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Captain Vordarcy's Alliance (3a)
Captain Vordarcy habitually operated more by instinct than forward planning, thought the contents of his trunk were carefully selected, and he had more-than-half-expected someone to rush out from Longbourn. Miss Elizabeth had after all been gone for hours and, if he was any judge of men, Collins must be in almost as much of a lather as the Vorbennet family at her continuing absence. Vordarcy was not altogether surprised the fawning parson had a thoroughly mean streak, for he had seen the signs in the man’s striking combination of self-satisfied strut before his parishioners and oily deference to his noble patroness, though he was taken aback at how far Collins had gone. Summary execution might be an archaic and rarely enforced penalty, but for a commoner to strike a Vor in his own home, and to strike a Vor maiden, was egregious. Aunt Catherine’s role in promoting this behaviour was a troubling thought for another day, if one he had every intention of pursuing ; for now, he had a closed door to contemplate, and no indication of any response from the house. The armsmen had their orders and were in position, the trunk was unloaded to the gravel, and Vordarcy shrugged, nodding to Bothari. The knocker boomed once, twice.

“Ahoy the house!”

Bothari could bellow with the best of them, but it was several moments before the door opened a bare crack and a female voice answered with a distinct quaver.

“Who calls the house?”

He had only to glance at Miss Elizabeth for her to speak, pitching her voice for him alone.

“Mrs Hill.”

He stepped forward, pitching his own voice so the servant could hear, but no-one much further inside.

“Lord Vordarcy calls the house, Mrs Hill, and is come to deal with Mr Collins. Miss Elizabeth is safe, and with me. Please step aside at once to allow my armsmen entrance.”

Miss Elizabeth had stayed at his side, and her soft voice did the trick.

“I am here, Mrs Hill. Let us in and all shall be well.”

Her trust delighted Vordarcy, but requiting it gave him no time to luxuriate. As the door opened, the elderly housekeeper peering out, he stepped back, allowing Bothari, Roic, and Wallace to pass him and enter, heels ringing on the wooden floor. Offering Miss Elizabeth his arm he stepped forward again, thinking to ask Mrs Hill what the situation was, but sudden shouts closely followed by the ring of metal striking something had him unthinkingly sweeping Miss Elizabeth behind him and striding past the housekeeper.

The sight was bizarre — the whole Vorbennet family seated around the hall on wheelback chairs taken from the dining room, Mrs Vorbennet and the younger girls sniffling, Miss Mary stone-faced, Miss Vorbennet grey with fear but hanging on, and Mr Vorbennet blue and shaking, wheezing harshly, while Collins, shouting and squirming, was held by Wallace and Roic as Bothari approached him. A kitchen knife spinning on the floor to one side explained the noise, and there was to Vordarcy a degree of genuine animus in his senior armsman as Bothari cut off Collins’s noise by stabbing an iron finger into his midriff while simultaneously thrusting a ball of wadded cotton into the parson’s mouth. Never one for niceties, Bothari didn’t bother to check the man’s left pocket, but simply inserted two fingers and ripped it loose, deftly catching the phial and letting a soiled handkerchief fall to the floor. Miss Elizabeth had come to his side, and despite a gasp was already moving forwards again as Bothari spoke, holding out the phial.

“This what you need, Miss Elizabeth?”

“Yes. Thank you, Armsman Bothari.”

She was at her father’s side in an instant, hands busy with the phial, and he opened his mouth without speaking. She let three drops fall onto his tongue, frowned, and added a fourth. His relief was evident within seconds, the blue shade retreating, and as his breathing eased he looked at his daughter.

“Dear Lord, Lizzie, your face!”

“I am well, Papa, and the wound has been tended. Please do not let it distress you now.”

Mr Vorbennet searched her eyes, but nodded. “No. I have had enough distress today. But I shall not forget.” His breath caught again, slightly. “One drop more, I think, Lizzie.”

She frowned again but complied, and Vordarcy saw Mr Vorbennet’s face slacken a little as pain lessened. A glance showed him the other women also slumping in relief, and before any of them lost composure he took a long stride forward and gave them a sweeping bow.

“Mrs Vorbennet, ladies, you have borne up magnificently under the most terrifying ordeal, as has Miss Elizabeth. I assure you that it is over, that Miss Elizabeth’s injury has been treated, and that Mr Collins will rue his actions this day. But much needs to be done to ensure your safety and reputations, so please remember still that you are Vor, and remain seated and silent for now.”

