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Deleted Scenes: Prologue

 

If a book is well written, I always find it too short

― Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility


It is a sad fact of author life that we must ‘kill our darlings.’ That is we must edit our words and cut our scenes that we otherwise are very fond of to serve the greater purpose of our story.

But in this wonderful internet age, these scenes can live on on-line. In these scenes you’ll find a number of substantial changes from the original draft and scenes cut for a variety of reasons. While I hate to cut material, I am convinced the final product was made better for the edits.

These cut scenes were proof read, but did not go through the final edits, so its possible there may be a few typose here. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy the cut tidbits.

Many Blessings!

Maria Grace

 Deleted Prologue

Mary held Charlotte’s arm as she slowly made her way down the stairs. They replayed this scene several times a day, now. Mr. Collins insisted that the staircase was neither too shallow nor too deep, exactly proper for a parsonage of this size.

But he was wrong.

The stairs were cheaply made, irregular in their height and depth, entirely unsuitable for anyone, servant or master. In just the few months Mary had stayed with her, Charlotte had reached the point in her pregnancy where she could no longer see her toes, and the stairs were now a death trap.

“Just three more. Hold the rail and my arm, and we shall be down in a moment.”

“I hate to be such a bother.” Charlotte panted heavily.

“You are no bother, it is these stairs that are a bother.”

Charlotte gasped and pressed a hand to her chest. “Pray do not say that in Mr. Collins’ hearing.”

“Forgive me, but I do not see why that should unsettle him so. It is not as though I am criticizing them to Lady Catherine, or that she would even be able to respond to such comments. Please, hold the railing, you cannot afford a fall.”

“I know it seems a bit untoward, but he is still very protective of her, perhaps even more so now in her current state.” Charlotte used that tone she always used when she was trying to defend Collins’ behavior.

How tiresome it had become.

They reached the ground floor and the chair kept at the base of the stairs where Charlotte sat to catch her breath.

It was taking longer and longer now. Something was … odd with this pregnancy. Not wrong per se, but odd. It was normal for a woman to grow heavy and awkward and tire easily. But usually that took longer to set in. Charlotte seemed to be progressing very quickly. 

Somehow Mary had to convince her that she needed to see a midwife.

Charlotte pushed to her feet and they made their way to the morning room. Another room Mr. Collins deemed perfectly adequate for his station in life. If his station included drafty windows and a fire that smoked, then it was indeed ideal.

It was a small room, facing west, so it caught none of the morning light and warmth. The smoky fire left the pale paper hangings and the curtains sooty and grey. No doubt the maid tried to keep it clean, but it was well past the time it should have all been redone.

But that would likely never happen. According to Mr. Michaels, the estate did not have the funds to manage many necessary repairs, much less unnecessary ones.

The newspaper was gone from the table. Mr. Collins must have come and gone already.

That was not a bad thing.

Charlotte pulled out a chair.

“Would you not be more comfortable using this one? The arms make it much easier for you to rise.” Mary pulled out another chair and beckoned Charlotte toward it.

“You are right. It is just hard for me to accustom myself to this helplessness.” Charlotte lowered herself slowly into the seat, awkward and ungainly.

“Shall I get the footstool?”

“I would like to say no, but my ankles are so swollen today…”

Mary brought the stool and positioned it under the table.

“I hate asking so much of you.” Charlotte’s head fell back against the high back of the chair and she closed her eyes.

“Is that not why I am here? I seem to recall that is what we told Mama and Papa—that I would stay to help you during your confinement.”

Charlotte opened one eye. “I recall another conversation. Mr. Michaels did not wish you to leave Kent for Derbyshire. He desired to keep you close—”

“And away from Papa.” Mary swallowed hard and wandered toward the window. She really needed to speak to the maid—she left streaks the last time she washed it. No doubt Charlotte noticed it too. It was a testament to her condition that she did not have the energy to correct the girl.

“Do you miss them? You mother and your sisters?”

Mary leaned her head against the window frame. “Sometimes. But it was not as if I was of any great use to any of them. I am happy to be where I know that I am helpful.” And where someone actually welcomed her conversation, and even her presence. But they did not need to talk about that.

“I do not know how I would manage without you.”

And that, even more than Mr. Michaels’ requests, was why she was there. “Speaking of help…”

“Pray, Mary, do not go on about a midwife. Not again, I am too weary.”

“I must, truly I must.” She turned and half sat on the window sill. “You have gone far too long without seeing anyone to help you.”

Charlotte pressed her hands to her belly. “What are you worried about?”

“I have watched my mother through a number of her confinements. I have seen how it is supposed to progress.”

“And this is not proper??”

“Not so much that, as very fast. You are already as large as Mama when she delivered, and I know it is far from the proper time for it.” Mary held her breath.

This was not the first time she had broached the subject, and the previous times had not gone well.

Charlotte bit her upper lip and nodded. She rubbed both hands over her belly. “I am not surprised you noticed. It seems to be a trait amongst your family. You are all so observant.”

It would have been difficult to miss. Charlotte was giving her far too much credit.

“But you are right. I have been suspecting … suspecting …”

“What? What have you not told me?” She hurried to Charlotte’s side.

“I did not wish to sound…I do not know… silly perhaps. But here, give me your hands.” Charlotte took Mary’s hands and placed them on either side of her belly. “Now just wait a moment, but still.”

