Elizabeth pushed up from the narrow desk and nodded at Hill. Jane had left them over an hour ago with a severe headache. Elizabeth could not blame her.
Their meeting had lasted far longer than usual. Papa’s insistence on a detailed inventory as well as plans for fall supplies required their concerted efforts and they were still not quite finished. They had even had to call the footmen in to help them wrestle barrels and crates from the dark corners of the pantries and put them all back once their contents had been examined. Though Elizabeth could have done without the activity, the footmen seemed to appreciate the respite from their otherwise dreary assignment of guarding the house against the possible intrusions of one George Wickham.
She pinched her temples and sighed. How that one man could so disrupt their lives! A shudder gripped her shoulders as she stalked down the corridor. The rest of their work would wait, at least until she stretched her legs and look in a little fresh air, from the safety of the balcony of course. She had had enough of Papa’s ire and was in no hurry to invite more.
The cool morning air rushed in as she pushed the French doors open. She loved the scents of the morning. Today they were clean, a hint of sweet flowers on the breeze with just a touch of earthiness from the stables.
Mr. Darcy was to return today. Her heart fluttered. Was it really possible he had offered for her? Would he return with a change of heart? Would something in London make him reconsider?
An icy knot tightened in her belly.
Enough! It was time to stop such mindless wanderings. He was not that kind of man. He did not play the games of the ton. No their reunion—despite Wickham—would be pleasing. Perhaps even tonight. If he returned early enough, he might come as he often did, to pick up the boys after they played with the twins.
But then again, if he saw Papa at Pemberley, he might be in no temper to come to Alston. Still, she would make certain one of her nicest frocks was ready for this afternoon. She turned back inside and shut the doors behind her.
Halfway down the hall, she stopped mid-step and cocked her head. It as too quiet, far too quiet for having four young boys trapped in the house. That could only mean one thing. She raced upstairs to the nursery. Toys littered the floor, but no children.
She stood in the center of the ample room and scanned the corners and under the furniture. “Phillip! Francis. George, David! Come out this moment. I must see you now!”
No giggles, no shifting of small bodies, no hushed whispers.
Still nothing. Rushed steps echoed down the hall, the dainty clunk of ladies’ shoes.
“Miss Elizabeth?” Miss Wexley nearly fell through the doorway.
“Where are the boys?”
Miss Mallory skidded to a stop just inside the nursery. “I saw them here not half an hour ago. I told them—”
“Not to leave, yes, yes, I know. But they are not here. We must find them. You go upstairs to the servants’ quarters and attics. They might be paying in the hammocks. Miss Mallory, go and find Hill and tell her. Check the kitchens and the pantry, and then go out to the laundry—”
“I told them to stay inside—”
“Clear that meant very little. No go!” She pointed to the doorway with a quivering hand.
They rushed away.
Elizabeth pressed her temples and held her breath. Where did Papa forbid the boys to play? They were not allowed to race down the corridors or slide down the banister. The stairs, the library ladders, his study with his sea chest were all forbidden. Those last two would be especially difficult to hear, particularly if they were trying to be quiet.
She flew downstairs toward the library. Please, let them be hanging off the shelves and the ladders. She threw the door open. Her knees threatened to melt beneath her. Never had she been so disappointed to not find her brothers disobeying.
They must be in Papa’s office. They had to be there. They would be in such trouble, though. But they deserved it for scaring her so! She could not feel sorry for them. Perhaps after Papa and Piper were finished with their remonstrations, but not until then.
She paused at the door and caught her breath, heart thundering so hard she could not have possibly heard them within. The latch clicked and the door swung open.
The room was stubbornly, maddeningly, terrifyingly empty. She swallowed a scream and stumbled inside.
A tin soldier and a pair of conkers lay on the floor near the still sealed sea chest. And on the desk—no—it could not be—
She ran to the desk. Yes it was—her key, the final missing key. She turned to the hidden wall safe. The trim around the hidden keyhole was scratched—new scratches. He had been here. She clutched the edge of the desk as the room spun. He had been in the house and now he must have the boys.
Her feet were in motion before she quite knew where she was going. She skided to a halt at the base of the stairs. “Jane! Hill!”
A moment later the governesses, Jane and Hill gathered around her. The footmen appeared behind them a heartbeat later.
She held up the key. “Mr. Wickham has been in the house this morning. I found this in the study and these as well.” She held out the toys. “I am certain he must have the boys.”
Miss Mallory blanched and Miss Wexley grabbed the bannister. Hill clutched Jane’s hands.
“But how could he have overtaken all four of them?” Jane asked.
“I am sure he duped them into going with him willingly. I doubt Mr. Darcy thought to warn them away from Mr. Wickham. I know Papa’s warning to the twins was quite mild so as not to tempt them to heroics.”
“What are we to do? The Admiral and Piper are both to Pemberley today?” Miss Wexley cried.
