Lydia Bennet had run off with George Wickham.
Lydia Bennet…had run off… with George Wickham.
Her eyes traveled over the words, over and over, but Elizabeth could not make sense of this. She felt as if she were trapped in some impossible nightmare, a fantastic chimaera built of her sister’s follies and Miss Darcy’s indiscretions. For it was not possible, was it, that this particular ruin was upon them? Not now, in this moment when she stood on the brink of something wholly unexpected and quite possibly wonderful?
In mere minutes, everything Elizabeth thought true of the world had gone topsy-turvy. The happiness which she had so recently enjoyed fled entirely, and tears sprang unbidden to her eyes as she read her sister’s letter.
Letters! For there was another one, sent later, that had also arrived at the inn that morning. Elizabeth tore into it, hoping in vain that it may contain some shred of good news, that Lydia had been found before it was too late, that Lydia and Wickham had announced their marriage over the anvil. That anything—anything other than what she feared had taken place.
But it was not to be.
By this time, my dearest sister, you have received my hurried letter; I wish this may be more intelligible, but though not confined for time, my head is so bewildered that I cannot answer for being coherent. Dearest Lizzy, I hardly know what I write, but I have bad news. Imprudent as a marriage between Mr. Wickham and our poor Lydia would be, we are now anxious to be assured it has taken place, for there is but too much reason to fear they are not gone to Scotland.
Elizabeth read on, her shock and distress rising with every word.
All that is known after this is that they were seen to continue on the London Road…
My father and mother believe the worst, but I cannot think so ill of him…
Colonel F. said he feared W. was not a man to be trusted…
She had scarce reached the bottom of Jane’s letter, which had entreated her most fervently to gather their uncle and send him to London to help their father, than Elizabeth shot out of her seat and hurried toward the door. She didn’t bother with a bonnet nor care about the tears that streamed freely from her eyes. But she had not yet reached the threshold when the door to the sitting room opened again and Mr. Darcy strode in.
“Miss Bennet,” he said without preamble. “I apologize for the intrusion, but I realized I had forgotten to issue my sister’s invitation—” he caught sight of her face “—Good God! what is the matter?”
“I beg your pardon, but I must leave you. I must find Mr. Gardiner this moment, on business that cannot be delayed. I have not a moment to lose.”
She made as if to dart around him, but his hands spread wide and he halted her movements. “I will not detain you a minute, but let me, or let the servant, go after Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. You are not well enough. You cannot go yourself.”
Elizabeth hesitated, but her knees trembled under her and at last she acquiesced. Mr. Darcy called back the chambermaid who had shown him into the sitting room and sent her after the Gardiners in all haste. Once they were alone again, he directed her to a chair and bade her sit, which she did, feeling weak. She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief and he stood above her, his face a mask of compassion and concern.
“Is there nothing you could take for your present relief? A glass of wine—shall I get you one? You are very ill.” He seemed astonished by the transformation that the last few minutes had brought about.
She could not bear the way he was looking at her. This new softness about his features, the mouth which Mrs. Gardiner had declared so pleasant when he spoke, the handsomeness she had spent so many months ignoring or deriding because she’d decided to dislike him! It mocked her now.
“No, I thank you,” she replied, endeavoring to recover herself. “There is nothing the matter with me.”
“That cannot be so.”
“I am quite well. I am only distressed by some dreadful news which I have just received from Longbourn.”
She burst into a bout of fresh tears then, and found she could say nothing at all. Mr. Darcy stood by, in wretched suspense, and did not push her to speak for several minutes while she sobbed. At long last she felt equal to lift her head and found him still standing there, steady and silent.
From her position, she could see mostly the cuff of his coat sleeve as he stood above her, his hands searching for a place to be. It was a fine cuff, straight and starched, with a subtle design and a bright gold button. The hand it framed was a fine hand, too, with broad, blunt fingertips and even subtle callouses where he held his horse’s reins.
It was a hand she might have had in marriage.
But of course, that all must be over now. It must. She must reveal all to him. How fortunate they were not to have entered into any serious arrangement. For a man like Darcy would never align himself with a family in ruins. He’d had his doubts about the Bennets before, and all his concerns about their respectability…well, in the end, he’d been right.
“I have just had a letter from Jane, with such dreadful news. It cannot be concealed from anyone. My youngest sister has left all her friends. She has eloped. She has thrown herself into the power of—” she raised her face higher to see how her words had affected him “—of Mr. Wickham.”
In an instant, Darcy seemed to grow even taller, and his countenance became stone, his finely cut jaws clenched tight together.