Mary held her breath and waited. Underneath each hand, a hard kick landed. “My gracious, the baby is quite strong. Oh!” Another flutter of movement under her hands.

“I…I think there is more than one. Feel here.” Charlotte moved Mary’s hands. “See here, there are two bulges. I think there are two babies.”

Mary pulled a chair close and sat heavily. “Twins?” A cold chill ran down her spine.

“I am so afraid.” Charlotte whispered, covering her face with her hands. “What am I to do?”

“There is little that can be done. We will pray most heartily for you to be safely delivered. Until then, you must see a midwife. If there is anything that can be done to increase the chances of a safe delivery, then we must begin immediately.”

“You know how I feel about midwives.”

“You have told me how you feel about the incompetent woman who attended your mother. I understand your fears. I have never told you about the medical atrocities we have been exposed to and I will not. Trust me though, it is enough to put me off all doctors, surgeons and apothecaries. Still though, just as you cannot judge all of the Bennet girls by knowing Lydia, you cannot dismiss all midwives because some are awful. I know there are excellent ones—”

“How do you know?” Charlotte dragged the back of her hand across her eyes.

“I know because I talk to people, or rather, people talk to me. I do not know why, perhaps it is because I am quiet and they believe I am listening, but people tell me all manner of things that I am not necessarily interested in hearing. Still though, I have heard a number of local ladies lauding a Mrs. Mariah Grant. They have said she has made a world of difference in their lying-ins.”

 “I have heard nothing of the sort.” Charlotte looked away, dabbing her eyes with her sleeve.

“Trust me please. Allow me to invite some of the ladies who have spoken of her to tea. You might speak to them directly and hear what they have to say. It seems like ladies like nothing more than to share the stories of their births with others. If there was something wrong, I assure you they will not hold back. You know that they will tell you the truth of the matter. Perhaps I might even interview her myself?”

Charlotte chuckled. “I suppose you are correct. My mother was certainly apt to share her tales. I was not supposed to have heard them, of course. They are not fit for a maiden’s ears. But she and her friends did get so loud in the parlor. Especially after a liberal dose of French cream in their tea.”

Afternoon brandy certainly increased women’s chatter in Mama’s parlor as well.

“No doubt. My mother was similarly liberal in voicing her experiences. So then, you will allow me to do this for you?”

Charlotte lost a little color in her face. “Yes, I suppose we must.”

“Then I will begin immediately. I will do everything in my power to assist you, you know that.” Mary tucked a stray curl under the edge of Charlotte’s mobcap.

Charlotte grasped her hand. “You are indeed a good friend, if a very stubborn one. I am thankful that you are here.”

The housekeeper entered, a short, thick woman of plain features and littler personality, bearing a silver tea tray. “The post just come, madam. Letters, for Miss Bennet.”

Mary took the letters. “One from Lizzy. Oh, and this is from Lydia, see the decoration she puts around the direction? Her letters have become so pretty these days, I think they need framing rather than reading.”

“Would it be too forward to ask you to read from them to me? I would so dearly like to know how they are going. It is still so hard to believe they are both in Derbyshire and that Lizzy has married Lady Catherine’s nephew.”

“Lizzy’s first, then?” Mary broke the seal on the letter and scanned it for personal bits. Lizzy was usually very good about marking anything that should not be read aloud. Sometimes nearly all her letter was underlined. No doubt she understood Charlotte would be curious.

Charlotte leaned back in the chair and sipped her tea, hand over her belly.

“Lizzy writes that Lydia is married now. Married!” Mary stared at the words gaping.

“Do not keep me in suspense, tell me more!”

“She is Mrs. Amberson and the couple will take residence in Derby soon. It seems Miss Darcy is quite taken with him as a piano teacher and will be studying under him once they are established in town.”

“I imagine that is a very good thing for Miss Darcy. She was such a shy girl when she visited here last. It is good to hear she is leaving her melancholy behind.”

“You do not have to be so politic with me, Charlotte. I know full well what you are thinking. We are all glad to hear that she has recovered from Mr. Wickham’s interference.”

“That both Miss Darcy and Lydia have.”

“Indeed. Who would have imagined? Oh gracious, this is interesting. Lizzy says that Mr. Darcy and their new friend, Sir Anthony have decided to be Mr. Amberson’s patrons. They will sponsor a series of concerts at the assembly rooms in Derby to help make him known there.”

Charlotte pushed her elbows into the arm of the chair and sat a little straighter. “Gracious! That is a strong statement for Mr. Darcy to make. I am impressed. Mr. Amberson must be quite astonishing to gain his approbation in so public a fashion.”

“I am all agog. He must be quite certain of Mr. Amberson’s character to take such a risk. Of course, the fact that he permitted a musician to marry his sister says a very great deal as well.”

This was all too much to take in. Lydia married to such a man? And Lizzy approved it all? How could it be?

“What does Lydia say?”

Mary opened the letter and gasped. “You must see this.”

She handed Charlotte a drawing of Elizabeth, Darcy and Amberson. Mr. Amberson played whilst Elizabeth and Darcy looked on.

“If her drawing is to be believed, it seems the Darcys are very fond of their new brother.”

 “I would be far more suspect of the sentiments she expresses in her drawing if Lizzy’s letter did not mirror the same sentiments.” Mary unfolded the letter and scanned it. Unfortunately it included no helpful underline to guide her reading.

That would probably be too much change to expect from Lydia.