Elizabeth pointed to the nearest footman. “Go to Pemberley right now. Inform them what has happened and that we are making a thorough search.”
He bowed and dashed away.
“In the meantime,” she pointed at the other footman, “set the grooms and all the gardeners to search the stables, the garden, the sheds, the still room and laundry—all of it. Hill, gather the staff and set them to search the servant’s halls, attics and pantries.”
“But it is unlikely they are in the house.” Hill said.
“When we saw him in town it was clear he was injured so he will not be moving quickly. He might very well be trying to hide in some little used room in the house. Jane, you and the governesses search all the guest rooms and the family quarters, even Papa’s room and Piper’s.”
“We will, but Lizzy—I see that look in your eye, what are you planning? Jane caught her forearm.
“It is just a guess, but if Wickham is not with them in any of the other places, I think I may know where he has gone with them.”
“Where? He cannot go too far or too fast with the boys in tow and as unwell as he is.”
“Do you remember how he told the story of rescuing Mr. Darcy from the rockslide when they were boys? That there was a cave—”
“Where Alston and Pemberley abut?”
“I just feel it in my bones. That is where he has gone.”
Jane gasped. “You do not mean to go alone? What do you think you will do?”
“I am not sure. He will have all he can manage with the four boys. I will think of something. If I am not back in three hours you will know I have found them. Send Piper and Papa.”
“No, Lizzy I cannot let you—”
“You cannot stop me.”
“You are as stubborn as Papa!”
“You have said that before. Jane, I am certain this is the right thing. I know Papa will be angry—” She chuckled darkly. “But nonetheless, I will go.”
“God speed then.” Jane squeezed her hand and hurried off.
Elizabeth suspected her haste had more to do with her disapproval than with her rush to find her brothers.
Elizabeth grabbed her spencer and bonnet from the front table and ran to the barn. The grooms were nowhere to be found. Luckily, she did not really need them. She made quick work saddling the chestnut mare and led her to the mounting block.
At least there was no one about to scandalize as she mounted stride. Blasted side saddle was entirely unsuitable when haste was called for. Did Papa know Piper had taught her to ride astride? If not, she would happily allow Piper to share in a little of Papa’s displeasure.
She urged the horse into motion and soon achieved a rapid clip. What would Mr. Darcy say to her scampering about the country side like some common chit, unaccompanied and astride her own animal? Little did it matter, if she was to affect her brother’s return. That was the only thing that mattered now.
The woods closed in, leaving the narrow bridle path barely visible. She would follow it until it crossed the stream that formed the boundary between the two estates. Given her druthers, she would have gone north immediately, but the stream dropped into a ravine that would not easily be crossed and the small path lead to the only easy crossing for several miles.
Once she could make her way north, she could follow the ravine past two hills and up a third. The cave entrance was on the east face of the hillside beside a pile of rocks, cleared away from the land slide? Why they did not leave it blocked and out of temptation—
Mr. Darcy had explained they uncovered it as it was though safer to have it open and easy to enter than to tempt small boys to find a more dangerous way in. Bless it all, he was probably right. But did he have to take such prodigious good care of everyone and everything in his reach?
Small branches slapped aat her face and tore her bonnet back. She shoved stray locks out of her eyes.
If only he had not been so determined to take care of Mr. Wickham, none of this would have happened. If only Papa would have listened to her and not hired him, none of this would be happening. They were both so infuriatingly stubborn!
She grumbled under her breath and wiped sweat from her face with her sleeve. If only they had listened to her.
But Papa insisted he had good reason. After what had happened with Lord Alrick, he said she willfully misunderstood the intentions of every man in the room, condemning every one of them to be rakes and cads if they so much as gave a glance her way. He could hardly trust her dislike any more. She swallowed back the knot in her throat. After their latest row, did he trust her at all anymore?
They had spoken little since that morning, nods and grunts in passing. He gave orders, she followed them. But their camaraderie was lost. Perhaps it was irretrievable now. Her throat knotted.
This would not do. Control, she must control her thoughts. All this would still be there after the boys were returned.
The stream babbled ahead of her. She guided the horse across, its hooves splashing the hem of her skirts as they crossed. She paused a moment—she was on the Pemberley side now. Stray spray from the stream over rocks kissed her cheeks even as Mr. Darcy had before he left.
If anything happened to the boys, any of them, would he still want her? She had been in charge of the house. She had called the footmen from their duty in the halls. If the men had been at their posts, would all this have happened? Could he, or Papa, forgive her?
Though she wanted to blame them, this was all her fault!
A small path wove north, through the trees beside the brook. She turned the horse to follow it. The trees thinned and the ravine opened up to her right, growing deeper as it progressed northwards. Soon, very soon, she would be at the cave. But what would she do then? She had only her small knife. How could she—
She screamed and nearly lost her seat.