The two youngest Vorbennets, and their mother, each briefly received a full Captain Vordarcy stare, but Miss Mary’s face was down, and meeting Miss Vorbennet’s gaze, her eyes tearful with relief, he softened his look.

“Miss Vorbennet, Mr Bingley was horrified to hear of your ordeal, very sorry his situation prevented him accompanying me here at once, and hopes to comfort you with his company tomorrow, if you feel up to receiving him.”

Her eyes widened, and he inclined his head briefly before looking at Collins as one might at a mangy dog, and lifting an eyebrow at Roic.

“He was holding the knife?”

“Yes, m’lord. No idea how to use it, mind. And he’s cut off some of Miss Mary’s hair.”

The armsman nodded aside, and Vordarcy followed his direction to see a cut tress by Miss Mary’s chair, before rising to meet her — very angry — gaze.
“I told him he was serving Satan, my Lord, and he seemed to believe I meant his patroness and became incensed at me.”

Vordarcy fought an urge to laugh, and only nodded gravely.

“My aunt is a perfect harridan, Miss Mary, but not that bad.” There was a muffled bleat from Collins. “And I promise you this man will be threshed and beaten small, even as the mountains.” Vordyce was notoriously fond of quoting Isaiah. “Are you otherwise injured?”

A firm headshake. “No, my Lord.”

“Then please contain yourself a little longer.”

He crossed to Mr Vorbennet and went to one knee by the older man’s chair, laying a hand gently on his arm and speaking softly enough that only Elizabeth could also hear his words.

“Mr Vorbennet, please forgive me but I am about to usurp your authority most shamelessly, and in your own home.”

The eyes inspecting him were still shocky and careworn, but as sharp as ever, and Mr Vorbennet’s voice only a murmur.

“You have made an excellent start on it, my Lord, besides caring for my Lizzie, so do please carry on.”

“Excellent. My thanks, sir, and I assure you both that you will approve the results, and that any financial matters I mention will refer strictly to my own charge. But I must also warn you that I will need to tell some white lies, and, I fancy, exaggerate my own bloodthirstiness in dealing with my aunt’s vile parson.”

“I imagine I will be able to bear with that, my Lord.”

Vordarcy felt more than a flicker of admiration : were he to have been held for a day, ill and helpless, fearing the worst, he doubted he would manage such gentle resilience.

“It is clear where your daughter’s true Vor spine comes from, sir. Now, excuse me.”

He rose and turned.

“Bothari, the chest.” The armsman strode back towards the door and Vordarcy looked at Mrs Hill, watching proceedings with wide eyes and open mouth. “Mrs Hill, where are the other servants?”

“Locked  below stairs, my Lord, all day. That man” — the words were spat out — “only let me out to answer the door and demand I serve him wine.” The old woman took a breath. “And he said if we didn’t obey him, or if anyone left the house, we’d all be turned off without a penny.”

“That shall not happen, Mrs Hill. You have my Name’s Oath as Vordarcy on it.” He hadn’t thought her eyes could get any wider, but she nodded and dropped a shaky curtsey. “Is any servant injured, or otherwise in need? No? Then I must ask you to leave them as they are for a little while, though you yourself should bear witness on their behalf.”

Puzzlement joined astonishment in her eyes, but his attention shifted as Bothari and Redchurch brought in the chest and set it down.

“Ah, good. Thank you, Armsmen. Now then.” He knelt and lifted the lid, taking the flat case he wanted from a side-pocket in the chest’s lining and setting it on the reclosed lid. “Ladies, forgive me for obliging you to see another knife, and for some of the words you will hear, but it is necessary as well as fitting.”

Opening the case he took out the wickedly curved steel blade, stood, and walked to stand a few feet in front of Collins, contemplating the odious man and letting his rage and contempt be clearly seen.

“The gag, Bothari.”

The armsman plucked out the wadding and Collins heaved a breath, but before he could speak Vordarcy began, his voice deadly flat.

“What you supposed you were about is beyond me, Collins, but do not try to claim my aunt’s instructions ran to this kind of criminality. She may be a harridan but she would never condone a commoner striking a Vor, nor any man striking a Vor maiden. Nor do I, and I would gladly see you run through for it, as would the Council of Counts.”

His voice carried the pure truth of it, and he could see the man’s sweat doubling and the sudden fear in his bulging eyes.

