Love's Arrow Poisoned


Part 8

"Of this pair: one from the beauty and the grace of youth, one, innocent and youthful perished. The other-what could she, O widowed thing!"

- Thomas Lovell Beddoes

The reception accorded to Elizabeth and Lydia when they arrived at the Fitton residence was, initially at least, precisely what the former had apprehended. Mrs. Wickham was met by the elder Miss Fitton, who was alone -- as her sister was engaged in visiting a friend, -- with cool though polite civility, which however did nothing to diminish Lydia's inclination to indulge in the style of behaviour which she favoured. She gushed, she giggled and, when Elizabeth almost determined to make their excuses and depart before Miss Fitton's opinions were irrevocably tarnished towards herself as well as her sister, she introduced Elizabeth to their host with exaggerated solemnity, as though bestowing a favour of considerable condescension. Elizabeth, angered and chagrined by Lydia's manner, spent the following five minutes repairing the damage that had been wrought thus far by expressing sincere pleasure in Miss Fitton's acquaintance, inquiring politely after her absent sister and, more particularly, her father -- which Lydia had signally failed to do -- and responding with deprecation to Lydia's interruptions, which sought to emphasize Elizabeth's stature and affluence. Miss Fitton at first thawed only slightly, but as Elizabeth continued to display her genuineness and pleasant manners, accentuated as they were by the contrast to Lydia's childish and petty interjections, she warmed to Elizabeth quickly and bestowed on her the first genuine smile they had received since their arrival. She invited them to sit and called for refreshments.

Elizabeth breathed an inaudible sigh of relief as she sat down, gratified that she had succeeded in showing Miss Fitton that not all the Bennet family were as foolish as Lydia would lead one to suspect. As Miss Fitton made some polite enquiries of her sister about her condition, she studied the former discreetly. In one respect, she reflected, Lydia had been totally correct in her information during their journey. Miss Amelia Fitton was decidedly pretty, with masses of chestnut hair piled on her head in a becoming style and deep, hazel eyes. She was tall, Elizabeth had noticed, with a slim figure and was dressed in a flattering dark green gown and adorned with the minimum of jewellery. She observed, however, that the gown was not new and surmised that her host was forced to manage as best she could on limited resources, in which she appeared to succeed with some distinction. Some moments spent studying the morning room in which they were sitting confirmed these suspicions. The furniture was of very good quality, but the faded fabric on chair and sofa, the carpet slightly worn near the centre of the room and the yellowing of the cream paint-work bespoke a diminution in income which prevented the Fittons maintaining their previous lifestyle.

Her manners were quiet and unassuming, and she tolerated Lydia's conduct with a patient and indulgent air which, while without being sufficiently insincere to convey any great pleasure in her society, never betrayed any impatience or irritation at her self-centred and insensitive disposition. Elizabeth could appreciate the level of forbearance and self-control this response demanded and her opinion of their hostess grew appreciably as she witnessed it, while further consideration led her to conjecture that Amelia was better able to countenance Lydia's behaviour because life had dealt her misfortunes which had formed a character which accepted the hardships this entailed if not with resignation, then at least with endurance.

The arrival of the tea, brought by a middle aged woman who appeared to be a valued family retainer, judging by Miss Fitton's demeanour towards her, brought about a slight change in the progress of the conversation as Lydia began to find the prospect of continuing her discourse and consuming the inordinate number of biscuits and slices of cake she crammed into her mouth more difficult in practise than in theory. Miss Fitton turned to Elizabeth and made some polite enquiries about her home, this time unencumbered by any interference from Lydia. Elizabeth answered readily and the two were soon engaged in a debate on all aspects of running a household, Miss Fitton's longer experience in this activity balancing Elizabeth's greater responsibilities, she being accountable for two houses, both of them rather large. Elizabeth confessed that as far as their London house went, she had only spent a few days there immediately after the wedding and two weeks at Easter, when she had accompanied her husband to town on business. She intimated that she would have the task of taking a more active role when they went to town for her new sister Georgiana's first season and coming-out ball. Miss Fitton responded with interest to her frank and unselfconscious confessions and within minutes they were getting on famously, their conversation lively and interspersed with laughter and keen observation.

