherine echoed.
“I… I have always assumed Rosings was my birthright, but it is not, is it?”
Lady Catherine answered, concern filling her voice. “It may not have been intended as such, but it is now. I am convinced your father would be pleased to know how much you love it and that it will someday be your son’s, or Elizabeth’s.”
“It is all too much right now,” Anne said in frustration. So much had happened, it was impossible for her not to be affected.
“What, if anything, has been decided?” Lady Catherine asked.
“I am to write to Lord Perryton and send it to him tonight. He is in Town, so I hope to see him tomorrow.” Darcy replied.
“I was going to suggest you ask my brother to come. Until then, please, if there is anything I can do, or you have any questions, you need only ask.” She paused to take a deep breath. “I recognize you may resent me and my husband, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, but the past cannot be changed. My concern is for my daughter… our daughter.”
“Then you acknowledge that she is our Elizabeth?” Mrs. Bennet asked. The room was still; everyone waited to hear her answer.
The great lady spoke.
“Under the circumstances, how can she not be?”
The two women nodded in an unspoken truce. Anne would be daughter to both.
In the early hours of the morning, after everyone else was asleep, Maggie Stuart quietly knocked at the servant’s entrance to Lady Catherine’s rooms. She could just hear a reply.
It had been a long time since Maggie had visited her mistress’ chambers in secret – twenty years, to be exact.
“Did you ever believe the day would come, Stuart?”
Maggie shrugged her left shoulder. “I used to think about it constantly, but it has been years since I have worried about it.”
“She will never know the full truth, as long as you do not betray it.”
“I have much more to lose now than your ladyship.”
Lady Catherine nodded.
“I do not know if I have ever seen a woman look as much like her mother as Anne does Mrs. Bennet. They brought a portrait of the woman painted a few years before Anne was born. Have you seen it?”
“It is truly a remarkable resemblance. I think it remains in the parlor.”
“I will look before I go to bed.” Maggie paused, not knowing what else to say. In truth, there was little left to be said.
“Hold your nerve, Maggie, and our planning will succeed.”
“Heed your own words and I have every confidence that the worst is over.”
After breakfast, the revelation Anne Darcy both welcomed and feared occurred. It had been decided that she would show Catherine and Anne Bennet the principal rooms of the house, without the presence of the other adults; they would be waiting for the three sisters in the parlor next to the music room.
Anne Darcy took her time showing her sisters the house. Slowly the conversation was directed towards matters more personal than how the rooms were furnished. Catherine was a willing ally in leading her sister to speak about growing up in the Bennet household.
“Your older sisters must love to tease you. I wish I had sisters when I was a girl. Cousins are nice, but they are not the same,” Anne laughed.
“And brothers are a bother.”
“More so than male cousins, I suppose. Then again, I married one of mine.”
“My male cousins are all younger than me, by six years at least!” Anne Bennet said.
“I am seven years younger than my husband, but it is different when the woman is the younger.” This was a very good place to segue into the desired topic. “I’m surprised that there is such a gap between Miss Bennet and Miss Mary. The rest of you are much closer in age.”
“Oh, but there was another…” Aware of what she had almost just said, Anne Bennet threw her hand over her mouth in horror.
Catherine and Anne Bennet exchanged glances. Catherine answered.
“There was another child, a girl born between Jane and Mary. She was taken from us.”
“I am sorry. The death of a child is terrible.”
“No, she was taken, stolen.” Anne Bennet lowered her voice. “It is not something we talk about.” Anne Darcy nodded sympathetically. Anne Bennet then added, “But others do. I learned about it from Susan Long.”
“Susan Long? What did she say?” Catherine frowned.
“She told me that if I were naughty, I might be taken away from my family like my sister. I told her she was lying. Then Johnny Lucas said it was true. That I had a sister who was kidnapped and that she was never found. Susan said I had better be nice and not take any chances. It was awful. I ran home and cried to Jane. I knew she would tell me they were just being cruel, but she said that I really did have a sister who was no longer with our family. Then she said we never spoke of it. And I have not, have I, Kitty?”
“No, I have never heard that story from you before. You should have been told by one of us sooner.”
“I think Jane talked to Henry shortly after that.”
“Your youngest brother?” Anne Darcy asked.
“Yes, Henry is the youngest.” Anne thought a moment. “You will not tell Papa and Mama that you know, will you? Jane said they are very sad when anyone talks about our missing sister.”