“Well that is interesting. Lydia says—well, that bit is rather confusing. I do not quite understand how it came about, but Mr. Amberson taught at Lydia’s school, but was required to leave. He then walked to Pemberley and insisted on an audience with Mr. Darcy. Apparently he would not leave the doorstep until granted admission.”

Charlotte snickered. “I can only imagine that scene.”

“Indeed. As Lizzy has told me, the butler there is rather imposing, as Long Tom was. To stand up to him must have taken a great deal of fortitude.” Mary chewed her knuckle, reading ahead as fast as she could.

“Or a man deeply in love.”

“Apparently. It seems he met with Mr. Darcy and with Lizzy and convinced them both of his suitability as a husband and his desire to make Lydia his wife. They not only agreed but—oh my gracious! Mr. Darcy walked Lydia down the aisle at her wedding, and Lizzy held the wedding breakfast at the house they kept in Summerseat!”

“I would never have believed it from any lips but yours.”

“I am hardly sure I believe it! I am anxious to meet this reformed sister of mine now. She cannot be the same girl who left Kent in the company of Mr. Wickham.”

This should be happy news, Lydia coming to good after all, under the influence of Mr. Darcy. It should give her hope and comfort, even joy that Lydia was greatly loved.

But it did not seem fair. Three sisters all with men deeply in love with them.

“No doubt. But sometimes, people do change. Certainly Lady Catherine has, since Miss de Bourgh’s death.”

Mary set the letters aside and sipped her tea. Now was not the time to indulge her own uncomfortable thoughts. “I wish so pleasant a change had come over Lady Catherine.  She seems to grow worse with each passing week.”

“The housekeeper at Rosings told me that the gardeners found her wandering the kitchen garden, muttering about finding herbs for Anne’s tea last week. None dared tell her of Anne’s death, so they just allowed her to roam and pull up plants as she would. The garden was a mess when she left.”

“That could be very problematic. The budget is already so tight, without the garden, they may struggle over the winter.”

“I think the gardeners were able to replant much of what was pulled and started some new seeds in hope there would be sufficient time for them to grow.”

Mary rubbed her knuckles across her chin. “That will not stop her from doing it again. I think I shall speak to Colonel Fitzwilliam and suggest that a fresh fence and gate be put around the garden. To keep the sheep out, of course. We might prepare a small section specifically for Lady Catherine, though, where any damage would be inconsequential to the estate.”

“You have always had such a creative way to manage her when everyone else becomes so impatient.”

Mary shrugged. It was not so very different from managing Mama. If anything not living in the same house with Lady Catherine made it far easier to tolerate her spells and her whimsies.

The housekeeper returned with her silver salver. “Another letter come for you, Miss Bennet. Seems the delivery got mixed up with that for the manor.”

The handwriting was Michaels’. Her hands trembled.

“I can see by the look on your face who that letter is from. Go upstairs and enjoy it in a bit of privacy. I promise, I will not move from this spot without your assistance.” She chuckled. “I am not sure if I can get up on my own as it is. Do not argue. It does me good to see you with a bit of enjoyment for yourself.”

Mary fetched the workbasket from the corner and Charlotte’s book from the window seat. “Have you enough light to sew in this spot, or shall I help you move first?”

“No, no, the light here is fine enough for mending and reading. Go, I shall be fine.”

Mary clutched the letter to her breast and hurried up the stairs.

***

His letters had been so regular since he left for London, two each week on Wednesday and Saturday, bright points in her week to anticipate and cherish. But a full week had passed since his last missive. Little spots of worry began to form in her mind, whispering the most awful, outlandish, troublesome things.

It was true, very true, Mr. Michaels was no Mr. Darcy, with his forceful and passionate nature. Nor did it seem he was the Mr. Amberson Lizzy wrote of, with a flair for quiet drama and determination. No, men like that belonged with women like her sisters. Beautiful, vivacious, intense.

Michaels was a quiet, steady man, protective and predictable. His temper was even, not bent toward passions, good or bad. One knew exactly what to expect from him. His life was well ordered and precise.

Though Lydia and Kitty deemed him very dull, he suited Mary well. She had been called dull sufficient times to be quite comfortable with the description. When Kitty accused Mr. Michaels of being as tiresome as Mary, it seemed quite prophetic. The very next day he paid them a call and stayed a full half hour in Mary’s company.

Nothing about him or his letters were romantic. It might have been nice once in a while. Very nice. But all the conduct books advised: steadiness, by its nature, would outlive romance. It was the wisest choice.

Her room was small, tucked awkwardly under a gable which rendered it full of odd angles and hard-to-use spaces. Collins deemed it the most modest room in the house. The one room most fitting for one whose family was not in Lady Catherine’s good graces. Charlotte of course had objected, but Mary insisted it was fine. And it was; it put her as far away from Mr. Collins’ snoring as possible.

She settled into the little chair that just fit in the window nook, and opened his letter.

Dear Mary,

I must apologize for the last two letters I should have written. No doubt you noticed their absence. I fear you may be worried. Indeed I began them, but so many unexpected matters arose that they were never completed. I decided to begin afresh rather than try to make sense out of what I wrote earlier.

My business here has been more complex than I anticipated. I fear the state of Rosings Park is far more difficult than any of us truly imagined. I will be bringing Colonel Fitzwilliam far more bad news than any heir deserves.

