The Netherfield Affair (a Pride and Prejudice variation) – free book excerpt

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CHAPTER ONE

 

NETHERFIELD-cover(SMALL)Elizabeth Bennet looked out into the dark night and pulled her shawl tighter around her. The wind howled around the house, loud as the wailing of banshees, and rain splattered against the windowpane. She shivered in the chill air. Beside her, the candle gasped and spluttered in a sudden draught, then returned to burn valiantly on.

The dreary rain which had started when Jane set off for Netherfield Park had transformed into a fearsome gale. Elizabeth sighed as she wondered again about the wisdom of their mother insisting that Jane make the journey on horseback. The eldest Miss Bennet would have been exposed to the full brunt of the weather, with no protective attire to keep her dry, and Elizabeth worried about the health of her beloved older sister. Mama had scoffed at their earlier concerns during the family dinner, saying that “people do not die of trifling colds”—but as Elizabeth looked out again at the violent weather outside, she wondered if such a raging wind could produce an equally raging fever.

Nevertheless, Mrs Bennet had congratulated herself on her sly plan of insisting that Jane travel on horseback as it would preclude her oldest daughter from returning in the rain and thus require her to stay overnight at Netherfield. This would naturally give Jane the chance of spending more time in the company of Mr Bingley—and fulfil everyone’s hopes that she would make an advantageous marriage with the handsome young man and his even more handsome fortune of five thousand a year.

Elizabeth would have had little patience with such schemes were it not for the fact that she could determine a particular partiality on Jane’s side for Mr Bingley and it pleased her to see her sister happy. With their father’s estate entailed away from the female line and their lack of fortune giving them poor prospects, the five Bennet girls were dependent on at least one of them marrying well—and with Jane being by far the prettiest, the responsibility seemed to fall squarely on her shoulders.

But knowing her sister’s disposition, Elizabeth had hoped that Jane would be able to make a love match too, in order to secure her happiness. In Bingley, it seemed that the perfect compromise had been found. While the couple had yet to spend much time with one another, their partiality for each other was obvious to see. Bingley had certainly been singularly attentive towards Jane when they had first met at the assembly ball in Meryton, and then again at the evening at Lucas Lodge. As for Jane, although her serene countenance betrayed little of her emotions, Elizabeth knew her sister well enough to know that Jane’s heart had been greatly touched by this amiable gentleman with his ready smile and easy manners. She had rarely seen Jane so happy in the company of a young man.

And what good fortune that Jane’s heart had been claimed by Mr Bingley and not the haughty Mr Darcy! The latter was richer, to be sure, and very handsome, with his tall, elegant figure, dark hair, and noble profile. He was also the master of one of the finest estates in all of England with a fortune that far exceeded Bingley’s, but his proud, reserved manner had recommended him to no one and he was fast becoming regarded as the most disagreeable man in Hertfordshire.

Elizabeth’s skin prickled with ire as she recalled once again the conversation she had overheard at the Meryton assembly:

“She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me,” Mr Darcy had said with barely concealed contempt when Bingley had urged him to seek Elizabeth’s hand for a dance.

Arrogant, odious man!

Elizabeth did not know or like Mr Darcy enough for his slight to affect her emotions, but her pride was certainly wounded and she was now disposed to think of him unfavourably. So it was with great relief that she had discerned Jane’s partiality for the affable Mr Bingley instead. Although she would have endeavoured to like any man that her beloved sister had chosen for a husband, Elizabeth would have found it difficult to muster any great liking for Mr Darcy.

The wind howled again and rattled the window frames. It did not look like the storm was about to abate any time soon. Acknowledging the futility of her continued worry, Elizabeth blew out the candle and climbed into bed. As she pulled the covers up to her chin, she buried her face in the pillow and attempted to block out the sounds of the storm. It seemed to her that, here in the dark, all the terrors became magnified: the thrashing of the rain against the windowpanes sounded harsher, the shriek of the wind even louder, the creak and groan of the trees outside even more alarming.

Gradually, however, Elizabeth became accustomed to the continued noise of the storm. She was drifting into the edge of sleep when she was jolted awake by a terrible noise—like a sudden shriek of pain—erupting from outside the windows. It was followed by a deep groaning and then the unmistakable sound of wood splintering. An enormous crash reverberated through the house.

Elizabeth sat upright and tossed back the covers. Outside her bedroom door, she could hear the sounds of a commotion. Sliding out of the bed, she groped her way to the door and flung it open. In the hallway stood a gathering of people: her father in his night shift, holding a candle aloft, and her mother in her nightgown and lacy nightcap, being supported by two of Elizabeth’s younger sisters, Kitty and Mary.