“But simple death, however richly merited, will not do for you, Collins, if only because one reason Miss Elizabeth could and would not assent to your absurd proposal — besides your being a sweaty, inane, and dim-witted toad-eater who bathes far too rarely — is that she was in the process of considering my proposal.”

The room was utterly silent.

Considering, Collins, for I have deficiencies to overcome to make myself worthy of her acceptance. You are no more worthy of her than a slug in the garden. And don’t you dare parrot my aunt’s delusional fantasies about my engagement to my cousin Anne, either, which have no reality whatever. Not that you’re going to be parroting anything, Collins, because you have had the unmitigated gall not merely to propose to, but to strike and threaten to impose yourself upon, Miss Elizabeth, with her father and her whole family, and frankly I have never been more enraged with anyone. You are, I imagine, familiar with my aunt’s anger. But she is only a Vorfitzwilliam. I have the same Vordarcy rage as the Count my father, and you are about to suffer it in the fullest measure.”

He turned the knife, letting the candlelight from the wall-sconces gleam on the blade.

“This, Collins, is a gelding knife in Damascus steel, once used to provide eunuchs for the harem of the Grand Turk. And it will find its proper use once I have relieved you, very slowly, of your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, thumbs—”

Vordarcy had a nice long list in mind but found it unneeded as Collins, who had gone various interesting shades of pale puce and dirty white as he spoke, simultaneously soiled himself and fainted. Vordarcy stared at the slumped form held up only by Roic and Wallace, and the growing puddle at his feet.

“Huh. A true coward as well. Still, fainting’s the first useful thing he’s ever done, I dare say.” Someone behind him stifled a snort. “Lug the guts outside, please, armsmen, dump over his head and trousers the bucket of water Mrs Hill will be kind enough to provide, and continue to whisper the sweetest nothings in his jug ears until sent for.” He turned. “And Mrs Hill, besides that bucket, perhaps we might have, first, a maid with a mop, so the flooring takes no harm, and then all the servants for a moment, bringing strong, sweet tea with a dash of brandy for everyone.”

A chorus of ‘Yes, my Lord’s started a flurry of activity as Vordarcy returned the knife to its case, and while an intensely curious but silent maid was dealing with the mess surveyed the Vorbennet women. The crying had stopped, but they were all still clearly in the grip of shock and looked fragile, save for Miss Mary whose fury remained but had been tempered by surprise. Miss Elizabeth’s look of bemusement had returned, but as he crossed to her there was also a flash of amusement in her gaze.

“The harem of the Grand Turk, my Lord? I confess that I am becoming very curious about the other contents of that chest.”

Her voice was soft, pitched for him and her father alone, and he suppressed a laugh, replying in kind.

“One of my white lies, Miss Elizabeth. It’s actually Japanese, I believe — they make splendid swords, too, apparently — but I doubt Collins even knows where that is. I do apologise for the other white lie and the gross impropriety of my speech, however they served their turn.”

He received a measured look.

“I am not repining, my Lord.”

“Nor I, however I may be surprised.” Mr Vorbennet’s colour had improved considerably, Vordarcy was glad to see. “I am not usually a vengeful man, my Lord, but after today I confess to having taken considerable satisfaction in that scene. Lizzie’s whispered account of Lords Voraffable and Vorstony, with Captain Vordarcy, also now seems oddly more plausible.”

“Miss Elizabeth spoke truly, sir, as ever.”

He was saved further answers by the arrival of the remaining servants bearing the tea and brandy he’d asked for, and while it was distributed he winked at Miss Elizabeth and returned briefly to the chest, removing two items. Miss Elizabeth was helping her father, whose hands still trembled, and with the other Vorbennet women drinking gratefully he assembled the servants in a group, Mrs Hill and her husband to the fore. Automatically he tallied them — the Hills as housekeeper-cook and butler, a kitchen maid, a parlour maid, and a single lady’s maid the women must share, Mr Vorbennet’s valet, one footman for heavy work, and a stablehand, all watching him warily. He gave them a short bow.

“You have all undergone a terrible experience, and shown great fortitude. The actions of my aunt’s parson are unforgivable, and he will be punished. You have my word as Vordarcy on it. But I also require your co-operation and oaths of silence. Mrs Hill, has anyone save Miss Elizabeth left the house since Collins began his assault?”

