JANE AUSTEN'S FIGHTING MEN by Jack Caldwell


The Three Colonels
Jane Austen's Fighting Men

a sequel to Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility

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(Excerpt from Chapter 16:)

Richard paused before the great doors of the sitting room, steeling himself for the interview to come. "You may announce me," he said to the butler.

A moment later, he heard, "You may come in, Richard."

Richard entered the elaborate sitting room and saw his aunt sitting in her usual chair at the far end. She gave the impression of a spider in the center of her web. A slight smile seemed to dance upon her lips.

"Ah, the savior of Hunsford returns! To what do I owe this visit, Nephew?"

"Do I need a reason to visit?"

"Do not play games with me, boy. Always I have been celebrated for my frankness of character. I expect nothing less from any of my family. Why have you returned?"

"To bid you farewell. I am off to the Continent to face Bonaparte."

This declaration seemed to take Lady Catherine by surprise. After a silence of a few moments, she said, "I am afraid I do not understand your meaning. Is not the tyrant held captive on some small island -- in the Mediterranean, perhaps? Why would you need to face him? Does he need to be arrested?"

Richard was stunned that his aunt did not know what had happened. "Bonaparte has escaped Elba. He is back in Paris; the French king has fled. The tyrant is raising an army. Britain goes to fight him yet again."

Lady Catherine was affronted. "Escaped? Surely someone has not done their duty. I assume it was one of those foreign types that was responsible. Such a thing would not happen if an Englishman was in charge."

"I am sure you are correct. In any case, it falls upon those who wear the king's uniform to set things right."

"When do you leave?"

"The regiment sails in May."

"Then you go with my blessing. Was there anything else?"

"I would like to speak to Anne before I go."

"Yes," she looked at him narrowly, "I suppose you do."

Richard became wary. "Is she about? My time is short. I must leave soon."

"What business do you have with my daughter?" Lady Catherine demanded.

"To take my leave of her, as I have done with you."

"And is that all?"

"I am afraid I do not take your meaning, Aunt."

"I am sure that you do, sir. Oh, yes -- I know much more than you think."

"I do not think I like what you are insinuating. Are you accusing me of improper behavior?"

"Is it proper to make love to my daughter under my very nose?"

"Madam!" Richard fought hard not to lose his temper. "I do not know what lies you have been told, nor do I wish to hear such vile accusations made against your daughter. Let me simply assure you that I hold Anne in the highest regard and respect and would let nothing damage her reputation while I have breath in this body."

"A very pretty speech. Yes, very pretty. Do you think me blind? I watched you 'take your leave' of Anne in February. What other liberties have you been permitted? Answer me, boy!"

"Lady Catherine, I shall not dignify that question with an answer. By God, if you were a man --" Again Richard struggled to retain control. "I have nothing to say to you about Anne at this time, except this: My intentions in matters of this kind have always been honorable. Is it your belief that I have compromised your daughter? If so, than I am prepared to do the right thing by her." Come, Aunt, make my dreams come true.

"Oh, no -- you shall not have your way that easily. I know that it is Rosings Park, not Anne, that is your desire, and that you shall never have!" Lady Catherine's temper grew into a passion.

"I care nothing for Rosings. Besides, Rosings belongs to Anne, not you -- as you well know."

"Only because of the legal chicanery of your father and uncle! But Anne is my daughter; she needs my permission to marry."

"Anne is of legal age."

"Anne shall do as she is told! I have already made preparations -- begun inquiries. Anne will be united to a proper family, one that is worthy of a de Bourgh!"

Richard narrowed his eyes. "One that can be manipulated, as well. Such a compliant man shall be hard to find. Do you believe you will find such a person in Bath?"

His aunt sneered. "Bath -- London-it matters not. I know Anne shall not travel to Derbyshire again!"

Richard looked at his aunt with as much composure as he could manage. "You would condemn your daughter to a loveless marriage just so you can hold on to Rosings?"

"Love?" Lady Catherine raged. "You speak the same foolishness as your cousin! Pemberley has been polluted forever by that… that creature Darcy married. Anne will have an estate of her own, and I shall prevent you and my hateful brother from stealing Rosings from me!"

"And if Anne refuses to cooperate?"

"She would not dare! However, if none of my candidates are suitable, Anne and I will live here comfortably for the rest of our lives."

Richard stood in awe of his aunt's selfish, ignorant maliciousness. One word from Anne would destroy her whole world. She was of legal age -- Anne could marry anyone she chose. He wondered if his aunt was quite sane.

"I think there is nothing more we can say about this or any other matter. I will leave you now. Farewell, Aunt." Richard turned to leave.

Lady Catherine called out. "Richard, I have not forgotten how you mistreated me when last you were here. You dare to speak to me without first offering me your apology? I am most severely displeased!"

Richard halted before the door. With one hand on the knob he said, "Do not be unhappy, my lady. With any luck, the French may solve your problem with me forever." At that, Richard left the sitting room, closing the door behind him.

***

Richard stormed though the halls, trying to control his emotions, when he came upon Mrs. Parks again. She looked at him with compassion and simply said, "She is in the gardens, sir."

With a smile, he thanked the housekeeper and dashed out the doors. Anne stood in the very same spot as in February, looking at the new buds.

"Anne!" he called as he ran to her. She, in turn, waved to him, her smile heartbreaking in its beauty. He reached her and took her hands in his. "Ah, the pretty buds of April, and here is the prettiest!"

"Oh, Richard, it is so good to see you -- even if you do say such lies." she said with joy.

To Richard's concern, he found that he did exaggerate Anne's looks; there were circles under her eyes, and she looked as if she had eaten ill for some time. Richard wondered just how horrible it had been for her at Rosings while he was gone.

Anne's eyes took in her cousin. "Richard? Why do you wear your sword?"

"Do not worry about that, my dear. Let me look at you." Quietly, he asked, "Why did you not send for me?"

"There is nothing she can do to hurt me. Are you here long?"

"No, I must leave for London soon --"

"Did you bring the coach? I did not see it." She looked around him and saw only his horse. Anne turned back to him. "You rode?" Suddenly there was a forlorn expression in her eyes. "Richard, why are you here?"

"Anne, I --"

Realization came to her. "It is the crisis, is it not? You are going back… back to fight Bonaparte!" Unlike her mother, she had been reading the newspapers.

Gravely, Richard answered, "Yes, Anne."

"Oh, God," She laid her head on his chest. "When?" she whispered.

"We sail in May. I came to -- I had to see you before…"

In a small breaking voice, she said, "I thought you had come back for me."

Richard was in anguish. He took Anne's face in his hands and stared into her eyes, memorizing every lovely feature. "Anne, there is so much I wish to say… but now is not the time. Oh, my dearest!"

Anne shook her head, her eyes swimming in tears. As her small fists began beating on him, she cried, "No, no… not now! How can you say these things to me now? Now that you are leaving me, perhaps never to return. How cruel! I cannot stand it! Leave me -- let me go! Please!" She broke away from Richard and fled into the house.

Richard stood like a statue watching her flee. Then slowly he sat on the bench behind him, removing his hat and holding his face in his hands.

***

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