"And how long have you been married, Mrs. Darcy?" Miss Fitton had gone on to ask, though she already knew the answer from Lydia, who had boasted to all who would listen of her sister's good fortune in securing Mr. Darcy; though she had added that he was a proud, disagreeable man.

"For just above six months," Elizabeth had replied, smiling.

Miss Fitton, who knew Lydia well enough to mistrust the veracity of her assertions and was beginning to feel she knew Elizabeth well enough to doubt she would willingly marry anyone as disagreeable as Lydia described, continued with, "And how do you find it?"

Elizabeth looked at her keenly. She had not quite managed to maintain the evenness of her voice as she made the inquiry and when Elizabeth studied her more closely she noticed a tension about her face which betrayed some strong emotion. Anxiety perhaps? Remembering Lydia's information about Miss Fitton's recent betrothal, and surmising that like most women about to enter the married state she was apprehensive about the future, she attempted to reassure her with, "Well, it is a major change, of course, to leave one's home and family behind. But with the right person, I am sure, there is no greater felicity."

"And you have found the right person?"

"Oh, yes. I could not wish for a better," stated Elizabeth sincerely, bestowing on Miss Fitton a look of openness and sympathy, causing her to smile, though a little tentatively. This small exchange was, however, rather spoilt by a loud, unladylike snort from Lydia. The other two looked at her with expressions that displayed surprize and displeasure and, uncharacteristically abashed, she was silent for a moment under their gaze, before taking another biscuit and crunching it noisily. Elizabeth rolled her eyes at their hostess and Miss Fitton relaxed visibly and appeared to be suppressing laughter.

"I understand, Miss Fitton, that..." said Elizabeth, before that lady interrupted with, "Please, call me Amelia, or Amy if you prefer." Lydia looked astonished and huffed in annoyance. She had known Amelia Fitton for nearly six months and it had taken almost three of them before she had been allowed the privilege of calling her by her first name. Fortunately, her display went quite unnoticed by the other two, as Elizabeth was answering.

"Of course," said she, pleased by the overture of friendship this request signalled, "and please call me Elizabeth, or Lizzy."

"Thank you. Oh, I am sorry, I interrupted you."

"I was going to say that I understand that you have recently become engaged yourself."

Amelia appeared disconcerted by this declaration, though her discomposure was well disguised, and she shot Lydia a look which was not altogether friendly, before answering briefly, "Yes, though it has not been announced publicly yet."

Elizabeth, seeing this reaction, surmised that Lydia had once again allowed her proclivity for gossip to override her discretion. Obviously she had been told in confidence and Amelia was not happy that news of her engagement was being broadcast. She was about to offer some apology for her lapse when Amelia turned to Lydia and said in the same coldly civil tone that she had first received them, "You did not tell me, when you were here the other day, how you knew about it, Lydia. I suspected Bella was your informant, but she later denied it. Pray, how did you know, for I am sure you did not hear it from her."

"No," Lydia replied, completely unconcerned, "Wickham told me."

Worse and worse. Elizabeth felt her face flush, at her own embarrassment over her faux pas and vexation at Lydia's indiscretion. She stole a glance at Miss Fitton and saw for the first time that her air of forbearance had slipped and there was anger in her eyes; though her observation went unnoticed, as Amelia was regarding Lydia fixedly.

"Really?" responded Amelia in the same tone, "and how does Mr. Wickham know?" She said the name with an undertone of contempt.

Lydia shrugged. "I don't know, he did not tell me."

Elizabeth, at first rendered mute and immobile by this exchange, had by now determined that she must take action before proceedings deteriorated still further. She had just steeled herself to interject when she was forestalled by the door opening suddenly and a young woman entering. She halted at the sight of the three of them sitting there, two betraying evidence of the tension in the atmosphere and one apparently unaware of it, before coming forward hesitantly. Her eyes swept quickly over each in turn, bestowing on Lydia a look which betrayed some disapproval.

"Ahh, Bella," Amelia greeted her in a return to her more relaxed tone, then added with a hint of sarcasm and a glance at Lydia, "what fortunate timing."

"Sutton? Do you mean the attorney?" asked Sir Thomas. He moved back to the body and scanned the features again, from closer proximity than previously and with more attention. "By God, so it is!" he exclaimed after a few seconds thus engaged, "I did not recognise him at first. The face is turned towards the ground and the blood has settled in it." He shuddered.

