Elizabeth was not long left to simmer in her own regret, as soon after Mr. Darcy’s departure, her aunt and uncle burst in upon the room, filled with concern for her welfare. An order from Mr. Darcy, it seems, was never taken lightly by any servant in Lambton, and the chambermaid had nearly collapsed in sprinting after the Gardiners and exhorting them in the most violent manner to hurry back to their niece.
Elizabeth did her best to calm their nerves, assuring them that despite her wan, disheveled appearance, she was quite well, only emotionally overwrought by the news Jane’s letter had relayed. She passed it over to her uncle, who scanned its contents quickly, his face darkening with rage. In a few clipped sentences, Mr. Gardiner related the entirety of the affair to his wife, who went pale.
“Good heavens,” she whispered. “Lydia, you fool.” She turned to Elizabeth. “A few days prior, when we were at Pemberley, you made a comment indicating your regard for Wickham had been changed by new knowledge of his character.”
Elizabeth nodded. “Yes, ma’am. I’m afraid he is a man with no integrity and no honor. I have for some time been in possession of a secret which, had it been known, would have prevented his access to my sister.”
“You knew he was a cad?” Mrs. Gardiner cried. “Did he…Lizzy, he did not impose himself on you, I hope?”
Elizabeth shook her head vehemently. “No, no, nothing like that. I only know of his prior behavior, with another young lady. But I was not at liberty to reveal the story to anyone. I feared sharing my knowledge would only do damage to the lady’s reputation.”
Mrs. Gardiner’s mouth was set in a stern line as she said, “No, you did the best you could given the facts you had.”
“Did I?” Elizabeth said, her voice full of self-recrimination. “I keep thinking that I could have at least warned my own sisters…”
“There, there,” her aunt said, coming forward to pat her arm.
“We can discuss our feelings and regrets at a later time,” Mr. Gardiner stated. “Now we need to make arrangements to leave Derbyshire. Lizzy, I will take you home to Hertfordshire and then continue on to London myself.”
“Please, Uncle,” Elizabeth said. “Please take me to London with you.”
“Lizzy, this is not a pleasure trip—”
But Elizabeth was persistent. “I know I can be of service to my father there. Jane is at Longbourn, and Mary and Kitty. My mother needs no more comfort in this time. But I do believe my father could use me. I am not a son; I cannot help him search for my sister. But I would be there nonetheless.”
Mr. Gardiner appeared to consider this. She was sure he knew that of all Mr. Bennet’s children, Elizabeth was his favorite. He was also aware of his brother-in-law’s disposition, the nature that kept him in the country with his books even when the girls might have benefitted from the opportunities that exposure to society would have afforded them.
“Very well,” he said at last. “We will explain the decision as owing to our hurry to come to his aid.”
“That is an excellent plan,” she agreed. “I will pack my things at once.”
Though Elizabeth had hoped to be on their way within half an hour, as she’d told Mr. Darcy, of course it took longer to do everything than she’d hoped— to pack, to have their trunks brought out to the carriage, to ready the horses and men. Everything was busy before then, a bustle of gowns and letters and canceling of plans and settling of accounts. Elizabeth hardly had time to dash off a letter to Jane in all the commotion. She counted it a blessing to be so occupied, however, as it kept her from lingering too much on the memory of Mr. Darcy’s face as he quit the room—of Mr. Darcy’s parting words to her.
You must have long been desiring my absence.
She hadn’t desired it—not at all—but she had little doubt he desired to be absent from her. What a narrow escape he must now believe he’d had. If she’d been any more eager that morning, Mr. Darcy might have found himself engaged, inextricably bound to a family doomed to infamy.
Farewell, Miss Bennet.
How wretchedly final that sounded.
And when at last they were settled in the carriage, her uncle’s face stern, her aunt’s drawn, it was all Elizabeth could do to keep those thoughts at bay, to focus on the fate of her poor, foolish sister, until those thoughts, too, threatened to wear her down, and she finally fell into a fitful sleep.
By their second day on the road to London, the silence in the carriage threatened to overwhelm them all, and Mrs. Gardiner, either from a sincere wish to ease her niece’s conscience or else a curiosity that could no longer be stifled, began to ask Elizabeth about her secret knowledge.
“How long have you known of Wickham’s true character?”
Here, Elizabeth blushed, and clasped her gloved hands in her lap. “Since April, ma’am. When I returned to Longbourn and saw him again, I did my best to avoid him, especially as he was no longer engaged to be married.”
Mrs. Gardiner pursed her lips. “Ah, yes. Miss Mary King. I do remember, last time we were in Gracechurch Street, your telling me that I should not impugn mercenary motives to Mr. Wickham’s pursuit of that young lady, or her ten thousand pounds.”
“I assure you, at the time, those were the worst possible motives I could have attributed to Mr. Wickham, and if you recall, I did not think them so very bad. After all, if he could not pursue a girl with no money, like myself, and he should not pursue a girl with money, like Miss King, then he would be left to pursue no one and nothing.”
“Precisely so,” her uncle exclaimed gruffly. “He should not approach any woman, on any level.”
But Mrs. Gardiner would not be so easily distracted. “You mentioned April as the date of your discovery of Wickham’s wickedness. He was still in Meryton at the time. Was this when Miss King was taken abruptly from the neighborhood and sent to her uncle at Liverpool?”
Elizabeth was not quite sure of what to say. She did not want to reveal Miss Darcy’s secret, nor did she want to lead her aunt to believe Miss King had taken part in anything less than respectable. “I believe, aunt, that Miss King’s uncle sent for her because he disapproved of Mr. Wickham’s suit on its face, not because he had any notion that his motives were impure.”