“I can understand. They must have loved her very much.”
“I often wonder what she would be like,” Catherine interjected. “Would she look like one of us? Would we even recognize her?”
“I have, too,” Anne Bennet confessed. “Sometimes I imagine she is a pirate, or perhaps that she lives in a huge house like this. I hope she is alive and well, where ever she may be.”
Anne Darcy walked toward the next room before her sisters could see how moved she was. “The next room is the music room. It is one of my favorites, and there is a picture of me, Miss Anne, that was painted when I was your age. My husband has always said it is his favorite.”
Anne Bennet walked through the open door searching for the painting Mrs. Darcy had just mentioned. She saw one of a young girl, and a confused look appeared on her face. Kitty came and put her hand on her shoulder.
“But…” Anne Bennet turned to her guide, “that looks like… me!”
Anne Darcy came over and took her hand, and they walked over to the wall for a closer look. “Indeed, that is a portrait of me. I remember sitting for it not long after I turned twelve. I thought it ever so clever that it showed me in the background of the room it which it was meant to hang. And the music, Mother hated the Scarlatti, but it was a challenging piece and I was very proud to be able to play it. It also annoyed my Mother, which made it the perfect choice.” Anne tried to give the girl a reassuring smile.
“Why do you look like me—I mean, why do I look like you—in the painting? Are we related? I had never heard of you before two days ago.”
“Come, sit with me. May I call you Anne?” The girl nodded. “Anne, the reason we came to Rosings, all of us, was because of this painting,” she gestured to the subject of the discussion, “and the one of your mother that hangs in your father’s library. You see, as much as you look like me in the painting in this room, I look like your mother in the painting in that room. We came looking for answers. Do you know what we discovered?”
Young Anne shook her head no.
“We found out that I was adopted only a few days after your sister Elizabeth was kidnapped. After reviewing everything we know now, it became apparent that I am your missing sister, Elizabeth.”
“You are my sister?”
“Yes, I must be,” Anne Darcy assured her.
“You really did grow up in a great big house just like this one?”
“The very one.” Anne Bennet looked at Kitty, ready to share her joy. “You already knew!” she accused her older sister, pointing a finger at her in chastisement.
“Papa told us Monday night after the Assembly. Mama recognized her.”
“And she fainted?” Anne Darcy was a little taken aback at her youngest sister’s question. How would she have guessed that?
“Of course, she is our mother.” Catherine rolled her eyes.
“I believe I have much to learn about my family,” Anne Darcy quipped, but for the first time, she wondered just what the Bennets were really like.
A note arrived at Longbourn first thing in the morning. Actually there were two; one from Jane and one from Miss Bingley.
Jane confessed that she was still ill and did not feel up to a carriage ride home, and apologized for the inconvenience and burden this placed on Mary.
Miss Bingley’s missive again offered the use of the Bingley carriage should Miss Mary wish to visit her ailing sister.
Even more surprising was the person who brought them. During breakfast at Netherfield, Miss Bingley gave a report on Miss Bennet’s condition. It appeared to be nothing more than a cold, but the young woman would be bedridden for at least one day, and possibly more. Mr. Bingley was saddened that such a lovely creature as Miss Bennet should take ill. He directed that anything that could make Miss Bennet more comfortable during her convalescence should be done. He then suggested that Miss Bennet might be cheered by a visit from her family. Miss Bingley agreed, sensing an opportunity for more information on the mysterious absence of the Darcys and Bennets, and suggested a renewed offer of the carriage. Mr. Bingley was delighted with his sister’s thoughtfulness and decreed it would be as she wished.
It was at this point that Sir John Whitby made the very gallant gesture of offering to personally see the note Miss Bingley was preparing to Longbourn. This too sat well with Mr. Bingley, though not so well with Miss Bingley. Within the hour he was on his way on horseback to complete his commission.
Mary was about to decline the offer, even though it was obvious she longed to see Jane and ascertain the extent of her illness with her own eyes.
“Miss Mary, your sister would rest easier if she saw you, I believe. The maid that attended her last night told me Miss Bennet did not rest well.”
“I would like to go to her, but my father has left my younger sister and two brothers in Jane’s and my care. Since Jane is not here, I must remain.”
“Surely an hour or two away would do no harm. You have servants enough, and if your brothers and sister were set to their studies while you were away, they would be occupied.”