“No, my Lord.” She hesitated, and he raised an eyebrow. “But there are things several of us, and the young ladies, were supposed to do today, and I’ve had to tell several callers the family was indisposed, so there will be questions asked.”

“I see.” He let himself begin to pace, though always looking at those to whom he was speaking. “Miss Elizabeth tells me you are all loyal to the Vorbennets, as you should be, and I am sure none of you would wish their good name to be tarnished. But it goes beyond that, I’m afraid, and not only because of my own involvement. As the appointed parson of Hunsford, serving my aunt, Lady Catherine Vordebourgh, Collins’s appalling behaviour threatens the standing of two families of the High Vor, and no hint of scandal can or will be tolerated. Do you all understand me?”

There was a ragged chorus of assent.

“Excellent.” He held out the book he’d taken from the chest. “A first edition of the Vorstuart Bible. Your name’s oaths of silence on it, please.”

After a long moment Mrs Hill spoke, confusion in her voice.

“But we’re commoners, my Lord.”

“So, Mrs Hill? You have your honour nevertheless, do you not? I require it to be fully engaged. And you surely worship the Lord, keeping His commandments.”

“Yes, of course.”

The housekeeper still seemed flummoxed, but her husband understood, and offered a bow.

“We appreciate the honour, my Lord.”

He swore, his example was followed, the kitchen maid and stablehand concentrating mightily on the necessary words, and Vordarcy nodded.

“Thank you. Loyalty in exceptional circumstances, and the bearing of additional burdens, also deserve reward. This, Mrs Hill” — he handed her his other appropriation from the chest, hearing the meaty clink — “is one hundred golden guineas, twenty apiece for you and Mr Hill, as the seniors, and ten for each of the others. It is only an earnest of my trust, for I will also arrange with Mr Vorbennet for your annual wages to be doubled — for as long as your silence endures.”

That was a generosity to make a lifelong difference, and the thanks variously offered were as sincere as surprised before Mr Hill met his eyes.

“And when we are asked awkward questions, my Lord, what story would you have us tell?”

“Simple and not untrue is always best, Mr Hill. I believe Collins became so excited while praising my aunt that he fell into a thrashing fit, during which one flailing hand struck Miss Elizabeth’s cheek, and another Mr Vorbennet’s chest, as they sought to aid their cousin. If pressed for detail, you should hesitate before confiding that he also soiled himself, and foamed at the mouth. Truly. Can you believe it of a cleric? He being the parson of a High Vor lady, whom he had deceived concerning his falling sickness, and she being most irate about it, the matter is naturally not to be spoken of.”

Rejoicing, he saw both Miss Elizabeth and her father suppress smiles, and received a broad grin from Mr Hill.

“Right you are, my Lord. I dare say there might be some embellishments in the telling, but I’ll make sure them as matter know how it truly was.”

“I have every confidence in you, Mr Hill. Now, perhaps you would see the whole family to the front parlour, with some more tea and some light food, and restore these chairs to their rightful place — save two that I will need, with a small writing-desk and its equipment, in the parlour. Then I must ask all of you to return below stairs and remain there while I do what else is necessary, but perhaps you might also prepare a simple but proper meal for the family, to be served in two hours’ time. And food for yourselves, of course, and for my armsmen, if you would.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

A bustle began, and Vordarcy considered escorting Mrs Vorbennet, but Miss Vorbennet and Miss Mary were seeing to it, the younger girls fluttering around them, so he assisted Miss Elizabeth with her father, feeling the man’s frailty but also a hard grip on his arm.

“What are you about now, my Lord?”

“A little economy, sir — why settle for two birds with one stone if you can have four or five? And the silence of your wife and younger daughters is just as necessary as that of your servants.”

Mr Vorbennet snorted softly.

“Good luck with that, my Lord.”

“Oh, there will be no luck involved, sir. It is necessary to Miss Elizabeth’s welfare that they be silent, and silent they will be. Please extend your trust a little further.”

Mr Vorbennet peered up at him suspiciously, before turning his head to his daughter.

“Lizzie? Is this wise?”

Vordarcy was struck by the man’s appeal to his daughter’s judgement, and an underscore joined his mental note, made a week past, that if he did manage to tempt Miss Elizabeth into matrimony a truly competent steward for Longbourn would need to be found. In her brief glance he also saw new emotions he could not identify, save a certain curiosity.