Mrs. Gardiner considered this. “If it was not Miss King who revealed the truth about Mr. Wickham to you, then who was it?”
“Ma’am, I am not at liberty to say.”
Her aunt looked grave. “I am sure your friend, whoever she might be, values your discretion. Perhaps we can have her advice on how to keep such a scandal as limited in scope as possible, now that we are dealing with our own.”
“Fortunately for the lady,” Elizabeth replied, “her misguided attempt at elopement—or whatever Mr. Wickham’s intent might have been—was discovered before the deed took place. As nothing untoward had occurred, there was very little to hush up. I fear…” she looked out the window of the carriage, biting her lip at the tears sprang forth anew. “I fear in the case of Lydia, we are much too late. She has been missing, with Mr. Wickham, for many days.”
Mrs. Gardiner was far too well bred to speak the emotions clearly written across her face.
“And I had thought him such a fine young man. How sad I was when he deserted you for richer pastures.”
“As you can see, ma’am, I was most fortunate to have been thus abandoned.”
“Most fortunate,” the older woman agreed.
Mrs. Gardiner stared at the road for another few miles, and Lizzy sat in silent agony. Her uncle nodded off. A few minutes later, her aunt spoke again.
“Lizzy…” she hesitated. “We have been lingering in Derbyshire, your uncle and I, for one reason alone, and it is not my ongoing regard for the county. Are you aware?”
Elizabeth cast her eyes downward.
“One would have to be a simpleton indeed to not see what has been transpiring between you and another young man of Derbyshire this past week.”
Her voice caught in her throat. She was not equal to responding.
“How long has there been an understanding between you and Mr. Darcy?”
She shook her head. “There is no understanding between myself and Mr. Darcy.”
“It cannot be!” her aunt exclaimed. “He’s been most solicitous of your attentions. I have sat in his drawing room and witnessed him watching you, seen how every movement and speech he makes is crafted especially for your amusement and admiration. His friends have not been blind to it, either. Miss Darcy seems to want only your love, as if you were already sisters.”
“Please!” Elizabeth cried. This recitation of all that could never be was far too much for her to bear. “I cannot hear this. We are not engaged.”
“We had assumed it was merely secret, until such time as he might break the news to his noble aunt, or make his plan known to your father.”
“We are not engaged at all,” Elizabeth insisted. “He asked for my hand, and I refused.”
His aunt gasped, and even her uncle, who up until now had appeared fast asleep, roused and opened one shocked eye.
Elizabeth remained mum.
“Lizzy, we were quite certain! I had even conjectured that his reputation for being disagreeable was a front, an attitude he had affected to help conceal his true affections, but one that he was not obliged to keep up at his own home, surrounded only by his sister and his friends.”
“You may be correct that Mr. Darcy feels more at ease at Pemberley,” Elizabeth felt herself capable of saying, “but do not attribute any change in his disposition to be an act to benefit a sly understanding between us. We are not engaged.”
“You refused him,” her aunt repeated, nearly breathless with disbelief. “You cannot be serious.”
“And why might that be?”
Her aunt blinked in astonishment. “Because you love him.”
It was rare for Elizabeth to find herself bereft of the power of human speech. At home, her reputation was one of witty liveliness, and even her detractors—even Mr. Darcy, when he had counted himself one—did not deny that Elizabeth Bennet was always capable of talking back.
But here, for once, she found herself with absolutely nothing to say. She could not respond in the affirmative, but neither did denial come swiftly to her lips. She did not know. She did not know.
And anyway, what did it matter? She would never see Mr. Darcy again, and all connection between them must be dissolved forever. To spend time contemplating if she loved him, if she could have loved him—might it not do more harm than good? If she concluded in the negative, that she did not love Darcy, perhaps she would have some peace of mind.
But what if the opposite occurred? If she spent time ruminating on her feelings, and decided that her aunt was right. That she was in love with Mr. Darcy. That he alone, out of all her acquaintance, might have been the man to make her happy… what then? The thought would provide no warmth in the long, lonely life to come.
“Please, aunt,” she begged at last. “Do not talk of love at a time like this. Have we not evidence enough that such violent passions can only lead to ruin?”
For several long moments, her aunt said nothing, but at last, she spoke. “Lizzy, my dear girl, I am not quite old enough to be your mother, but please take this as some motherly advice. Disappointed you may be right now, and disappointed you may remain for some time. But do not suppose that love can be nothing but a passing fancy or a low passion. There is another kind of love, you know, and if nurtured properly, it can be the very opposite of all that is dire and desperate.”
And with that speech, Mrs. Gardiner put her hand upon her husband’s arm and looked out the window at the darkening road.
Elizabeth followed suit, though her thoughts were darker still. It was all very well for her aunt to speak of strong, stout love, and how it may endure and be strengthened by its bearers in body and soul. But Mrs. Gardiner was happily married, with four lovely children, a happy home, and equality in their match. No man had yet proposed to Elizabeth without insulting her first and hinting very heavily that they’d be lowering their prospects by taking her hand.
Not an ideal base upon which to build a life. Growing up at Longbourn, she’d seen what a marriage looked like, where one partner was not able to respect the other. She would not have it for herself. Perhaps this marriage of friendship and passion Mrs. Gardiner described was real. It certainly seemed real, in her aunt and uncle. But at this moment, as they bumped their way along a road that led into the smoky heart of London, it seemed as impossible a future as one in which her sister was not utterly ruined.