My first letter to you was interrupted by a score of tradesmen at my door, demanding payment for their wares. Payment which is not in Rosings’ coffers at present. I found sufficient funds to distribute just enough payment to keep them at bay for another quarter. They are demanding debtor’s prison for someone. It was not a pretty sight.

 

So much debt? If they were threatening prison, it was at least twenty thousand pounds! How could such a sum ever be repaid?

 

The second letter suffered disruption when I had to a call from several physicians who claimed they had consulted with Lady Catherine concerning Miss de Bourgh’s condition, but never received an appropriate honorarium for their efforts. You will hardly be surprised to learn that they lost their veneer of gentlemanly behavior when I demanded some proof of their claims.

I managed to sort them out, but I fear my creativity and my patience are being stretched far beyond what I am equipped to manage. Retrenching is going to be essential to weather this current storm.

I hope Colonel Fitzwilliam will be of a mind to take the necessary actions. As a single man who has not been recently accustomed to living in a grand estate, he might be made to see the necessity of it. I hope so.

 

Maybe he would take leave of Rosings altogether, lease the house out, and allow Mary and Michaels to live out their lives without the kind of constant interference that Lady Catherine offered. That was too much good fortune to hope for.

 

As I pick up my pen to write to you a third time, I am certain I shall not be thwarted as I have the best possible news. I have lingered a few days extra in London in the hopes of receiving the post that has just come.

A letter from your father arrived today. He has finally signed the settlement and all is in preparation for our marriage. The papers are finished, and he cannot change his mind now. So you know, the settlement is somewhat less than what we expected, but not enough to interfere with our plans. I know it has been foolish of me to worry so, but I have. Now I can put my mind at ease.

I must tell you something else. You will no doubt find this a somewhat dark sentiment, but I trust you to hear me out and understand.  I have seen my own solicitor and just completed a new draft of my will. Whilst I do not have much, there is some little in the four percents and a bit in an account at a bank here in London. I have left instructions if there were anything to happen to me, it should go to you, not to my brother.

Please do not attempt to dissuade me. Your father being as he is, I do not wish to see you have to return to his home under any circumstances. In this way should anything happen to me, this way I can be assured that you will not have to. I do not have enough to assure that you might live as comfortably as you have been accustomed to be sure. But it is enough that you might retain independence and make your own choices. I sleep easier at night knowingt the sum is there for you, all the while hoping and praying it will not be necessary.

 

Mary pressed the letter to her chest, hot trails trickling down her face. He might not have the drama or passion of Darcy or Amberson, but he was indeed the best of men.

The sentiment did ring like a plot in a gothic novel to be sure, but it was entirely reflective of the kind of steady, protective temperament that she most treasured in him. Just a week or so and he would be back.

Then the rest of her life might finally begin.

Several days later, Mary helped Charlotte to the parlor and instructed the housekeeper to begin preparations for tea. Mrs. Barrows and Mrs. Newton, and Mrs. Shaw would be here soon.

Or rather now.

Mary greeted them at the door herself. Yes, Mr. Collins had asked her to stop doing that, it was unseemly and suggested they could not afford a proper housekeeper.  But, he was always fussing at her for one thing or another. There was little point in trying to please him now. As soon as she got one thing right, he found two other points to critique.

His temper had grown restive since Lady Catherine’s invalidity. He did not seem to know how to manage with Colonel Fitzwilliam who did not appreciate Mr. Collins’ fawning and had no patience for his opinions.

What Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed to want was sound advice and even argument. Neither of which Mr. Collins was well equipped to deliver, but Michaels was. And that only served to irritate Collins more.

Mary led the matrons to the parlor where Charlotte waited, comfortably settled with her feet up. The housekeeper followed in with the tea service.

“How lovely to see you, Mrs. Collins.” Mrs. Barrows curtsied.

She was a tall woman, and impossibly thin. She had a reputation for eating as heartily as her husband, but one would never know by looking at her.

“What a lovely day for tea.” Mrs. Newton sat beside Mrs. Barrows on the faded settee across from Charlotte.

The two ladies were nearly inseparable. Some mistook them for sisters, which was odd as they looked nothing alike. Mrs. Newton was round and ruddy, with cheery cheeks and twinkling eyes.

“And good day to you, Miss Bennet.” Mrs. Shaw perched properly on the chair nearest Charlotte.

Her glasses perched on the end of her nose, leaving all who encountered her with the sense of being looked down upon. It was unfortunate as she was a gentle, kind soul who never cared to judge others, but one had to take the time to talk with her to find that out.

Charlotte tried to serve the tea, but had to turn the service over to Mary as she could not lean over her belly enough to reach the tea pot.

“Thank you for joining us this afternoon.” Charlotte resettled herself on the couch, panting hard.

“Indeed, we are grateful.” Mary handed Mrs. Shaw a teacup. “I shall go straight to my purpose though, lest we chatter about and never address the crux of the matter.”

Charlotte’s eyes bulged a bit. She never had been comfortable with any measure of directness, and Mary could be little else.

“Mrs. Collins is dearly in need of a midwife. I could think of none better in Hunsford to make recommendations than you.”

Between the three women, they boasted thirteen living children and none had suffered serious complications.

Mrs. Newton and Mrs. Barrows tittered over their teacups. Their cheeks tinged pink, but it was a false modesty at best, such topics were not difficult for them to bear. Mary had overheard them discussing far more colorful details of their births than who was their midwife.

