The hours pass very slowly in Gracechurch Street, and every minute brings fresh hope and fresh despair. My cousins are darling children, and I have enjoyed spending my days with them. They are bright, inquisitive little things, and I can see your influence on them. They are most eager to plait my hair with your particular trick, and, I admit, in some of the more lonely afternoons, I have allowed them multiple attempts at my tresses. There has been a fair amount of tugging, and one lock was ripped away entirely, but so long as I am not bald by the end of their adventures, I shall consider it time well-spent.
The alternative would be to wait by the window for the first flash of news, but such wretched activity might be beyond even my constitution.
I am afraid I have nothing to report as regards the matter of greatest interest to all of us. Father and our uncle have made inquiries in every quarter—I know not how many bribes have been laid out, how many men have been conscripted into my uncle’s service, but from the number of messages that come to and from this house, I imagine it represents quite the outlay of expense. I do not know how much longer it might be borne.
I have been keeping careful watch over our father to ensure that he is caring properly for himself. The events of the past week have been most trying on his constitution, and I am at pains to persuade him to eater properly and get his rest. I have scoured my uncle’s libraries for books with which to divert him in the evenings, but he shows little interest in even his favorite volumes, and sits for long hours before the fire, sipping brandy and saying nothing to anyone…
Elizabeth stopped writing and reviewed her words to her sister. The letter had started well enough, with an amusing story of the Gardiner children and the expected update on the concerns they both shared. But as Lizzy had no news to relay, either good or bad, it soon descended into maudlin depictions of the misery that suffused the house in Gracechurch Street. Perhaps it was enough to merely write the words down. Little good would come of actually posting them and sharing her fear with her family back home. Jane already had reported that their mother had taken to her bed with a series of fainting fits and now refused to get out of her dressing-gown in the morning. To be told her husband did poorly would only increase her distress, and only add to Jane’s trials at Longbourn.
But she also knew of her sister’s sunny disposition, her fast belief that one fine day, their missing Lydia would turn up on the doorstep as Mrs. Wickham, a marriage being concluded with no one’s knowledge and against all reason, logic, and known character of the parties involved. This fantasy had either been alluded to or written outright in every letter Elizabeth had received since arriving in London earlier in the week. And Jane did write often, knowing as she did that Elizabeth would be more likely to respond than Mr. Bennet.
Elizabeth crumpled the paper and tossed it in the grate. No, she would not burden sweet Jane any more than she had to. Let her sister hold on a little longer to the view of a world where all men were gentlemen and all ladies ended up happily wed. Jane would have a long enough life to live in which none of those things were true, and perhaps even her good nature would waver in the trials to come.
And those trials would come. Elizabeth saw their shade creeping forward whenever she caught sight of her father’s ashen face, whenever she heard him cough after a long day of walking the streets, or watched as he pushed aside even the delicacies the Gardiner’s cook made especially to tempt him.
Elizabeth could taste the words of her mother in her mouth when she exhorted him to rest, to look after himself, and he brushed her off. What would become of them should Lydia not be found, should Mr. Bennet succumb to some dread illness here in town.
And Mr. Collins will turn us out before he’s cold in his grave.
That was her mother, lurking in the corners of her mind. Was it true? Elizabeth wanted to doubt it, especially as she knew she could count on Charlotte’s moderating influence, but never had her mother’s nervous utterances seemed better pitched toward reality. The chances of any of the Bennet girls making a good match—with little fortune and even less of an entrance to society—had never been particularly high. Now, with the stain of whatever might befall Lydia, they were practically non-existent.
Elizabeth could tell it was that fear of their unknown future weighing most heavily on her father. As hard as he fought to find Lydia, the moment of discovery, when it came, might be even worse. Mr. Bennet had never been close to his youngest daughter. Jane and Elizabeth, the two eldest, he’d taken an eager interest in, but as the years passed, and babe after babe came in the female form, he seemed to have washed his hands of their upbringing, leaving the younger three to their own devices or to the unsteady influence of their mother. In Lydia, this expression had achieved full flower. Perhaps, being last, she bore the full brunt of not having been born a son.
