Lasting Impressions by Pamela St Vines
What Became of Wickham
By Aaran St Vines
The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.
Miss Prism in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest
Lord and Lady Carlisle arrived in Hertfordshire equally curious to meet Elizabeth Bennet, but with very different aims. Lord Carlisle was eager to meet the young woman who had captured Darcy's heart, while his wife was anxious to determine what might be salvaged from what Lady Carlisle considered to be a most unfortunate match.
Although he was not given to sentimental expression, Lord Carlisle had been excessively devoted to his younger sister Anne, and was, therefore, very fond of her children--particularly Darcy, for Lord Carlisle thought the son was very like his mother. When people commented on Darcy's resemblance to his father, Lord Carlisle merely smiled for it was true that his nephew had inherited his father's height and coloring. Few saw beyond that physical likeness, but in Lord Carlisle's opinion, Darcy's eyes and, more importantly, the intelligence and depth of feeling behind them were very like his mother's. That similarity had been readily apparent when his nephew was a boy, but grief and loss had magnified Darcy's natural reserve so greatly that his deepest thoughts and feelings were now rarely displayed--even in the intimacy of their family circle.
It had pained Lord Carlisle to see Darcy gradually assume the mask of studied indifference, which he now wore almost constantly. Therefore, while Lord Carlisle had offered his own sons the usual good counsel of exercising prudence in choosing a bride, he had spoken to Darcy of marrying for true affection, for in the uncle's mind only the happiness of requited love might restore his nephew's former disposition and warmth.
Having long encouraged him thusly, Lord Carlisle had received Darcy's letter announcing his impending marriage with secret delight and was reconciled to the match almost entirely once he had recovered from the unexpectedness of it. Lord Carlisle only required the opportunity to assure himself of a strong mutual affection between Darcy and his bride before offering their union his unqualified and wholehearted support.
The earl had never lied to his wife. However, in the interest of his own domestic harmony, he also had not informed Lady Carlisle of his opinion and subsequent advice that Darcy marry for love. Thus Lord Carlisle found it necessary to hide his excitement upon reading Darcy's letter. Ignorant of the dissimilarity of their views, his wife had proceeded to rage at the impudence of their nephew in daring to betroth himself to a young woman without his uncle's blessing and guidance. When Lady Carlisle's tirade had run its course, her husband had begun the delicate task of guiding her towards acceptance of Darcy's choice.
"I understand your disappointment, my dear. However, Darcy is his own man and has been managing his affairs without assistance for some time. While I am happy to offer any advice he seeks, it would be foolish of me to be affronted by Darcy's independent decision in this matter when I have long encouraged him to be confident of his own judgment in everything else.
"As we cannot undo what has been done, we must consider what is best for the family now," the earl had continued smoothly. "For Darcy to go back on his word would cause a huge scandal, something to be avoided at all costs. Therefore, Darcy and Miss Bennet must marry as planned."
"Yes, of course," Lady Carlisle had conceded, acknowledging the wisdom of his words. "A jilt now would be far more disastrous than the marriage itself."
Pleased by this admission, the earl had attempted to console her.
"I do not believe that Darcy's integrity and intelligence would allow him to settle his affections upon a girl who is entirely unworthy of our notice. It is now our task to minimize any damage by assisting the new Mrs. Darcy's introduction to society. After all, we do have Georgiana's future to consider."
Seeing his wife sigh and square her shoulders in that particular way, Lord Carlisle had smothered a smile, knowing that his point was successfully made. While she might rage against Darcy's marriage in private, Lady Carlisle would protect the family by presenting a united front to the public.
Their late arrival at Netherfield dictated that Lord and Lady Carlisle hasten to their rooms almost immediately to prepare for the evening's dinner party at Longbourn. However, the change in Darcy's demeanor did not escape his uncle's attention. Lord Carlisle retired to his dressing room inordinately satisfied by his nephew's evident happiness. He was also pleased by the liveliness of Georgiana's greeting.