“Really, sir, I must remain home while Jane…”
She was interrupted by the hoof beats of a horse riding at a gallop to the house. The rider dismounted and approached.
“Excuse me, Miss. I have a message for Miss Jane Bennet or Miss Mary Bennet.”
“I am Miss Mary Bennet.” The young lad handed her an envelope. “Let me go inside for your…”
“Oh no, Miss Bennet. I am Mr. Darcy’s courier. I am instructed to wait for any response you might have and then return to Kent via London.”
At that pronouncement, Mary took a few steps away from both men and unsealed her letter. Sir John watched as she gasped, clearly astonished. Then she smiled and rejoined them.
“I have changed my mind. I would be happy to accept the offer of a carriage to Netherfield, but I fear I cannot wait that long to see Jane. If you will agree to wait for me, I will go with you on horseback.”
Without bothering to linger around for an answer, Mary left to order her horse made ready and give the housekeeper instructions for the care of the courier, and then went upstairs to change into something appropriate for riding.
Sir John and the boy stood watching this unexpected whirlwind of activity.
“I think I should see to my horse. It looks like I will not be leaving for a few hours.”
Sir John only nodded, still a bit startled by the events and by the changes in Miss Mary.
Only one other woman had affected him in such a way. It had happened the first time he had met Miss de Bourgh. He had not planned on attending Almack’s that night, but he had. When he saw her, he could not stop staring. Anne de Bourgh had the most beguiling eyes he had ever seen. He arranged an introduction and was lost. She unsettled him and made him feel invulnerable at the same time. However, she was not meant for him; yet he was thankful that he had almost loved her. It gave him hope that he would meet the woman who was his destiny.
Mary Bennet was the first woman who had captured his imagination since Anne de Bourgh. They had only met once, and then only for one dance. What power did this young lady, born to some insignificant landowner, in an out of the way corner of Hertfordshire of all places, have over him? She could not be called beautiful, though that did not mean she was unlovely. She was no Miss Bingley, fashionable, accomplished, wealthy, but Mary Bennet had other qualities the Miss Bingleys of the world would never have. She was not self-conscious and Sir John found it endearing. It was obvious that she had read too many moralistic writings – she quoted Fordyce four times no less! – but that only served to reinforce that she was a woman of the highest moral character. The right man could mold such a personality into a woman of virtue, an excellent wife, whose value was immeasurable. He could respect and esteem such a spouse…
Sir John shook his head and grinned. How on earth had he gone from arguing with a young woman on the wisdom of visiting her ailing sister to thinking what an excellent wife she could be? That a wealthy, single young man’s fascination could so rapidly turn from admiration to matrimony was something Sir John had no time to dwell on; the subject of his reverie had returned. To Netherfield they must go.
Mary Bennet burst through the door into the chamber where Jane lay ill, surprising Miss Bingley, Mrs. Hurst and the maid sitting in the corner.
“Miss Mary! What a surprise. I had not thought our carriage had left yet.”
“I could not wait and rode over instead.”
“I have lived in the neighborhood all my life, Miss Bingley. As it happens, Sir John was gracious enough to accompany me.”
“Of course. I should have realized he would, after delivering my note. Well then, we shall leave you to your sister. Louisa and I have taken it upon ourselves to see that she is well entertained while she is recovering at Netherfield.”
“Thank you for looking after my sister, Miss Bingley, Mrs. Hurst. It is a great relief to me.”
After the ladies of the house left, Mary sent the servant on an errand. The sisters needed to be completely alone.
Mary sat on the bed and felt Jane’s forehead. The fever remained.
“I hope your hosts have not tired you.”
“I appreciate their willingness to attend me.”
“Always seeing the best in everyone. Enough of them – Jane, I received a letter from Papa. Would you like me to read it aloud?”
Jane smiled and said she would. She leaned back against the pillows and closed her eyes as Mary began to read.
My dear Jane and Mary,
Our fervent prayers have finally been answered. Lady Catherine de Bourgh confirmed that her daughter Anne was secretly adopted. All evidence points to the conclusion that Anne deBourgh Darcy is, in fact, our missing daughter!
It remains unclear how she came to the de Bourghs. Further investigation will be necessary to uncover that mystery. Lady Catherine claims that her late husband made all the arrangements. I do not know if she is completely innocent of the crime of Elizabeth’s abduction. I do know that your sister, who was thought lost forever, is found.