“If I may be so bold,” Mrs. Shaw, “I would strongly recommend Mrs. Mariah Grant. She has attended me the last four times. Such a difference from the woman who attended my first. I would never ask for anyone else.”

“I agree, most assuredly I do,” Mrs. Barrows set her teacup down and pressed her hand to her chest. “She was brilliant when my little Jonathan was born. I do not know what I would have done without her.”

“You know, very few of her ladies come down with childbed fever, far fewer than Mrs. Kerring you know. I think that says so much for her.” Mrs. Newton glanced at Mrs. Barrows and nodded.

“Indeed I only came down with it once,” Mrs. Shaw wrung her hands. “And it was with the birth of my Alice, my first born. I cannot say what it is that Mrs. Grant does differently, but she has a way about her.”

“Yes she does, a way of setting a woman at ease that many do not have.” Mrs. Newton sipped her tea.

Mrs. Barrows waved a pointing finger. “And she is always quick to attend. She does not dilly dally like some I have heard of. No she makes her way directly and insists on staying through the first several days beyond, just to insure nothing takes her by surprise. With my youngest she came the day before he was born, saying she just had a feeling it was time, and sure enough, twelve hours later, she was right.”

“And she is calm as a summer’s morning. Never seen a woman so steady in a crisis, even when something goes wrong, she goes about her business. Never flustered or unsettled.” Mrs. Newton dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief.

Poor woman lost her last child.

“That is very good to hear.” Charlotte chewed her knuckle. “I think I should like to contact her.”

“You have had no contact with a midwife yet? Mrs. Collins, forgive me for being so forward, but that is not wise. You must send for her immediately. You cannot risk your health like that.” Mrs. Newton’s voice rose to shrill notes.

Charlotte blushed and looked aside. “Thank you for your concern. I shall attend to it immediately.”

“And you know you might rely on us as well. Anything that you need, we shall be here.” Mrs. Barrows glanced at her friends who all nodded. “You must tell us what you have done to prepare for your lying in.”

Mary edged back as they conferred. They were nothing if not knowledgeable and efficient. In a quarter of an hour, they had arranged to visit again to prepare the nursery and Charlotte’s room. In the meantime, they would sew the remaining items the baby would need.

“Oh Miss Bennet,” Mrs. Shaw leaned close and the rest continued their conversation. “I have some news that you should find most pleasing.”

“I am intrigued, madam, would you do me the kindness of sharing with me what it is?” Oh how she hated being teased into asking for more information. Lydia and Kitty played that game with her often, usually to remind her that she had been left out of whatever had been interesting.

“I saw a particular horse on the way here this morning. One very familiar to me and I would expect very familiar to you.” Mrs. Shaw’s brows rose.

Mary forced a thin smile. “Indeed. Perhaps you would enlighten me, what horse are you referring to?”

“The one with the odd patch on its side. One belonging to Mr. Michaels.”

Mary’s face grew hot and cold at the same time. Was that even possible? She was at the parlor window before she ever realized she had stood.

How foolish!  What chance that he should appear in the distance now, at the very moment she went in search for him?

“It is delightful to see such devotion, Miss Bennet.” Mrs. Shaw chuckled.

“Yes indeed, pray, have you any plans for your wedding?” Mrs. Barrows turned over her shoulder to gaze at her.

Mary’s face flushed as she made her way back to her seat. She glanced at Charlotte, but rescue was unlikely. For all her understanding and kindness, Charlotte had no idea how much Mary disliked being asked such personal questions in a group that cared little for her other than fodder for their gossip.

“When will the banns be read?” Mrs. Newton asked.

“We had thought to begin them the week that he returns.”

“I am surprised you did not have them read before he left. It did leave us all wondering that perhaps he might—” Mrs. Newton’s eyes narrowed just a bit.

Charlotte dropped her spoon on her saucer. Everyone jumped.

“Forgive my clumsiness. The baby is so active! Oh, that reminds me. I knew there was something I had intended to ask you. The last time we dined with you, Mr. Collins so enjoyed the crust on your eel pie. I must learn how you prepare it.”

Mrs. Newton turned to her with a broad smile. “I am so glad to hear you liked it. The receipt you see, came from my mother. But it was Mr. Newton’s mother who taught me how to instruct the cook properly in the making of it. There is a little trick you see…”

How dear of Charlotte—best not waste this way of escape. Mary curtsied, though no one noticed, and slipped from the parlor.

Charlotte would do well enough on her own now. With any luck, she had heard enough that she would need no further pushing to call upon Mrs. Grant.  That was a very good thing. No stranger to lyings-in, Mary had no expertise to offer, though it would be like Charlotte to call upon her for help anyway.

Why did people so quickly assume she knew what she was doing and expect that she would do it? It was a very bothersome thing.

Mary left the house and wandered along the back garden to a footpath that led to Rosings Park. She could not be seen from the parsonage parlor windows here, and more than simply being alone, she required privacy.

Why was it so easy for the matrons to believe that Mr. Michaels would abandon her if he left Kent for any time at all? Their engagement had been announced for some time. Why did reading the banns make it any more or less real?

No doubt they did not think her sufficient enticement to keep his attention once he was exposed to the wider society of London. Surely there, prettier, richer girls would vie for his attention, and she would necessarily be the loser.