The rest of her confession came out in a rush. “They are gone off together from Brighton. You know him too well to doubt the rest. She has no money, no connections, nothing that can tempt him to…” To what? To marry her? Elizabeth’s voice cracked on the words. “She is lost forever!”
Darcy remained fixed, a marble statue, and even in her misery she could feel the connections between them severing. She hated to think how she must sound in this moment—overwrought and ridiculous, like her mother. Screaming of ruin. But now, this time, it was actually upon them.
“When I consider I might have prevented this. I, who knew what he was. Had I told some part of it—some part only of what I learned—to my family, we would have been safe! Had his character been known, this could never have happened. But it’s all too late now!”
At this, he started, and spoke. “I am grieved, indeed. Grieved and shocked. But is it certain, absolutely certain?”
“Oh yes!” she cried. “They left Brighton together on Sunday night and were traced almost to London, but not beyond.” She swallowed thickly as she related the next part. “They are certainly not gone to Scotland.”
Mr. Darcy’s face was pale, with shock or rage or just disgust, Elizabeth could not tell. “And what has been done?” he asked, his tone dark. “What has been attempted to recover her?”
“My father is gone to London, and Jane has written to beg my uncle’s immediate assistance. We shall be off, I hope, in half an hour.”
“To London?” he asked.
She nodded, miserably. Her father was alone there, and though he had friends, he would need someone’s support. Someone sensible. She would have to be sensible for him. She would have to convince her aunt and uncle to take her to London rather than sending her home to Longbourn, where there was nothing to do but comfort the uncomfortable hysterics of her mother and fret about what might be transpiring in town.
But even if they did go to London, how ever were they to find Lydia? There was no clue, no trail, and her father could spend a fortune he didn’t have looking. Elizabeth felt despair creeping ever closer.
“Nothing can be done. I know very well that nothing can be done. How is such a man to be worked on? How are they even to be discovered? I have not the smallest hope. It is in every way horrible!”
Darcy shook his head in silent acquiescence.
She’d always known Lydia was foolish and flirtatious, but she’d thought at the least—at the very least—that she had sense to keep her flirtations minor, her follies within the pale. Hadn’t Elizabeth warned her father that the Brighton scheme would end in embarrassment? She felt no pleasure now in the realization that her foreboding hadn’t been dire enough.
“When my eyes were opened to his real character—oh! had I known what I ought, what I dared, to do! But I knew not—I was afraid of doing too much. Wretched, wretched, mistake!”
Darcy made no answer. He seemed scarcely to hear her, and was walking up and down the room in earnest meditation, his brow contracted, his air gloomy. Elizabeth soon observed and instantly understood it. No love for her could withstand such a proof of family weakness, such an assurance of the deepest disgrace. He’d disapproved of them before, but had been willing to set it aside. And that disapproval was based on mere folly. This was scandal.
These thoughts, on top of the knowledge of her sister’s situation, proved too much, and again, Elizabeth lost herself to tears. She sobbed earnestly into her handkerchief, heedless that Darcy still paced the floor before her. Her eyes puffed, her nose went red, but what did any of it signify? She no longer feared not appearing her best before this man. Whatever power she must have once had over him would not persist. She had been right to delay making any formal commitment, to concern herself with the possibility that his passion might be a passing fancy.
But how silly of her, to entertain thoughts of their happiness, even for so short a time. To think that she and Mr. Darcy might have made a go of it. For even in this moment of extreme anguish, that tiny voice within her still cried out. Never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him, as now, when all love must be in vain.
Darcy abruptly quit his pacing and, turning to her, drew himself up stiffly to his full height. He loomed large in the inn’s little sitting room, bright and handsome and fine. “I am afraid you have been long desiring my absence.”
She desired nothing of the sort. But, politely, she nodded. For why would Darcy stay any longer? He would wish to leave before the Gardiners returned, to save him from any forced pleasantries.
“Please send my regrets to your sister,” Elizabeth said, “as we will be unable to see her again.” Ever. She was incapable of keeping the sob from her voice. “Say that urgent business calls us home immediately. Conceal the unhappy truth as long as it is possible. I know—I know—that it cannot be long.”
He nodded. “I shall. And…please convey my best wishes to your family. No—don’t get up. Rest. Your aunt and uncle shall be here any moment.”
She opened her mouth, but knew not what to say to keep him from leaving. In her heart, she felt it was the last time she would ever see him. She wanted to remember every detail. She wanted to preserve it in her mind for all time.
She wanted to do something—anything—to make him stay.
“Farewell, Miss Bennet.”
All evidence aside, perhaps she was well bred after all, for the only thing she did was reply, “Farewell.”