Mrs Bennet waved her arms and shrieked, “Oh, Mr Bennet! Mr Bennet! We shall be killed, for sure! Was that not a shot I heard? It must be Wicked George, come to murder us in our beds!”

“Rest easy, Mrs Bennet,” said Mr Bennet. “’Tis not a brigand’s weapon you heard. I believe the sound was none other than a tree succumbing to the force of the wind. Let me hasten downstairs so I may ascertain this with my own eyes.”

He turned as if to proceed down the stairs, but Mrs Bennet clutched his arm and would not let him go.

“Oh no, Mr Bennet! No! For you shall be killed and then what will become of us? We shall be turned out of this house before you are cold in your grave!”

Mr Bennet gave a wry smile. “Oh, I should hope that they would wait until I am cold at least.”

“Mr Bennet!”

He patted her hand. “Fear not, madam. I do not propose to venture out in the storm, but simply to take a look from the safety of the front threshold.”

So saying, he descended the stairs, with the rest of the family following in fearful suspense. In the entrance hall downstairs, Mr Bennet was met by Hill, the housekeeper, bearing an oil lamp. Her face looked haggard in the yellow glow and black shadows leapt across the wall behind her as she moved towards the front door.

“Well, I should not be frightened of meeting Wicked George the Highwayman,” declared Lydia, the youngest of the Bennet girls, in a loud whisper. Her bed cap hung askew on her riot of curls and her eyes were bright with excitement. “They say he is fearful handsome. I should imagine that it would be very exciting to encounter him and I should not be frightened in the least.”

“Nor I,” agreed Kitty, the next youngest sister and Lydia’s staunch follower in all things.

“One must remember—” said Mary, the third Bennet sister, who was prone to serious contemplation and earnest philosophising, “—that such fleeting thrills provide little in the way of genuine satisfaction. The rewards from observation and reflection are infinitely greater. Indeed, one’s courage may not withstand the transformation of fantasy into reality.”

“It is fortunate, then, that such an occasion should never arise to test your mettle,” said Mr Bennet dryly, as he approached the front door.

With great care, he opened it a crack and looked out. Instantly, the hall seemed to be filled with shrieking as a gust of wind blew in through the slight opening and lifted the girls’ hair and the hems of their night shifts.

“Oh, Mr Bennet! Mr Bennet!” cried Mrs Bennet, hanging onto her frilly nightcap. “We shall be carried away by the storm!”

Mr Bennet shut the door hurriedly, turning the lock firmly in place.

“Well, it appears that I was right. One of the trees on the lawn has been uprooted by the wind and has fallen across the front drive.” He looked at Mrs Bennet and the girls with a twinkle in his eye. “I regret to inform you, however, that there are no signs of highwaymen or other evil marauders about, handsome or otherwise.”

“Oh, Mr Bennet, how can you tease me at a time like this? You have no compassion for my poor nerves!” cried Mrs Bennet.

“You mistake me, my dear,” said Mr Bennet. “I have a great respect for your nerves. They have been my constant companion these past twenty years.”

Mrs Bennet sobbed ineffectually and dabbed at her mouth with her lace handkerchief, as she was supported by Kitty back up the stairs. The other girls filed slowly after her, a little more subdued now. Elizabeth was last and she turned to her father worriedly as they ascended the stairs together.

“Will Jane be quite safe, do you think, Papa?” she asked.

He patted her hand. “There, there,” he said. “Do not fret yourself, child. Jane will have arrived at Netherfield long ago and will be safely tucked up in bed by now, I wager. Have no fear for her safety. Netherfield Park has withstood many such a storm and will no doubt see many more.”

Elizabeth had to be content with such assurances and she took herself back to bed. There was another prolonged period of tossing and turning beneath the covers, but eventually she felt sleep claim her again, though she remained a victim of restless dreams.


 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Elizabeth awoke to the muted sounds of wind and rain. It seemed that the storm had abated—at least temporarily. Pulling her shawl around her, she hurried to the window again to look out. Now that she had the benefit of daylight, she could see that it was just as her father had described: one of the tall beech trees on the front lawn had been wrenched from its position and was now lying prone across the drive, barring the way for anyone attempting to bring a carriage or even ride a horse up to the front entrance of Longbourn.

When she went down to breakfast, however, Elizabeth learned that she had been mistaken in her supposition that a horse rider could not cross the barrier, for a message had just arrived from Netherfield Park—a letter from Jane, addressed to her.