Why was it the woman always suffered more being jilted than the man? He might walk away with little damage, but her reputation would bear the stain forever.

It was a very unpleasant thing to know that people thought one likely to be jilted.

But Michaels was not that kind of man. None knew how hard he worked whilst in London. He was not there attending balls and parties. He spent late nights slogging through the disaster of Rosings’ records and negotiating with irate merchants and a few peers from whom Lady Catherine had borrowed money. Had he been looking for another, he would have had no time to find her.

Mary swallowed hard clenching her fists.

No, she must remember that he had chosen her from among all her sisters. He could have courted any of them. Not that Lydia would have paid him any mind or that Lady Catherine would have permitted Jane a suitor she did not select.

Still, Michaels selected her, purposefully, intentionally because it was her disposition that suited him.

It was silly to give in to her foolish insecurities and fears. But when Papa continually reminded her that she was far less attractive and witty and warm and generally appealing than her sisters, it was a very natural thing to do.

***

She walked along the path to Rosings, opting for the one that led through the woods. Though the sunny path was Mr. Collins’ preference—it was overlooked by the windows of several of the manor’s principal rooms. She relished the trees’ deep shade and the illusion of seclusion and safety.

A man appeared in the distance, through a break in the trees, his boots still spattered with traveling dirt. He walked with long purposeful steps and a very familiar stride.

Could that be? No, it was so very unlikely. Still her heart ran faster, as her feet longed to do.

Young ladies did not run. It was shameful and reflected a lack of proper self-control. But she did increase her pace.

The man, though, seemed to have no such compunctions. He ran in her direction.

The instinct to take flight warred with the one to run toward him, rooting her in place.

“Mary!”

She sprinted toward him.

There were times when running was entirely right and appropriate and necessary.

He was faster and met her with open arms before she had crossed half the distance between them. Before she could speak, he buried her in his embrace. Smells of horse and the road mingled on his coat, but did not mask the scent that was uniquely him.

“I had no idea you would come out to meet me? Who told you?” He pressed his cheek to the top of her head. His whiskers rasped along her hair, pulling strands from its tidy knot.

How hard had he ridden that he had not taken time to shave?

“I truly had no idea you were here. It was simply the hand of Providence that brought me here right now.” And a few nosey matrons, but he did not need to hear about them now.

“I cannot imagine better fortune than to see you first. Seeing Colonel Fitzwilliam will not be nearly the pleasure.”

 “You have not yet been to the manor?” She peered up at him.

“The news I have matters little if it waits an hour or even a day to be delivered.” He shrugged, releasing her.

“Was your trip to London unsuccessful then?” She bit her lip and held her breath.

“Not so much that, but far more complicated than I anticipated.” He removed his hat and raked his hair with his fingers. “I believe I have finally untangled the records at last, but there is still so very much to be done.”

“You look so weary.”

“To be honest, I am bone weary and a bit discouraged. Mr. Darcy has touted my abilities to Colonel Fitzwilliam and now expectations are very high.”

“Mr. Darcy does not praise easily. He would not have said such things if he did not believe you up to his claims.”

“Whilst I have reminded myself of that, I am concerned that I will not be able to meet them. I am certain that the colonel expects the debts to be paid off quickly, with little privation on his part. It is hard to see how even in ten years the estate might be unencumbered. The expenses of the manor are extreme and I have a sense the colonel would prefer to maintain a lavish lifestyle. It will be difficult to find a way to rein in his expectations.” He rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger.

“We will find a way, somehow. I know Lady Catherine is difficult, but perhaps I can assist in persuading her, and thus him, of what must be done to retrench. With a bit of patience and persistence, it might not be as difficult as you expect.”

He embraced her again and kissed the top of her head. “You are a comfort to me, already a helpmate to me. I cannot tell you how glad I am to be home. Now you must tell me all about you. Your letters are always so pleasant and cheerful, but I know things could hardly have been so easy for you here.”

He offered her his arm and she slipped her hand in the crook of his elbow. How strong and steady he was. They ambled in the direction of the manor.

“Things have been as they usually have been. Mr. Collins is as he always is.” No that was a lie. But there was little Michaels could do to curb his temper, so best say nothing.

“Obsequious, pompous, overbearing and long winded?”

Mary tittered. “Those are your words, not mine.”

“Indeed you are far too kind to say such things. But when you describe the care to which he sees you follow every one of Lady Catherine’s instructions, it is not difficult to discern your true sentiments.”

“If you think those are my sentiments, then I have spoken too harshly, and I must moderate my words more carefully.” She swallowed hard. If he could see through her so easily, then Collins was not far behind. And that would be a serious problem.

“There is no sin in feeling deeply, my dear.”

Perhaps it was true, there was not. But that was how one got hurt.

“Mrs. Collins is faring well as she increases.”

Michaels shook his head, the corners of his lips turning up. “It is difficult to imagine a household of little Collinses running about. Perhaps it is a good thing he is the kind of man who will have little to do with his children.”

“It is not the nature of most men to be nurturing to the fragile and weak. Do not be so critical of him.”

He stopped and grasped her shoulders. “I know you are grateful for them providing you a place to stay so that you did not need to return to your father’s house whilst I have been away. Bu pray do not let your gratitude cloud the ridiculousness of the man.”

“It is not a bad thing to see the positive.”

“It can be, if it blinds you to other truths.”