Lady Carlisle, on the other hand, had been too engrossed in her own irritation with Darcy to note the changes in her niece and nephew. While she now accepted the inevitability of the match, Lady Carlisle was still quite put out that she had not been consulted. After all, she had offered to assist Darcy in arranging a suitable marriage on numerous occasions, and each time he had declined, stubbornly insisting that he would handle such matters for himself.
"True to his word, Darcy managed it all himself," his aunt thought bitterly, "and in so doing he has saddled the family with an unremarkable connection at best."
Although determined to do her duty by publicly accepting her new niece, Lady Carlisle was resolved to do no more. While she had great respect for the sanctity of their family's name and reputation, Lady Carlisle firmly believed that simply marrying into the family did not entitle one to every consideration due a blood relation. Her eldest son's wife was already uncomfortably aware of that distinction. Although Lady Carlisle would never demonstrate or allow disrespect of her new daughter in public, the viscount's wife had felt the sting of Lady Carlisle's slights often enough in private. Margaret was, after all, only the daughter of a baronet. It was hardly a particularly worthy connection in the opinion of Lady Carlisle, who was the daughter of a marquess as well as the wife of an earl.
Lady Carlisle had deemed Margaret to be rather like her connections--not objectionable, but not particularly impressive either. Now in light of Darcy's engagement to a young woman with no connections whatsoever, Lady Carlisle found herself thinking rather fondly of Margaret. Charles had at least selected someone of acceptable rank and fortune, and in light of his peculiar lack of ambitioun, she now realized that her son's choice might have been far worse. These musings were interrupted by the maid holding a mirror that Lady Carlisle might check the dressing of her hair. Satisfied that her appearance bespoke her station, Lady Carlisle could not help smiling at the thought of intimidating Darcy's country girl bride.
"It is just as well the girl firmly understand her place," Lady Carlisle thought smugly as she joined her husband.
Lord and Lady Carlisle finally descended the stairs, to find only Darcy and Georgiana awaiting them . The others had gone ahead in the first carriage, a plan proposed by Colonel Fitzwilliam so that the Bennets would not worry about the fate of their guests.
"--and I do feel that I should go on ahead with Bingley and the Hursts," the colonel had added, "so that I might apologize for the delay caused by my parents' late arrival. Do you not agree?"
Amused by Darcy's struggle to hide his irritation at their tardiness, Fitzwilliam could not resist adding, "I shall also be happy to convey any more personal messages to Miss Elizabeth--"
"That will not be necessary," Darcy had cut him off. "I am quite capable of speaking to Miss Elizabeth for myself. However, your plan is a good one."
As duty demanded he accompany his uncle and aunt this evening, Darcy unhappily agreed to Fitzwilliam's proposal and Georgiana volunteered to wait with him while the others went on ahead. She attempted to distract her brother from the passing minutes by chattering on about the Bennets, and Darcy appreciated her efforts. Nonetheless he was considerably relieved when his uncle and aunt finally made their appearance. Darcy forced himself to smile and endeavored to hide his pique. In fact, he thought he was handling it all rather well until Georgiana smothered a giggle and squeezed his fingers as Darcy helped her into the carriage. That drew a genuine smile from him and Darcy began to relax. Comforted by the knowledge that they would soon be at Longbourn, he sat back to enjoy the ride.
Even as her husband talked of inconsequential matters with the young people, Lady Carlisle studied her nephew across the carriage. He did seem happy, annoyingly so. He also seemed calmer--an interesting and possibly alarming change. Darcy had always been rather quick to anger, and Lady Carlisle had often used that to maneuver him--subtly prodding Darcy into a temper and then graciously accepting his apology later. He had always been far more amenable to her influence in those moments of contrition. But this Darcy looked as if he would not be so easy to provoke.
"Ah, well," Lady Carlisle thought with a sigh, "even the strongest of infatuations will not last forever. This will fade and he will be as himself again, and Darcy has always been clever. Perhaps the girl will be someone I can train to represent the family properly."