We are to remain at Rosings for a few days at least. Everyone has questions and there are other members of Elizabeth’s adoptive family to consult. As much as I would like to announce the news, it is best that it remain a secret for the time being. Tell no one else until you have directions from me. Anne must be told, but Lydia, William and Henry can wait until I can do it myself.
Mary put down the paper and grabbed Jane’s hand.
“After all this time. Can you believe it?”
Jane had never stopped smiling, though her face showed her fatigue. “No, but it must be true. You saw Mrs. Darcy, she looks so much like Mama. I hope we shall see her again soon. I would wish to know her.”
“As do I, but Papa said we must keep this to ourselves. I wish I could stay and talk with you about it, but I cannot remain much longer. I would not have come had Papa’s letter not arrived when Sir John came to Longbourn with the offer of a carriage.”
“Sir John came to Longbourn?”
“Yes, to deliver Miss Bingley’s offer of her carriage. But once I received Papa’s note, I knew I had to come see you immediately. I took Nellie and rode here with Sir John.”
“It was kind of him to escort you.”
“He was returning with or without me.”
“The point is that he waited for Nellie to be saddled and for you to change into your riding clothes.”
Mary shrugged. “He is a gentleman. Your Mr. Bingley would have done the same, I dare say.”
“Mary, he is not my Mr. Bingley.”
“Stay a week in this house and he very well might be.” Jane blushed, and Mary could see that her beloved older sister would not be unhappy with the prospect. They spoke for a few more minutes until the maid returned.
“I must return home now. If any more news arrives, I shall personally see that you have it. Until then, rest, dear. We will miss you at Longbourn.”
Jane nodded and closed her eyes, exhausted by the visit. Mary stood, leaned over, and kissed Jane on the cheek. Satisfied that her sister was well looked after, Mary returned to Longbourn, accompanied by a dogged Sir John, who would not take no for an answer when she declined his initial offer of an escort.
“I still cannot believe Sir Lewis would do such a thing!” Harold Fitzwilliam, Earl of Perryton and most importantly, Lady Catherine’s brother, opined. He had arrived that afternoon in response to Darcy’s entreaty that he come to Rosings on “a most urgent matter of family business” as quickly possible. He was introduced to the Bennets and told of the discovery. He too had asked Lady Catherine many questions, but she held firmly to the story she had related the previous day.
“He was a honorable man to whom the family owes a great deal.” Lord Perryton was referring, of course, to Sir Lewis’ willingness to marry Catherine Fitzwilliam for such a small dowry at the time that the earldom was in serious financial straits. “This does not sound like him at all!”
“I agree, Harold, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this since yesterday. Perhaps he had nothing to do with the kidnapping of Anne,” Lady Catherine countered.
“I cannot see how he would not know.”
“Maybe the kidnapping was unrelated? He could have thought Anne was a foundling.”
“That seems unlikely,” Mr. Bennet said. “Why else would Elizabeth have been stolen?”
“Maybe it was a crime of opportunity?” Lady Catherine added.
“I think what Lady Catherine is trying to imply is that maybe someone took Anne with the intent of asking for a ransom,” Darcy explained.
“Yes, Darcy – exactly! And then they changed their minds and left her someplace rather than risk returning her. Or maybe the person was unbalanced and did not know what he was doing.”
“That seems so incredible, Catherine.” Lord Perryton was skeptical.
“Is it any more incredible than Sir Lewis having a baby kidnapped to raise as his own? I am only trying to consider different scenarios that would explain what happened without vilifying my late husband!”
“Calm down, sister. It is obvious that you are upset about what happened to Anne. I do grant you that there may be other plausible explanations for these events. Sir Lewis could be innocent, but the fact remains that someone did kidnap Anne as a newborn and that she ended up as your daughter under what are very suspicious circumstances. It would have helped matters if you would have told us Anne was adopted a long time ago.”
“What, and have you treat her differently?”
“We would have loved and accepted her the same.”
“No, you cannot say that you would. Sir Lewis was right in insisting that she be protected from whispers and innuendo. I still say we should continue to do so.”
“May I speak, since it is me we are discussing?” Anne Darcy was tired of being spoken of as if she were not there.