“We have no more choice than we did before, Papa. And I believe I should like to see my Lord Captain securing Mama’s and Lydia’s … co-operation.” She frowned slightly, her eyes returning to him for a moment. “In any case we are not delivered while Mr Collins remains your heir. Did you not say you would take that in hand also, my Lord?”

“I did, Miss Elizabeth, and I will. Out of interest, Mr Vorbennet, does the entail end with him?”

“It does, my Lord.”

“Good. That makes things easier.”

He and Miss Elizabeth saw her father settled at one end of the longest sofa, and Mrs Hill brought the older man both tea and a plate with some pastries — both eagerly accepted. Vordarcy allowed the other women a few minutes to eat, and directed Mr Hill to put the chairs and writing-desk he’d asked for in the middle of the room, before indicating that all the servants should withdraw. Once they were safely below stairs, Bothari and Redchurch brought the chest through, and he took from it a roll of thick cotton, that the armsmen spread below one chair, so that it stood in isolated splendour, and some lengths of rope, which he put on the table. These preparations had returned everyone to an uneasy silence, and Vordarcy took ready advantage.

“Ladies, some re-arrangement in the seating is needed. Miss Elizabeth, please remain beside your father. Mrs Vorbennet, will you and your other daughters kindly stand and form a line, in order of age save that you, madam, should be in the middle, between Miss Mary and Miss Catherine. Swiftly, now.”

It was a preposterous demand, but Vordarcy allowed his voice no hint of anything except a High Vor expectation of immediate obedience, and once a puzzled Miss Vorbennet had risen the others followed suit, helping their mother to stand and shuffling with apprehensive looks into the required order.

“Excellent. Thank you, ladies. Now, kindly attend to me very closely, for your silence is required as much as that of the servants. In your case, Miss Vorbennet, and yours, Miss Mary, I have no doubt of your capacity for discretion, nor of your understanding that your father and sister can have no wish for Mr Collins’s assaults on them to be known to any more persons, of any rank, but I must still ask for your Name’s Oaths on it. Would I be right to suppose, Miss Mary, that you would wish to swear on the Vorstuart bible as well?”

He was, and she and Miss Vorbennet gave their oaths readily enough. With Miss Vorbennet he would interfere no further, out of respect for Charles if nothing else, but after thanking them gravely he did offer Miss Mary an austere smile.

“I commend your piety, Miss Mary, but would offer a word of guidance. I understand from Miss Elizabeth that you believe the novel should be reviled?”

She blinked. “Yes, my Lord. They are ungodly.”

“Many are indeed so, but allow me to inform you that His Grace of Canterbury, who is an old friend of my father’s, mentioned to me a few weeks ago that rather than reviling the form altogether, he and His Grace of York are minded to seek the writing and publication of novels that embrace and display a proper Christian sensibility, yet harness the fascination the form has for so many young ladies and turn it to godly uses. You might, therefore, consider reading some of the most popular examples, however disagreeable the task, to determine wherein that power of fascination lies, and perhaps consider how you would meet Their Graces’ forthcoming request.”

He had lost count of her blinks.

“Truly, my Lord? An … evangelical novel?”

“It need not entice converts, Miss Mary, though that would of course be desirable ; yet simply to give good Christian comfort, and dispense wisdom while entertaining, are no mean ends, surely. Think on it.”

He made the mistake of meeting Miss Elizabeth’s eyes as he handed Miss Vorbennet to a seat on the sofa beside her father, and had to bear down hard on the laughter that rose as he saw her own barely suppressed mirth. Nor did Mr Vorbennet’s ironic look help as he repeated the process with Miss Mary, but losing his countenance now would be fatal and he let the Captain draw briefly on Vorstony before he turned back to Mrs Vorbennet and her two youngest daughters.

“And now, what of you three ladies? Were I to demand your Name’s Oaths, could I have any confidence whatever that they would be strictly observed? Alas, much as it grieves me to have to say so of any Vor, I could not, for you are all three not only very silly, but voraciously given to utterly unthinking gossip. So I face three problems.”

Mrs Vorbennet’s jaw dropped in outrage and he took a stride closer to her, his gaze boring into her eyes.