That thought brought a rare smile to her lips. It did not escape Darcy's notice and he wondered just what scheme his aunt might be hatching at the moment.
With the skill of much practice, Lady Carlisle immediately began rating and cataloging the Bennets' assets and tastes before Darcy had time to complete the introductions. The Bennet home was somewhat smaller than she had dared to hope for and yet it was also somewhat better than she had expected. The furnishings were of excellent quality and well proportioned to the size of the rooms. All in all it was a very inviting and comfortable house. Similarly the Bennet ladies were all well dressed. Their gowns were simply styled, but the fabric was of unmistakably fine quality, such as could only be procured in London. Lady Carlisle was pleasantly surprised.
"Well, I suppose Darcy's infatuation is to be expected," Lady Carlisle thought even as she acknowledged Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. "After all the girl is quite a beauty."
To her great surprise, however, it was not the very beautiful, fair haired girl that Darcy introduced as his fiance, but rather the petite brunette beside her. Despite her pique with Darcy, Lady Carlisle was now intrigued. The girl was pretty to be sure, but no more so than dozens of higher ranking young women that Darcy had refused to notice. Almost against her will, Lady Carlisle's hopes began to rise that this marriage would not be the disaster she had expected it to be.
"What is it that makes you so special, Miss Elizabeth Bennet?" Lady Carlisle wondered even as she politely acknowledged the introduction.
The only other guests in attendance were the Netherfield family and the Gardiners, Mrs. Bennet's brother and his wife from London. Sensing Lady Carlisle's propensity to dismiss them all as inferiors, Elizabeth was excessively grateful for her father's earlier suggestion that Lydia and the Gardiner children spend the evening with Aunt Philips. Mrs. Bennet had welcomed the idea, as she was most anxious that nothing happen to mar the evening and her mind was considerably eased by the prospect of having the children out from under foot.
Surprisingly, Aunt Philips had eagerly agreed, expressing her happiness to relieve her "dear sister's nerves" at such an important time. Elizabeth had privately wondered if Aunt Philips might be a bit apprehensive at the prospect of being in such exalted company. Whatever the reason, it had all worked out wonderfully in Elizabeth's opinion. Between her Aunt Philips' absence and Aunt Gardiner's calming presence, her mother would appear to best advantage.
Mrs. Bennet loved to entertain and she had spared no effort for this significant event. Even Lady Carlisle privately acknowledged that the table was impressive. The silver had the patina that only came with age and each piece had been polished to perfection. Everything was elegantly arranged and Lady Carlisle could not help admiring the beautiful place cards even as she wondered at the irregularity of the seating arrangement. She and her husband were properly placed beside their host and hostess, but Darcy and Elizabeth were seated together in the middle of the table. Mr. Bennet noticed her glance of disapproval at the young couple and quietly offered an explanation.
"I see that you are wondering at our unorthodox seating arrangement, Lady Carlisle. Surely you know how intractable your nephew can be when he is determined. While we have found Mr. Darcy to be most agreeable on the whole, my wife has entirely given up attempting to separate him from Lizzy at the dinner table. Since he insisted upon being seated at her side, my wife, who certainly would not wish to offend either yourself or Lord Carlisle, simply placed them in the center of the table. Had she not arranged the table to suit him, I can assure you that Mr. Darcy would have moved us around to make it right in his opinion."
Lady Carlisle smiled. It did sound exactly like Darcy and she could not help admiring Mr. Bennet's good humor and direct address of her unspoken question. When the ladies retired to the drawing room after dinner, Lady Carlisle even deigned to compliment Mrs. Bennet on the unusual place cards.
"I do not think I have ever seen so much artistry exhibited in something so simple as a place card," she said. "Did you order them specially from London or were they created by a talented local?"