Darcy, who had heard Perry's revelation as to the identity of the corpse with a mind that was becoming more immune by the hour to unpleasant disclosures, which was hardly surprizing given the practise it had received in the last two days, nevertheless started and stood dumbly, staring at Perry for several seconds after his disclosure. The Captain's gaze was fixed on the corpse in a look of shock which was soon replaced by one of confusion and disbelief and, sensing Darcy's eyes on him, he looked up. Their eyes met; Darcy's dark and unreadable and Perry's, open-wide and perplexed, his raised brow conveying his inability to comprehend this turn of events.

Darcy, who just a few moments earlier had been willing to dismiss this mysterious death as totally unconnected with their investigations, now felt the full force of how mistaken that assumption had been. He scolded himself as he realized that as soon as they had established that the dead man was not Wickham he had been less attentive than necessary, a misjudgement he vowed not to repeat. He turned his attention back to the corpse, but whereas before he had only studied to establish its identity, this time his eyes registered all the details he had previously overlooked. The dark hair, neatly barbered. The broad, powerful shoulders and deep chest. The well-manicured and shapely hands, one finger adorned with a large seal ring. The expensive and well-cut coat, spotless breeches and stockings and highly polished black boots. The fine malacca walking stick which lay by its side and, a couple of feet from the head lying crown upwards, the well-brushed hat. But all these details were overshadowed by the silver handle of the knife which protruded from Sutton's back, to which his gaze returned again and again. There was very little blood around the wound and it was the only disturbance in the broad back of Sutton's light blue coat, suggesting he had been killed almost instantaneously by a single blow. He shook his head in bewilderment and, recalling the magistrate's last exclamation had, asked, "Did you know him, Sir Thomas?"

Sir Thomas pursed his lips, contemplating Darcy shrewdly and, after cogitating for a moment, answered slowly, "Well, our paths did not cross in any professional capacity, you understand. But I have heard the odd whisper; that he was said to sail a little close to the wind in his business dealings, for instance. He has never appeared before me, neither as advocate or, erm, for any other reason, which is unusual. I have never been introduced to him, though I have seen him at one of my clubs two or three times, where I believe he was a guest of another member. The only time his name emerged in any case that came before me was when he was mentioned as one of the creditors of a chap charged with debt, though the action was brought by another man." He paused a moment as though he would say something more, then appeared to change his mind and finished lamely, "That's all I can say, really."

Darcy nodded. This seemed to fit in with what Perry had told General Ashe and himself during their conference earlier that morning. Perry has said that Sutton was too wily to risk bringing himself to the official notice of someone like Sir Thomas, though it was clear that the local grapevine had performed with its customary efficiency and Sir Thomas had heard enough to pique his interest, probably -- judging by his uncertain manner -- more than he was willing to disclose. Darcy wondered at the reason for what appeared to be some reticence on the magistrate's part to be completely candid about what he knew or suspected, though he reflected that this might be due to Sir Thomas wishing to protect the sources of his information. It then struck Darcy that he was unaware exactly what details of Wickham's recent activities General Ashe had imparted to Sir Thomas when requesting his aid -- though a moments reflection reassured him that nothing pertaining to Sutton could have passed between the two, since the general was unaware of his dealings with Wickham until that morning's conference. He wondered how much further Sir Thomas could be taken into their confidence. Perry, who knew as much as he did, had seen the possibility immediately, as revealed by his choice of words before. Had Wickham passed in one moment from the role of victim to that of perpetrator? Was his disappearance the result of flight following a deadly encounter with his chief creditor, the man who could have him incarcerated should Wickham dishonour his debts? Darcy found himself torn. He had thanked the general when he had been informed that Sir Thomas' help had been obtained, as he had then been concerned only to discover Wickham's whereabouts; but now he contemplated the possibility that once Sir Thomas knew the nature of Wickham's connection with Sutton, he would raise the hue and cry for Wickham and any attempt to prevent all they had learned becoming public would be utterly futile. His disappearance, coinciding as it appeared to do with the tragedy, would be seen as an extremely suspicious circumstance, and he was sure that Sir Thomas would accept the obvious solution rather than view the evidence with the scepticism a truly impartial investigation should demand. Darcy would have no qualms, should Wickham prove to be responsible, to see him pay the price for the crime, but he felt they should tread warily before jumping to conclusions, which was what he feared Sir Thomas might do. He decided that he would ensure every aspect of this was investigated thoroughly. He would provide Sir Thomas with any relevant facts, should he request them, but not any speculations. He considered that, given what they knew of Sutton's activities, Wickham was likely to be but one of many who could have reason to rejoice at the prospect of Sutton being unable to continue them, and this thought eased the slight guilt he felt at having decided to be less open with Sir Thomas.