He’d always dismissed Lydia as silly and vain, and perhaps his lack of interest had only fostered the faults nature had provided. He could only be reflecting on that now, and cursing the neglect which may have led her to this path. But despite his distance, his indolence, he would soon have to make a choice. Society’s dictates were clear: he must cast off his fallen daughter if he wished at all to preserve the reputations of the others.
Little wonder Jane clung to the belief that somehow, through some alchemy not known in the drawing-rooms of the town, you could make everyone good.
Elizabeth, too, spent a good deal of time blaming herself for Lydia’s downfall. Had she spent more time on her sister’s manners, as soon as she’d noted how they’d been lacking. Had she worked harder to convince her father that the Brighton scheme must end in disaster. Had she told Lydia that Wickham was not a good man.
Had she, had she, had she. But she had not done any of those things. She had done nothing, said nothing, that might have protected them, up to and including turning down not one but two marriage proposals that would have assured, at least, that her family would be cared for.
This above all was the chief occupant of her mind, whether she was hunched at the window keeping a watch on any figure passing in the street who might look like Lydia or Mr. Wickham, or patiently sitting through the Gardiner girls’ torturous attempts at hair styling, or lying in bed at night and listening to the sound of coaches on the cobblestones, the noises of the city sounding so loud she wondered how anyone in London could ever get their rest.
She knew, somewhere in the city, Lydia was also in bed. Was she too, lying awake, thinking back over her choices and regretting them? Was she asleep, heedless of the cares she caused her family and friends? Or was she engaged in some other activity, upon which it would do Elizabeth no good to dwell?
She did not know when she finally succumbed to sleep, for her dreams were no less distressing for being the product of an irrational mind. Dreams pity not, and come to guilty and innocent alike, to display the deepest fears and dash the most secret hopes.
In the land of night, Elizabeth wandered the grounds around Pemberley, always looking for the path that might lead her back to the door, always catching glimpses of the house through the trees or across the river, but never finding her way.
Sometimes, she’d see Mr. Darcy himself, standing at some great window and watching her trials, his countenance impassive, his mouth firmly set. Sometimes, it would be Miss Bingley, a smile triumphant upon her face. She would wave and cry out, and they would only look away, as the fog set in and shielded the building from view.
It was like a fairy tale, but in reverse.
Once upon a time, there was a girl who might have been Mr. Darcy’s wife. Only she was far too stupid to realize her prince was under an enchantment, and if she waited too long, the spell would break. Only she was the one who might turn into a frog.
Perhaps it wasn’t only Mr. Bennet who was ailing in this gray city.
Sometimes Elizabeth walked with the children and their nursemaids in the park, but she found the tiny caged saplings and ashen greens a sad replacement for the gardens and wilds near Longbourn. Her walks in the city failed to provide the clarity of mind she could find in the country. She was too much like her father in that way, too set in country manners and village ways to fully appreciate town.
Though it wasn’t as if their social schedule provided much diversion. Indeed, they didn’t go calling at all, nor accept visitors, the better to keep the reason for their being in town as discreet as could be. Elizabeth held no illusion that word of Lydia’s flight had remained a secret, either in Meryton or in the drawing rooms of Brighton. And thus, the whispers had no doubt traveled to London as well. Even if she and her father had been able to visit their acquaintances in town, she was not certain any houses would be open to them.
Scandal, after all, was catching.
On the fifth day, Mr. Gardiner suggested it might be best if the Bennets went home. Elizabeth could not find fault with the scheme. Her father had been rendered spiritless by the ill-success of all their endeavors to recover Lydia, and they knew not by what further method she might be sought out. Here, in town, he sank deeper into despair, whereas if he were at home, it might be imagined that their efforts drew closer to a conclusion—whether or not that was really the case.
Still, Elizabeth, as well as her aunt and uncle, agreed it was the most prudent course of action. Her uncle knew the city better, had more friends, and more connections through his business interests. Longbourn was where her father felt most at ease. He had hated London long before it swallowed his youngest child.