“Will you be so hypocritical as to deny it, madam? Can you think back as far as last night, when your crass and mercenary twitterings about an engagement that has not yet occurred were to be heard all evening long? Or even as far as this morning, when your profoundly ill-judged determination to foist the ghastly Mr Collins on your second daughter began this whole mess? Oh yes, madam, you have a share of the blame for your daughter’s injury, and the terror to which you and your family have been subjected. Your judgement appears to be non-existent. And not only do you blether, madam, you blether loudly, and often, and without the slightest regard for who can hear you. And it will no longer do, in this matter or in anything else.”

He raised one hand, to allow him to count in his most menacing manner on his fingers.

“Specifically, madam, there are three matters on which I have the gravest concerns. First, you have heard me say that Miss Elizabeth is still considering my proposal, and that I know myself as yet to be unworthy of her hand. I shall allow her all the time she wants, and accept her decision without demur, whatever it may be. But, madam, can I trust you not to badger, and push, and cajole, and berate her, ordering and soliciting her immediate acceptance, the whole punctuated by strident wailings about her supposed need to marry in order to provide you and these absurd younger daughters of yours with opportunities neither you nor they even remotely deserve? Of course I cannot, yet you cannot be permitted any such badgering and wailing.”

A second finger extended, drawing Mrs Vorbennet’s nervous glance before his voice drew her eyes back to his face.

“And then, madam, should I ever have the great good fortune to welcome you as my mother-in-law, do you suppose I could or would permit, at Pemberley or in Vordarcy House, such preposterously vulgar behaviour as I have regularly seen you and your youngest daughters exhibit? On the contrary, madam, I assure you. Indeed, without the greatest alterations in your manners and habits of address, you would not be allowed within ten miles of either location under any circumstances whatever — but am I then to seek to pursue my suit with Miss Elizabeth knowing that she must consider acceptance of it a permanent parting from half of her family? Because that is not acceptable, either, madam, not for one moment.”

That had gone home, he thought, extending a third finger.

“And last, madam, but very far from least, there is security. I do not walk about surrounded by armsmen for fun, Mrs Vorbennet, nor because they need the exercise. The threats I face are real, and often enough French in origin, so anyone connected with my household must be trustworthy, as you, madam, are decidedly not. Dear God, were Napoleon himself to ask you a question of my whereabouts, you’d think nothing of telling him all while you wondered aloud about the cost of the bullion trimming his hat! And none of it will do. So I must ask you, Mrs Vorbennet, assuming that you would not be unhappy to see your daughter a future Countess Vordarcy, what is to be done about the wanton looseness of your tongue, and the unbridled impropriety of your manners?”

A part of Vordarcy very much wanted to see how Miss Elizabeth was taking this address to her mother, and he regretted that Mr Vorbennet’s illness had allowed his wife to become so far out of control that such harsh plain-speaking was necessary to break the shell of her conceit. But his tactical brain merely noted that the ordeal she had already been through today had done some useful softening work, and that it was time for the carrot to follow the stick.

“But do you know, Mrs Vorbennet, there is one thing that gives me a glimmer of hope. Tell me, do I understand correctly that the reason for your inability to control yourself is the suffering you endure from your nerves?”

She stared at him for a moment, but then nodded.

“Speak up, Mrs Vorbennet. Is that an agreement?”

“Yes.” She took a breath. “Yes, my Lord, it’s my nerves. Oh, no-one knows how I—”

“On the contrary, Mrs Vorbennet, I believe everyone knows, for you announce it often enough. And the reason for these overexcited nerves of yours is the entail, yes?”

This reply came more swiftly.

“Oh yes. I hate that thing. To take a widow’s home awa—”

“Quite so, Mrs Vorbennet. They have their uses, but they can also be perfectly vile millstones, I do agree. But the thing is, Mrs Vorbennet, entails can be broken.” The force of her attention became palpable. “Smashed to pieces, in fact. Oh, it takes plenty of money, and impeccable High Vor standing, and a deal of political influence, none of which your estimable husband has ever had. But I have them, Mrs Vorbennet. I have them all. And it is well within my power to hunt down your particular entail, and break it into small pieces, and deposit it to starve in the hedgerows of Longbourn, where you could beat and revile it as it starved, to your heart’s content. In short, Mrs Vorbennet, I can guarantee that you will remain the Mistress of Longbourn until your dying day. What are you willing to undertake to do in return?”

The silence hummed as she stared at him, processing his words, and a light grew in her eyes.


“Utterly and for ever.”


“Oh yes. My Name’s Word as Vordarcy on it — but the price is absolute.”

“What … what must I do?”