Darcy felt the first thing he needed to do was consult with Perry in order to obtain his support in this regard, and he was just formulating a plan to achieve this when Sir Thomas, who had been looking around somewhat distractedly, exclaimed, "Ahh, here comes Tredgold." Darcy and Perry turned in time to see the doctor, accompanied by Constable Hood, approaching from the gate in the churchyard wall, where the constable had been standing sentinel in anticipation of the doctor's arrival. Sir Thomas advanced towards them and greeted Tredgold with familiarity, turning back with him and explaining the situation on the way. He introduced Darcy and Perry to the doctor when they arrived back at the body, and Tredgold bowed and greeted them courteously. He was a man of fifty years or so, short and dapper in appearance with a shock of almost pure white hair and bright eyes that communicated intelligence. The hand he offered to Darcy was small and as perfectly formed as a craftsman's, but his grip was firm and all his movements were precise and exact, giving him an air of competence and control which impressed the others immediately. He responded to their greetings economically, before turning his attention to the corpse.

"Well, well, and what have you done to yourself then?" he said to the inert form in front of him, in the manner of one talking to a child who had been brought to him with a scraped knee.

"I would have thought that was fairly obvious, even to you, Tredgold." Sir Thomas said with dry humour.

"Never take anything for granted," was the calm response, "you know I don't like to jump to conclusions."

"Jump?" snorted Sir Thomas in amused exasperation. "You don't even crawl towards them."

Tredgold grinned wickedly. "No, I leave that to you."

Darcy suppressed a smile at this good-natured banter and, seizing the opportunity to achieve two objectives at once, suggested to Sir Thomas, "Perhaps while the doctor is making his examination, Perry and I should reconnoitre the rest of the ground. I particularly want to look at that place the sexton mentioned."

"Oh, yes, the other way in," Sir Thomas replied. "Good idea. The constable and I will stay here and assist the doctor."

Darcy nodded, and he and Perry moved away together slowly. The breach in the wall that the sexton had described, which had been hidden by the trees which adjoined it from their view whilst they stood at the gate, was now visible from their position in the centre of the clearing in a gap between two evergreens, and they moved towards it deliberately. They began by examining the area close to the body and were rewarded almost instantly when both noticed some small disturbances of the ground, which was unevenly covered with grass. The marks were not distinct enough to yield very definite evidence, except on the barer patches of soil, and both contemplated them for a moment in silence.

"These look like the traces of two or more persons," offered Perry after a while, "though they do not seem to point in any direction."

"Yes," Darcy agreed, "I would suggest they are the traces of two, or more, people who had an interview of some kind. They seemed to have moved about while they stayed in this general area." They continued on a few more yards further in the direction of the gap in the trees, scanning the ground as they went.

"Ahh, here is a bare patch. The marks are more easily recognisable," Darcy indicated. Perry approached closer and studied the area he had pointed out. The traces here were more clearly defined and actual footprints could be made out in the soil. The two studied them with interest. "Two people, and they were definitely here at the same time," said Darcy.

"How do you know that?"

"See here," Darcy pointed with his stick, "one of them, who has the smaller boots by the way, has trodden in the other's footprint. Whereas here," he pointed again, "the opposite has occurred. Therefore they were here together. I would say that it was two persons, no more. I cannot see evidence of a third. Come, let us look at the entrance in the wall, the traces may be more revealing."

Perry acquiesced and they moved on, following what traces they could see, a task which became more difficult as they were less evident in this area. As they passed under the shade of the trees, the wall came clearly into view and they saw that they were on a bee-line for the place the sexton had described to them, as the fallen section was visible directly in front of them, its condition explained by a large elm tree which stood close to the wall on the opposite side and sent its large boughs in all directions.