“Well, open it, Lizzy—make haste!” said Mrs Bennet, looking up eagerly from her plate of kippers. “Perhaps it is Jane writing that Mr Bingley has proposed already!”

This elicited giggles from the younger girls and a moue of disapproval from Mary. The latter pushed her spectacles up her nose as she clasped her hands primly on the table in front of her and said:

“It behooves us to remember what is said in the Book of Proverbs 20:25: ‘Marriage is based on sacred vows. Entering those vows rashly and hastily generally leads to a snare. But after you are married, it is too late to reconsider your vows’. Thus we are told that if we marry in haste, we shall repent at leisure.”

“Oh Mary!” said Lydia, rolling her eyes.

Elizabeth ignored all this as she concentrated on the letter before her. It was certainly from Jane although the hand was shakier than her sister’s usually beautiful penmanship. As she read the contents, Elizabeth soon understood the reason for such frail script. It appeared that Jane had taken ill and was even now awaiting a visit from Mr Jones, the apothecary, at Netherfield Park. Although Jane wrote of a simple cold, Elizabeth suspected that her gentle sister—forever concerned about giving pain to others—had made light of her illness so as not to worry her family.

“We must go and see her,” declared Elizabeth with some unease.

“I would be more than happy to visit Jane, but will the carriage be able to pass the fallen tree?” asked Mrs Bennet.

Mr Bennet shook his head. “I am afraid we will not know the answer to that, my dear, until I can bring men from the farm to attempt to shift it. At present, it seems unlikely that a carriage will be able to pass. You may have to delay your visit to Jane until later today.”

“I feel that I must go to Jane immediately,” said Elizabeth, standing up from the table. “I shall walk to Netherfield Park.”

“Walk?” gasped her mother, her eyes widening in horror. “Why, in the wind and rain… you will not be fit to be seen!”

“I shall be fit to see Jane, which is all I care about,” said Elizabeth. “My mind is quite made up.”

“Would you like me to ask the groom to fetch one of the horses so that you may attempt the journey on horseback?” asked Mr Bennet.

“No indeed, Papa,” said Elizabeth. “It is barely three miles to Netherfield and I would welcome some fresh air after being confined indoors for so long.” She glanced out of the dining room windows. “I believe that the rain has ceased for the time being and the skies look like they might be clearing. I think a refreshing walk would be the very thing.”

“Have care when you arrive at Netherfield, Lizzy, for we have heard that it is haunted!” said Lydia suddenly.

Elizabeth paused and looked at her younger sister quizzically. Lydia and Kitty had been huddled together whispering for the past few minutes while Elizabeth had been discussing her plans for travelling to Netherfield, but now they hastened to inform everyone at the table of their news.

Lydia leaned forwards excitedly. “They say that there is a ghost—the spirit of a poor serving girl who was deflowered by the old master of the house many years ago—”

“Lydia!” gasped Mary.

Lydia ignored the remonstration as the rest of the table looked at her agog. She was enjoying the sensation of holding everyone’s attention rapt and she was determined to make the most of her temporary advantage. “Yes, and her ghost wanders the house at night—and can even be seen sometimes looking out of the windows. On dark and stormy nights, it is possible to hear her wailing for her lost virtue and if you do not take care, she may claim your soul to keep hers company!”

“From where did you hear such an extraordinary tale?” asked Mr Bennet.

“Sarah told me,” said Lydia. “And she had it directly from the Netherfield parlourmaid, who heard it from the kitchenmaid who—”

“You should know better than to listen to servants’ gossip,” said Elizabeth severely. “And it is well known that ghost stories are merely created to titillate and entertain. I certainly have no fear of ghoulish spirits for I do not believe that they exist.”

“Aye, Lizzy,” said her father with a smile. “That is a good attitude to have.”

“It is not mere titillation!” insisted Lydia as Kitty nodded vehemently next to her. “Sarah told me that the servants at Netherfield have themselves observed such occurrences as to make the blood run cold—strange noises in the night, mysterious disappearances of household items, and once even a dark figure creeping up the stairs—”

“Oh! Do not talk of such things!” cried Mrs Bennet, fanning herself with her lace handkerchief. “To think of my dear Jane in such a household!”

“Perhaps now you may feel that the pursuit of Mr Bingley is not worth such gruesome risks?” enquired Mr Bennet of his wife with a teasing smile.

Mrs Bennet sniffed and looked away.

“Well, I believe that any threats that Jane may be exposed to are of an infectious rather than a supernatural variety,” said Elizabeth firmly. “I thank you for the warning, Lydia, but I believe I may be safe from any ghostly attack during my visit at Netherfield.”