They had had this conversation before. He still did not understand. Sometimes it was the only way to survive when nothing around one made sense.

His edges of his eyes creased as his brow furrowed. Upon some things, they would never agree. “So then, tell me of Lady Catherine.”

“I wish there were more good to tell. She no longer comes to call. There are some days she is driven past in the phaeton. Mrs. Jenkinson  believes that the fresh air is good for her spirits. She waves as they drive past, but they no longer stop. It vexes Mr. Collins when that happens. He broods for hours, still wondering what he has done to offend his patroness.”

“You of course have explained—”

“That it is best that she does not stop to call. Yes, on numerous occasions. But the information does not suit him.”

“I do not like the way you said that. Does he have a temper?” He crossed his arms, his eyes narrowing in that dark look he had.

“Does not every man?” She looked aside.

“Mary! You well know that is not what I was asking.”

“His temper is nothing to my father’s. He might rail about and grow loud and cross, but nothing more. It is nothing I have not been able to bear.”

After living with Father so many years, there was a great deal she could bear. Far more than Michaels needed to understand.

“I do not like it. I am glad that you shall not have to stay there very much longer.”

“Mrs. Jenkinson says that Lady Catherine has some good days in which she is quite aware of what is going on around her and demonstrates good understanding. She will direct menus and even engage in conversation with Colonel Fitzwilliam.”

“You mean try to tell him what to do?”

Mary shrugged. That was not the sort of thing Mr. Collins would appreciate her agreeing with. “The darker days are growing more common though, and very unpredictable. Those days she is angry, and I fear uncontrollable. I saw bruises along Mrs. Jenkinson’s face last week. She claimed that she was distracted and ran into the door frame. I am not inclined to believe that though.”

“You fear Lady Catherine is turning violent?”

“It is a possibility. I have heard the word ‘Bedlam’ mentioned more than once in reference to her. But I am disinclined to agree to something so drastic.”

“But would it not be for the best?”

“For her or for Colonel Fitzwilliam? Does it not seem cruel to you to have her taken from all she knows and holds dear—the only things which calm her—to a strange place with strange people and ways. Would that surely not make things worse than better? I admit I am no medical man, just a simple girl, but the reasoning seems quite sound to me.”

“Your reasoning always is. But if she is indeed a danger to others, and possibly to herself, then we must have some way to manage her.”

“I agree. I plan to call upon Mrs. Jenkinson and the housekeeper tomorrow. With their help, I hope to be able to offer some useful ideas soon.”

“Shall I convey that to Colonel Fitzwilliam when I meet with him? I think he will appreciate the assistance in managing his aunt.”

“If you wish. Just pray, let not Mr. Collins be informed. He is entirely uncomfortable with me meddling in the affairs of my betters. The notion that Lady Catherine must be managed agitates him greatly. Whilst I can bear it, Charlotte cannot. I fear her condition is fragile. She should not be taxed in any way that might be prevented.”

“How do you always seem to know what everyone around you needs? I may be steward of the land here, but my dear, I am quite certain you are steward to all the people.”

“Do you disapprove?” She pressed her lips hard and studied the toes of his boots.

“I approve very much.” He leaned down and kissed her.

Soon, very soon, they would be wed. She would be mistress over her own home, and all things would be well.

 

***

Fitzwilliam navigated the narrow, steep servant’s stairway. Stray beams of light peeked through odd openings in the walls. Dust motes twinkled in the beams. Cobwebs dangled from the walls, reaching for him as he passed. Did the servants not clean these passages? Probably not—who would have noticed or cared until now?

The dark passage had been fun to explore as a child. How often he and Darcy had startled servants as they scurried on their errands, thinking themselves sequestered from the family? Their startled looks had been mightily entertaining, then.

Now, they were irritating.

Irritating and embarrassing.

The master of a home should not be hiding like a rat in the walls, avoiding a cat—or in his case, a mad dowager. Yet that was exactly what he was doing.

He had faced cannon fire and sabers, taken a musket ball to the shoulder and another to the thigh, stood against Napoleon and lived to tell of it. Never once had he hidden or run. But Lady Catherine—she had him scurrying into dark corners like despicable vermin.

Had she been with Napoleon, he would have won.

No wonder they had run out of port last month. Now the stores of brandy were growing low as well. If things did not change soon, he would have to turn to whisky. There was still plenty of that in the cellars.

He shouldered open the door to his office, but it resisted. There, just enough to slip through.  He stumbled and tripped, catching himself on the chair stacked with ledgers he had left just in front of it yesterday. Too damn drunk to remember to leave his own escape route clear.

Bloody hell, how had it come to this? He scrubbed his face with his hands. Drink had always been a pleasure, never a necessity. When had that changed?

Yes, the unexpected inheritance was astonishing, and he was grateful. Finally he was a proper gentleman in the eyes of society with an estate and connections that would make him welcome in nearly any society.

But it was also ruining him.

Darcy was right, he knew nothing about managing an estate, much less one in the condition of Rosings.

 Thank God for Michaels.

 While the steward left him feeling like an incompetent often enough, he had the good manners—and good sense—never to point out Fitzwilliam’s shortcomings.. There was a great deal to be said for a bit of discretion.

The new butler—blast it all, what was his name? Dash it all, he would be Tom from here on out. Small Tom, as he bore little resemblance to Long Tom whom he replaced. Yes, that would work—entered. “Sir, Mr. Michaels has arrived from London, are you at home to him?”