"Well, it would seem there is little doubt where they came from," Perry said.

Darcy nodded. "Yes, though given the traces at the gate in the churchyard wall, it was to be expected. It appears to be the only other way in, unless one jumps over the wall or climbs through the hedge."

"True," Perry concurred, "which, considering there is easy access through the gap in the wall, would be unnecessarily energetic."

"Hmm. Well, let us hope the ground nearby can afford us more material for consideration."

The introduction of a fourth into the company in the Fitton's sitting room had initially at least the benefit of requiring only one of the sisters to suffer Lydia's ill-conceived and imprudent disclosures. Unfortunately for that lady, the task fell at the outset to Miss Amelia, who undertook it with stoical fortitude. Miss Bella, having assessed the situation quickly on entering, had diffused the chilly atmosphere somewhat by smiling warmly and embracing her sister and welcoming Lydia, though this time emotionlessly. Amelia introduced her to Elizabeth and Bella greeted her with more warmth than Elizabeth would have expected given the look she had bestowed on Lydia on entering, and engaged her in conversation. Before long they were conversing like old acquaintances.

Elizabeth studied the younger sister as they discoursed and at first it was the similarities between Miss Bella and Amelia that struck her. The same chestnut hair and hazel eyes, though this time tinged with green, the same tall figure and the same pleasant, melodious voice -- they were very much alike she concluded. After several minutes more observation, however, she began to notice some differences that she had at first overlooked. There was a tenaciousness about Bella's manner of conversing, which prevented any dissembling, and she had a determined, almost obstinate cast to her features which, Elizabeth noticed with surprize, did not detract from her beauty but rather amplified it. Elizabeth felt that if Amy's character and air seemed to indicate reserve, complaisance and a willingness to accept life's hardships and endure them as well as possible, Bella's indicated an inquisitive, single-minded and resolute disposition which would fight against injustice with a strong will. She decided that she had met a kindred spirit, and joined in the conversation eagerly.

While they were thus engaged, the other two were faring less well. Amy was disinclined to continue speaking to Lydia, though she was willing to listen as politely as possible, but after a few attempts by the latter to interest her in the latest fashions and the scandalous rumours that Mrs. Tatley wore a wig, which were met with strained tolerance but without response, they relapsed into silence and attended to the conversation between Bella and Elizabeth.

"What brings you to Newcastle, Mrs. Darcy?" Bella was asking.

Elizabeth, sensing the others' attention, answered diplomatically, "My husband had business in the area, so I accompanied him as I knew it would give me an opportunity to visit Mrs. Wickham."

"So you are staying at your sister's home?"

Elizabeth suppressed a smile at the prospect. "No, there was not time to forewarn her we were coming, and we would not want to inconvenience her. Mr. Darcy and I are staying with General Ashe and his wife," Elizabeth glanced over just in time to see the look of alarm which overspread Lydia's face at this disclosure. Since Lydia had not had the courtesy to ask her where she was staying earlier, she at first felt little sympathy for her hearing the news in this manner. However, a brief rumination persuaded her that Lydia had probably assumed they were merely staying at an inn, and the realization that their being at the Ashe's might cause suspicion about the real reasons for their journey compelled her to add, almost without pause, "The General is an acquaintance of Mr. Darcy's cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and he and his wife have been most kind." Lydia appeared to be soothed a little by this explanation.

"Oh, I am sure," Bella replied. "Catherine Ashe is a very pleasant woman indeed."

Elizabeth concurred. "Yes, she has been most hospitable. You are acquainted with her then?"

"Yes, though not very closely. Although we have no connection with the ---shire, we do know a number of the officers, and their friends. There are not so many people here as London, or even Edinburgh, and our community is more like a town's -- everyone knows everyone else, and their business."

"I can appreciate -- and sympathise with -- that," smiled Elizabeth, "for Mrs. Wickham and myself come from such a place; near Meryton, in Hertfordshire. There you could not order an extra duck for supper without it being the principal topic of discussion in every parlour for three miles." Miss Bella responded with a gesture of amused comprehension, and Elizabeth continued in the same playful tone, "Tell me, what do you think of the officers -- are they the fine, upright body of men that all army men are reputed to be?"