Catching her father’s twinkling eye, Elizabeth smiled, turned, and quitted the room.

 

Ten minutes later, Elizabeth set off on foot for Netherfield Park. She had been right in her estimation of a break in the rain, but her appraisal of the sky had been too optimistic. It did not look like it was brightening—in fact, the edges of the horizon were lined with an ominous black, which spread across the sky like an inky stain. Thick clouds loomed above, heavy with the promise of more rain, and Elizabeth hastened her steps as she cast a worried look at the heavens. It would not do to be caught in another downpour and become ill like Jane!

Elizabeth was well used to walking in the country—indeed, she enjoyed the activity immensely and indulged in it often—but today, the going was decidedly difficult. Heavy rain had turned most of the roads into a veritable quagmire and she sank up to her ankles in mud as she negotiated the stiles between the fields and attempted to avoid the puddles. She was delighted when the house at Netherfield Park finally came into view, and hastened her steps even more.

As she approached the house, Elizabeth raised her eyes to trace the outline of its elegant architecture. She had seen it several times in her rambles about the countryside and had always admired the beauty of this country manor. Today, however, it looked very different. Outlined as it was by a nimbus of black cloud in the sky behind it, the house had an almost menacing air as it sat brooding in the middle of its rain-sodden grounds.

Elizabeth laughed and chided herself for her fanciful imaginings. She was letting Lydia’s wild tales and the mood of the inclement weather prevail upon her good senses, and incline her towards melodrama!

She bent her head to negotiate the last section of muddy field, then jumped as an eerie scream filled the air. Elizabeth gasped and looked around, searching for the source of the sound. Then her steps faltered as she raised her gaze once more and her eyes caught sight of something at the top of the house.

Elizabeth blinked and looked again, but she was not mistaken. There, in a small attic window, showed a ghostly white face, with black eyes that bored into her very soul.


 

CHAPTER THREE

 

So great was the shock upon seeing the apparition at the window that Elizabeth tripped and stumbled in the mud. Indeed, she would have fallen, but for the hand that shot out and caught her arm in a strong grip. A tall, dark figure loomed over her and Elizabeth drew breath to scream before she realised that she recognised the handsome countenance.

“Mr Darcy!” she cried, struggling to regain her composure.

He sketched a slight bow. “Miss Bennet.”

Elizabeth was very conscious of his hand, still solicitously underneath her elbow. “I… I must thank you, sir. It would seem that were it not for your quick reflexes, I would be prostrate in the mud.”

“It is I perhaps who should offer my apologies,” said Darcy. “It appears that my sudden appearance may have startled you into missing your step.”

“Oh no, that was not the reason. I stumbled because I believed I saw—”

Here, Elizabeth faltered, suddenly aware of who she was speaking to. She had no wish to confess her fanciful imaginings to such a stern gentleman. She coloured at the thought of repeating Lydia’s wild assertions regarding the house in which her sister was a guest. A quick glance from the side of her eyes reassured her that there was no longer any face at the top window.

Perhaps there had never been.

“Yes, Miss Bennet?” asked Darcy with a raised eyebrow.

“’Tis of no consequence,” said Elizabeth quickly. “Um… I have come to see my sister Jane. We were all very concerned to hear of her illness.”

“I believe it is merely a cold,” said Darcy. “Bingley has already sent for the apothecary and every effort is being made to see to her comfort.”

“Oh, I am sure Jane could not want for better care,” said Elizabeth hastily. “But I hope you will understand a sister’s concern. Will you take me to her?”

Darcy inclined his head. “Certainly. This way, Miss Bennet.”

Turning, he led the way back to the house. Elizabeth followed silently, marvelling at the turn of circumstances that had led her to now be walking next to this formidable man. It seemed that Mr Darcy was a great walker for Elizabeth could not help noticing his powerful strides and the ease with which he moved. It brought to mind an illustration she had once seen of a great jungle cat from the Orient—a savage, beautiful beast with inky black pelt and glittering green eyes, and such a fluid, commanding grace in movement.

Elizabeth blinked as she realised where her thoughts had led her and was glad that Mr Darcy was not looking her way, so as not to observe the high colour in her cheeks. Lydia’s histrionic tales must have affected her more than she realised! It was not like her to be prone to such wild, fanciful imaginings—and about this man, no less! She was relieved when they reached the house and Mr Darcy—with another elegant bow—handed her over to the care of a manservant. As Elizabeth followed the servant across the hall, she put Mr Darcy from her mind and resolved to think no more of him.

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