To Longbourn then, they made preparations to go. Or, to be more specific about it, Elizabeth made preparations, as her father was far too dispirited to arrange matters himself. He’d arrived home late last night, his coat and hat limp with rain, his cough rattling about in his chest. Mrs. Gardiner had sent for tea and gruel, Mr. Gardiner had poured liberal dollops of brandy, but Mr. Bennet’s eyes were red, his cheeks hollow. He kept to his room in the morning, and by noon, even the servants downstairs had expressed doubts about her father’s fitness for travel.
“I would not relay my housekeeper’s concerns, Lizzy,” Mrs. Gardiner said over tea, “but for the fact that I worry most about your being forced to stop along the road to Longbourn. If you cannot go home, I would rather Mr. Bennet remain with us than in a roadside inn.”
“I agree, aunt,” Elizabeth replied. “But I know not how I will break the news.” Of course they would not go to an inn. Elizabeth was sure that once they began the journey home, her father would not pause until he was alone in his library. But if he was really so very ill, she dreaded to think what such a trip might do to his constitution.
It was better to get it over with. Elizabeth girded herself as if for battle and headed upstairs to knock on her father’s door.
“Enter,” came the reply, followed by yet another cough.
Elizabeth came into the room to see him sitting, slightly slumped, at a chair before a dwindling fire. “Papa,” she said, and crossed to him. “I have come to see how you fare.”
“As well as can be expected, I imagine,” her father replied. “When do we leave?”
“Within the hour, if you think it advisable.” She came closer.
He shifted in his seat, grunting. “Best be on with it, then.”
“Papa, it has been suggested that you might delay your travel.”
At this he sat straighter in his seat. “Delay? For what purpose! Is there news of Lydia’s whereabouts?” For a moment, his eyes went clear with hope.
Elizabeth hated to dash them. “No, Papa. Nothing like that. Only, we were wondering if you are well enough for the journey. Another day in town might allow you to rest.”
“Rest!” He laughed, mirthlessly. “There will be no rest, Lizzy. Not here, and not at Longbourn, either. My daughter has been stolen by a cad, and they have hidden away so well there is naught that anyone can do to repair this breach. Your uncle can pack me away to Longbourn, he can continue the search or not, but the stain will remain. Do not triumph over me now, Lizzy. You warned me of the foolishness of Lydia’s Brighton scheme. I did not pay you enough attention. I did not pay enough attention, it appears, to any of my daughters. And now we shall all pay the price.” He made as if to continue, but another coughing fit came upon him, sending him doubled over as he hacked.
“Papa!” She rushed forward and put a hand on his shoulder for comfort. He rose, a moment later, bleary-eyed and breathless, and she brushed her palm across his forehead. “You are feverish. We cannot allow you to be moved today. I will call a servant to help you undress and put you to bed.”
“Helpless here, helpless at home, what difference does it make?” Mr. Bennet grumbled.
“The difference is the bed here is only a few steps away, and Longbourn is many miles.”
Her father grunted in response.
“And at home Jane will have to look after two parents abed,” she added, and even in his agony, Mr. Bennet managed a smile.
“Very well, Lizzy. I shall stay another day in this wretched place. If only to spare your sister the weight of two invalid parents.”
“A day… at least,” she insisted. The servant arrived to care for her father, and Elizabeth retreated.
In the hall she took a moment for herself, leaning against the wall and breathing. Her heart had longed for Longbourn as well, for the bosom of home and the confidence of her sisters. But surely her father’s illness would only delay them by a few days.
The bell rang, below, and she heard a servant answer the door. Absentmindedly, she strayed to the landing, and looked out over the threshold.
A gentleman stood, speaking with the servant, his face shielded from the weather by his hat. Even from the top of the stairs, Lizzy could see his height, the cut of his coat. She watched him speak for a moment with the servant, and then he raised his face enough that their eyes met for one swift second.
Mr. Darcy turned on his heel and left.
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