“Three things, Mrs Vorbennet.” His fingers closed and one re-extended. “First, you must never again, outside your own bedchamber, speak in any voice save a whisper. A whisper, Mrs Vorbennet, so soft that any interlocutor must lean towards you. If you need the relief of screaming yourself hoarse, you may go to your bedchamber, bury your head beneath the covers, and howl as loudly as you will. But outside it, Mrs Vorbennet, whether within Longbourn, or in Meryton, or anywhere else, anywhere else wherever, you whisper, always. And you will be able to do so, Mrs Vorbennet, because with the entail broken, into very tiny pieces, you will have no nerves. They will be soothed with the balm of its breaking. And with that soothing, you will learn always to be quiet. Am I clear?”

She nodded, and at his raised eyebrow gave an answer he barely heard.

“Yes. The entail will be broken, so my nerves will recover and I will whisper.”

“An auspicious start, Mrs Vorbennet. Well done. Second, you must never again, in any conversation, make any mention of the cost of an item of clothing or furniture or jewellery. You do so obsessively because you worry about money, and are envious of others’ wealth and status, real or imagined, but the High Vor of my circles do not, Mrs Vorbennet, because they already have that wealth and status, and find harping on it vulgar.” Well, some of them did. He uncrossed the fingers of his other hand, behind his back, where Miss Elizabeth could see it. “By all means offer a light complement on a fine dress, or bracelet, or even such a tastelessly expensive fireplace as my Aunt Vordebourgh favours, but not one word about their cost. Again, am I clear?” He leaned forward.

“Yes, my Lord. No price tags.”

“Precisely, Mrs Vorbennet. Well put. And the third thing is that you will never, ever again speak disparagingly of or to Miss Elizabeth.” Vordarcy allowed a more minatory note back into his voice. “Do not suppose I have not heard you at it, Mrs Vorbennet, often and long. Visiting Netherfield when Miss Vorbennet was ill, and Miss Elizabeth — Miss Elizabeth, Mrs Vorbennet, not you, as it should have been — was caring for her devotedly, you spoke of her and to her in such terms that, frankly, madam, were you a man, I would have called you out for them. And again, last night, when she, very rightly, warned and begged you to moderate your voice, to cease your prating mortification of Miss Vorbennet, you indignantly dismissed her wise and timely advice, denying the plain truth she spoke and impugning her person and motives alike. How you can hold so exquisite and capable a daughter in such idiotic and offensive disrespect is beyond me, Mrs Vorbennet, but it is not to be borne, and will not be. I do not say you must always agree, however foolish disagreeing with Miss Elizabeth is likely to be, but you must not and will not express your disagreements — your whispered disagreements, Mrs Vorbennet — in so cruel and dishonourable a fashion, ever again. Ever. Again. For the third time, am I clear?”

Her eyes were slightly glazed but she nodded again.

“Yes, my Lord. Whispering, no price tags” — she hesitated, frowning slightly — “and … not upsetting Lizzie?”

He doubted he’d get more, and it was enough ; if he had his way, the new Lady Vordarcy would in any case be far way from her mother most of the time.
“Exactly, Mrs Vorbennet. Never upsetting Miss Elizabeth, in word or deed. Swear to me by your Name as Vorbennet and your hatred of the entail that you will amend your behaviour, permanently, in those three ways, and I will swear to you by my Name as Vordarcy that I will see the entail broken. It shall starve in your hedgerows, a pale and sorry thing, and you shall always be Mistress of Longbourn.”

Roic held out the Vorstuart bible for a third time, and she swore, receiving his reciprocal oath with a look of astonished glee. He leant forward and took her hands.

“The entail will be broken, Mrs Vorbennet, broken small, and you will never again have a problem with your nerves. You are cured.”

“I am cured. I have no nerves.”

“Nary a one, Mrs Vorbennet, from this day forward.”

He escorted her to a seat by her husband, Miss Vorbennet and Miss Mary scooting down the sofa to make room, and could not avoid meeting Mr Vorbennet’s eyes, at once sardonic, wondering, and admiring, and the older man gave him a faint nod, which he respectfully returned. To meet Miss Elizabeth’s eyes was harder, and they seemed fathomlessly dark and deep, though she also offered a nod he could return.

“Mr Vorbennet, the entail shall be broken.”

“I believe it shall, Mrs Vorbennet.” Her husband patted her arm gently. “And I am so glad about your cured nerves.”


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