“Am I at home? What does it look like? I am drowning in a sea of documents and in need of a man who can swim. Damn it yes, I am at home.”

Small Tom bowed and shuffled off.

A moment later, Michaels strode in, a portfolio under one arm and road dust on his coat.

Fitzwilliam straightened his coat and sat behind his desk. “So you have wasted no time in coming to me. Have not even changed your clothes. I knew there was a reason I liked you, Michaels.”

“I am glad to have pleased you, sir.” Michaels navigated around the piles of books and other gathered debris in the study and pulled a chair close to Fitzwilliam’s desk.

“What news have you for me? It had best not be all bad, or I shall surely run mad with my aunt. Wait, wait, shall I retrieve the brandy before or after you open that portfolio of disaster you keep always by your side.” He laughed, mostly to control his nerves.

“The news is mixed, sir, but I would suggest that the brandy be delayed in any case. These are matters best approached with a clear head.”

“You mean a clear headache.” Fitzwilliam stepped around a chair loaded with papers and retrieved the brandy decanter.

He turned and came eye to eye with Michaels’ stern gaze. Michael’s slowly reached for the decanter. Fitzwilliam clutched it harder.

“Sir, pray do not make this more difficult than necessary.”

They locked eyes, but Michaels would not back down.

Damn him.

Fitzwilliam released the crystal into Michaels’ steady hand. He stalked back to his desk and fell into his chair. He raked his hair with both hands. “So then if you are going to deny me liquid comfort, give me news to comfort me.”

Michaels set the decanter aside and sat down. He pulled paper and folios from his bag. Dear God, how much could such a small bag hold?

“To sum it up, I know you prefer to hear that first, I have negotiated with all the creditors I have uncovered. Needless to say they are unhappy, but they understand they will more likely to be paid back if no one ends up in debtor’s prison.”

Aunt Catherine would probably prefer Bedlam to debtor’s prison in any case.

“To that end, I have drafted a plan to retrench. An extensive plan.” He tapped a folio on the desk. “I suggest we review that when you are fresh, perhaps in the morning.  The plan is comprehensive and will require a vast array of changes to all aspects of life at Rosings.”

Fitzwilliam muttered under his breath. While change was not anathema to him, there were those living under his roof who were less amenable to it.

“Though it may be—challenging—for some time, I am confident that the plan will allow the debts to be repaid in the foreseeable future.”

“Foreseeable? Just how long is a ‘foreseeable’? It is not on a unit of time with which I am familiar.”

Michaels chuckled.

Thank God he had a sense of humor.

“The debts should be cleared in ten years. The heaviest burden of retrenching though is in the first three. Then there is another break after five and then after seven.” Michaels shoved a sheet of paper at him.

“So you say we will live like paupers on the streets begging for three years, then rent a room in a fourth rate town house after that?”

“If you wish sir. That would pay off your debts several years earlier. I can add that as an option if you so choose. I just began with the belief that you would prefer to have a roof over your head for the entire time of retrenchment.”

Fitzwilliam threw his head back and laughed. “Yes, indeed that probably is a better plan. I will discuss this with you in depth then tomorrow morning. But, I would prefer to meet in your home, not here.” Fitzwilliam glanced out of the door.

“Oh, I see. That will be acceptable. I shall inform my housekeeper. That does remind me, I did unfortunately discover a great deal more debt that none of us were aware of, owed to apothecaries and surgeons who tended to Miss de Bourgh before the advent of Dr. Bennet.”

“More debt? I thought you were to bring me good news.”

“The good news is that I have negotiated with them and their repayment is included in the plans of retrenching.”

“Do you think there is more that we do not know about?”

“It is always possible, but I do not think it likely.”

“I have been studying these suggestions that Darcy sent me. I would like your opinion. He says three crop rotation is antiquated and moving Rosings to a four crop system will dramatically increase our yields. He has also offered me a loan of one of Pemberley’s seed drills for the spring and a harvester in the autumn, and the horses to go with it.”

“As I understand it, Lady Catherine was loath to change what had always been done at Rosings. Mr. Darcy’s suggestions are quite sound. Moreover, if you are interested in modernizing the agriculture here, I attended several lectures whilst in London. I took notes and will leave them for you. If you opt to go forward with these ideas, the increase in income will be of great assistance in discharging the debts even sooner. I did make my estimates with the most conservative assumptions I could.”

“You are always such an optimist.”

“It is my experience, no one is disappointed when they have more than they expected.” Michaels cocked his head and flashed his eyebrows.

“Yes, yes, I know. It is wisdom and good practice and exactly why Darcy recommended you.” Fitzwilliam leaned back and huffed. “You will not object if I send your plan of retrenchment to Darcy to look over? He may be able to wring a few more shillings out, restricting me to bread and water or some such rot.”

“That is a punishment fit only for errant sailors, sir. As I understand, it is not for officers.”

“Indeed not. Carry on, then Michaels and I shall see you tomorrow.”

Michaels shoved more papers across the desk at him and strode out. He always walked so briskly, always so efficient. Did the man ever relax or enjoy himself?

Even his choice of bride was efficient. The plainest, hardest working of the Bennet sisters, she had little remarkable about her, save how unremarkable she was. Just the kind of wife for a man who specialized in retrenching estates and repaying debt.

Fitzwilliam returned to the brandy decanter and poured himself a large glass.


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