"Well," responded Bella, a little of her gaiety disappearing, "they are, I suspect, like any other group of men. Some are very gentlemanly, several are rather handsome, no doubt -- though perhaps one or two are rather too well aware of the fact -- and some are rather plain but still pleasant enough company." She paused there, as though she would say more but was unsure whether to proceed.

"Indeed?" said Elizabeth. "This is a testimonial! Even the ones not blessed with handsome looks agreeable company? I wonder, Miss Amy, you did not choose your fiancÚ from among the officers, especially one of the gentlemanly, handsome ones."

"No, I assure you," that lady supplied, "I have never considered any of the officers in that light." The tone of her voice was sincere as she said this, and Elizabeth had no difficulty believing her, but something about her eyes and the surreptitious glance that passed between herself and her sister piqued her curiosity. She docketed the impression away for future consideration and turned back to Bella.

"This accounts for the good among them. But what of that which is less estimable?" she probed, teasingly.

"Ahh, there we pass into the bounds of hearsay, for surely you could not expect me to have personal knowledge of any ungentlemenly behaviour?" Bella rejoindered in a similar tone, making Elizabeth like her all the more. "But I suppose," she continued less assuredly, when she saw from Elizabeth's raised brow and fixed gaze that she would not be able to avoid an answer, "there are a few whose acquaintance I would be happy to forgo."

"And why pray? ...Oh, do not worry," she assured her, as she sensed some discomfiture at her scrutiny, "I will not demand you name the miscreants."

"That is considerate of you," replied Bella with a little emphasis. "Very well, there are a few I suppose who think too well of themselves, as I said, who are perhaps a little too familiar. There are some who are perhaps more interested in the social opportunities that their positions enable them to enjoy. Cards and billiards -- often for money I am told -- are a favourite pastime, I believe. As to their relations with those of the other sex, well I can only conjecture from what else I know of their characters, which is not a great deal -- but as much as I want, I assure you."

"I see," said Elizabeth. She had observed Bella's eyes darting around the room as she made this speech and noticed with interest the way she seemed to struggle -- albeit successfully -- to avoid looking at Lydia. Aware that Lydia's presence was a hindrance to any further confidences and thankful that Bella had been as forthright as possible while maintaining such diplomatic language, she decided to abandon any further enquiries on the subject until a more advantageous juncture.

"I believe," Amy ventured, rejoining the conversation, and stealing a glance at Lydia, "that you will get an opportunity to form your own conclusions about the officers during your time here."

"Yes," agreed Bella archly. "No doubt you will be attending Mr. Nash's gathering in two days time. The General and Mrs. Ashe are usually present and I'm sure Mr. Nash will extend the invitation to include Mr. Darcy and yourself. There you can judge if my opinions are accurate." She smiled at Elizabeth to suggest that she was confident they would be.

"I have not heard of Mr. Nash," confessed Elizabeth, "or any such invitation, but I will be pleased to attend if Mr. Darcy is favourable to us doing so. I'm sure..."

"Ohh nonsense!" Lydia interrupted rudely, determined to have a share in the conversation, "you must certainly come, Lizzy, with or without Mr. Darcy. Why, I dare say if he does deign to go he'll only stand silently in a corner staring at everyone in disapproval." She laughed like a hyena at her own wit, until Elizabeth eyes turned on her with a look that would have stopped a runaway horse.

A look of acute embarrassment passed between Amy and Bella at Lydia's undignified and improper exclamation. Both marvelled anew that the other two could be related and Bella could only manage an encouraging, "Yes, you must certainly come, Amy and I would greatly appreciate some agreeable company." The last was emphasized by a cold look at Lydia.

"Thank you," Elizabeth responded with apparent calm, though she was seething, "You may be assured that if the invitation is extended we will do all in our power to attend." The sisters smiled their approbation at this promise and the manner in which it was delivered. "But tell me," Elizabeth continued, desperate to move the conversation on, "I know nothing about this Mr. Nash. I assume he is familiar with the officers, as you say they will be in attendance, but what is he like?"

"What is he like?!" exclaimed Lydia, as though amazed at her sisters ignorance, "why he is only the most eligible bachelor for twenty miles around! Every unmarried woman under forty is madly in love with him!"

"Not every one, Mrs Wickham," Bella replied, with emphasis and a small glance at her sister.

Part 9

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