“Of course, Anne,” said Lady Catherine
“Thank you. First, let me say that this has been a very trying and confusing time for me. To learn that I am not who I thought I was….” Anne looked at her birth parents. “I have a family I never knew I had and I need to understand why I was taken from them. We must, for all our sakes, continue to search out the truth. I also have a family whom I have known all my life and they should be told right away. Arthur, Andrew, and Martin – they all should be informed before gossip reaches them, especially Arthur. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, you are my flesh and blood and yet I do not know you. I should very much like to change that. Fitzwilliam and I agree that we must return to Hertfordshire shortly.”
“Before you do anything rash, you need to decide how you want Society to learn of the new connection. You look like a Bennet, Anne. People will notice. Are you prepared to be acknowledged as their long lost daughter?” Her uncle did not attempt to hide his concern.
“I already have.”
“By those in this room. I mean by your peers. Think carefully before you reply. You have no idea how this revelation will be taken, or how the ton will accept it. Frankly, I am jaded enough to believe that you will be the talk of Town, and not in a flattering manner. You will be pitied, mocked and even ridiculed. Come now, you know I am not too far from the truth.”
Anne knew he was right, but she was not willing to hurt the family with whom she had just been reunited.
“The resemblance is too strong to deny any familial connection.”
“Yes, but must the connection be as a daughter? Could you not just say you are cousins through Mrs. Bennet?”
“That is not exactly the truth.”
“It acknowledges a relationship without going into detail. If you return to Hertfordshire, people will wonder if you say nothing at all. Who knows how close to the truth they will come before you are ready to say anything more?”
Anne looked at her husband for help. Darcy obliged immediately.
“Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, would you be comfortable with calling Anne your cousin for the time being, until all the important issues are resolved?”
“Why must we wait? I have been waiting twenty years!” Mrs. Bennet cried. Mr. Bennet placed his hand on his wife’s knee and spoke gently.
“And what is a few days more, Harriet?” He turned to Darcy. “Your suggestion is a good one, but if Eliz… Mrs. Darcy spends very much time in Hertfordshire, the connection will come out. People will see she is the right age to be our missing daughter and the resemblance is uncanny. As my Anne grows older, it will be even more evident.”
“We need to return for a few weeks at least. I promised Bingley we would be back,” Darcy explained. “Afterwards we might all come to Rosings, or perhaps Pemberley would offer more privacy to become better acquainted.”
The general consensus was that Rosings was a better choice. Its location near London and within a day’s journey of Longbourn was in its favor.
“What shall you do next?” the earl asked.
“My cousin Arthur needs to be informed,” Anne answered.
“Will you ask him to come here, or go to him?”
“Helena will soon enter her confinement, and I doubt Arthur would leave her now, nor should we ask him. One of us must go to him.”
“I will go,” volunteered Darcy.
“Thank you, but I would like to be there as well.” Anne’s jaw was set, a sure sign to her husband that she was not to be gainsaid.
“Should you not wait until the question of the disposition of the estate is resolved?” Lord Perryton suggested.
Lady Catherine addressed her brother. “I told you, Harold, there is no question. Anne inherited Rosings legally according to the terms of Sir Lewis’ will.”
“Nevertheless, we need to confirm that as soon as possible. Anne’s inheritance is my main concern.”
“Not Mrs. Darcy?” Mr. Bennet inquired.
“Of course, I meant the material ramifications,” the earl explained. “I shudder to think of the mess all this could cause if Sir Lewis did not properly foresee the difficulties that might result from his scheme!”
Before anyone could respond, the butler, Gibbons, entered the room.
“I am sorry to interrupt, but Mr. Collins has come for his appointment with Lady Catherine. I have shown him into her ladyship’s study, but he has been waiting nearly an hour and grows restless.”
Lady Catherine rolled her eyes. “I forgot about my clergyman.”
“You have an appointment with him?” Darcy was surprised; then again, he was not. Lady Catherine rather enjoyed advising her new parson.
“It is a longstanding weekly meeting.”
“Weekly? Whatever for?”
“Parish business and a few other minor subject on which he wishes for my opinion.” She gave Darcy a dismissive wave of her hand and then addressed the butler. “Please give Mr. Collins my apologies; I will not be able to meet with him this week.”
“Very good, milady.”
“I still would like to know if your parson is my cousin,” Mr. Bennet interjected once the servant had left to send Mr. Collins on his way.
“Having met Mr. Collins, it would be a cruel irony if he were.” Darcy rolled his eyes. “The man has no sense.”
“That sounds like my cousin’s father. Maybe it is his son.”
Mr. Bennet cornered Darcy after it was determined that Darcy and Anne would travel to Surrey the next day to meet with Arthur de Bourgh.
“We will be leaving for Hertfordshire in the morning as well,” he informed his host.
“You are welcome to stay at Rosings until we return,” Darcy offered.
“Thank you for your generosity, but I should return to Longbourn. The rest of my children need to be told and we must prepare for your return.”
“That is perfectly understandable.”
“That is not all, Mr. Darcy.” Mr. Bennet hesitated, choosing his words with care. “Until this morning, my wife has been… unusually subdued. That is not her nature. She is a rather… exuberant woman. She cares deeply for the welfare of all her children. She would not think of allowing Henry to go into the Army or the Navy; they are too dangerous for her son. Harriet has decided he will become a clergyman. Henry is not keen on the idea, but he is still young.
“Pardon me, I digress. My wife will, no doubt, soon return to her normal ways and exult in the great fortune of her long-lost daughter. Sure to follow will be hints that you and Mrs. Darcy throw her sisters into the paths of wealthy men. As I said, she means well, but…”
“But you do not want her to embarrass Anne in front of our family?”
“Let us just say that Mrs. Darcy may need time to grow accustomed to Mrs. Bennet’s nerves.”
“Sir, if you had birthed five girls in succession with an estate entailed, worried that you would be cast in the hedgerows if you did not produce a son, you would be justified in becoming slightly concerned for your future. Even the eventual birth of an heir might not be enough to cure such insecurities.”
Mr. Bennet clapped Darcy on his shoulder. “It is a good thing you and your wife are not easily intimidated. You have yet to experience some of Hertfordshire’s country manners, or my wife’s hospitality.”
Mr. Bennet left Darcy alone to ponder his words, and to prepare for their departure.
Lord Perryton sat by the fireplace in his chambers, nursing a brandy. He too would leave in the morning. He carried a letter from Darcy authorizing him to view all the pertinent papers held by the de Bourgh and Darcy solicitors.
The earl was exhausted, but his mind would not allow him to rest. He had listened as everything was recounted for him by Anne, Darcy and his sister Catherine. Afterwards he had interviewed the housekeeper. The story Lady Catherine told was convincing, and seemed to be corroborated by Mrs. Stuart.
Yet Harold Fitzwilliam was unconvinced that he had been told the full truth. The whole scheme seemed so unlike the Lewis de Bourgh he remembered. It seemed more like something his sister might try to pull off for only God knew what reason!
He considered Anne; she certainly appeared to want to believe her mother, though he wondered how she would reconcile her feelings toward her father if she accepted her mother’s account of what had happened.
He did not feel right accusing his sister of lying, not at this point. No, he would return to Town and start investigating the situation. Mrs. Stuart had provided him with the names and last known addresses for everyone Stuart knew involved. He recognized the modiste; his wife was one of her patrons. The woman had a reputation for exquisite gowns and fine workmanship, as well as complete discretion on private matters. As for the others on his list, he would have to confirm whether they still lived, and if they did, he would need to contact them. Lord Perryton sighed; twenty years was a long time ago and plenty of time to obfuscate the truth.
Darcy found his wife in the nursery, watching their daughter sleep. He came up behind Anne and placed his arms around her; she relaxed into his embrace.
“She looks so peaceful, as if unaware of the storm brewing about her,” Anne remarked.
“That is because she is. It is her mother who is anxious.”
“I feel like I am being tossed about in the waves,” Anne confided.
“And I am here as your anchor so you will not be lost. Darling, this is so unexpected, so… unbelievable.”
“Yet it is true… What must you think of me?”
Darcy sighed. “How many times do I have to assure you of my love and devotion? Nothing has changed except that we have gained another set of grandparents for Elizabeth.”
“Hmmm.” Anne paused a few moments before she spoke again. “We know so little about them.”
Darcy agreed. “Our uncle will return to London tomorrow and start searching for answers. I have asked him to investigate the Bennets as well. It is not that I doubt the veracity of their words, only that we should know their situation better.
“Mr. Bennet spoke with me today, alone. He tried to warn me that Mrs. Bennet can be… excitable.”
“And my own mother cannot? Mrs. Bennet seems like a nice woman, but I know we have all been guarded. Soon we shall learn their faults and they shall learn ours.”
“Faults? You are perfection itself.”
Anne softly laughed and turned in Darcy’s arms. “You, husband, are a horrible liar.”