Mrs. Bennet beamed with pleasure as she replied, "Actually the artists are present. Miss Darcy, Kitty, do come here. Lady Carlisle was just admiring the place cards. The girls spent an entire afternoon designing and creating them."
It was evident to all that Lady Carlisle was scrutinizing the company--particularly Elizabeth--but the other ladies did their best to converse normally as if unaware of her examination. Even Georgiana exerted herself to inquire after her cousins.
Elizabeth had refused to bend before Lady Catherine's insults and she had no intention of groveling for Lady Carlisle's approval now. Therefore, although she felt Lady Carlisle's observation keenly, Elizabeth was determined to conduct herself normally. She was polite and friendly but she refused to cower before Darcy's aunt.
Lady Carlisle found this somewhat disconcerting. She had put many a London snob in her place with just a look, but Darcy's country miss met her gaze and her questions with equanimity.
While the ladies were undergoing Lady Carlisle's inspection in the drawing room, the atmosphere in the dining room was far more relaxed and congenial. Having seen enough during dinner to assure him that Darcy's affection was returned in kind, Lord Carlisle was free from any misgivings about the match and eager to know his companions. He was already slightly acquainted with Bingley and Hurst and to Lord Carlisle's great delight, Mr. Bennet and Mr. Gardiner were not only amiable gentlemen, but also intelligent and well read. As they neared the half hour mark, Darcy's impatience to rejoin Elizabeth had not escaped the notice of his companions, and Mr. Bennet could not resist the opportunity to tease him.
"I am certain the ladies would forgive us if we linger a while longer," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "What say you, Lord Carlisle?"
Mr. Bennet lifted the port decanter as if to refill his guests' glasses and Darcy, who was clearly at his patience's end, missed the mischievous smile that accompanied his uncle's reply.
"I do believe I would enjoy another, Mr. Bennet."
At Darcy's audible sigh, the entire company broke into laughter.
"I apologize, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth's father said with a smile. "Perhaps it was unfair of me to tease you, but consider it practice for life with my Lizzy."
"No apology is necessary, Mr. Bennet," Darcy said with an answering smile, "as long as we now going to rejoin the ladies."
This elicited another round of good-natured laughter as the men rose to adjourn to the drawing room. Falling in step with Mr. Bennet, Darcy whispered, "I cannot help remembering my first dinner at Longbourn and the hospitality and friendship you offered me that night. Thank you, sir."
Smiling at the memory of Darcy's awkwardness on the evening in question, Mr. Bennet replied, "I am confident that you would have found the courage to speak to Lizzy even without my assistance, but I am pleased to have been of use. Perhaps it is Lizzy who is in need of rescue this evening. While your uncle seems most congenial, I am not as sanguine regarding your aunt's opinion of the match."
Darcy was not surprised by Mr. Bennet's acuity. He had learned that Elizabeth's father missed little.
"I am confident that Miss Elizabeth will win my aunt's full support in time," he said, "but in the interim, it is perhaps best that we not leave them unattended too long."
Elizabeth was seated on one of the sofas with Lady Carlisle on one side and Jane on the other when Darcy entered the room. Smothering a smile, Jane immediately murmured something about helping their mother with the coffee and vacated her seat, which Darcy happily occupied. Taking Elizabeth's hand he leaned forward to address his aunt.
"I trust you have been kind to my affianced, Lady Sarah."
"Mr. Darcy--" Elizabeth began but Lady Carlisle interrupted her.
"No, you do not know me yet, my dear," she said feeling oddly pleased by Darcy's directness, "but Darcy is quite right. I can be rather unbearable when I am out of sorts or crossed. Truthfully, I have yet to form an opinion of your young lady, Darcy. I promise not to be unkind unless I decide that I truly do not like her."
"Then I am satisfied," Darcy said with a smug smile, "for I know that you value intelligence and integrity, Aunt. Therefore, you will find it impossible to dislike Miss Bennet once you are better acquainted."
Elizabeth felt her courage rise with Darcy's presence and his touch. She had politely endured his aunt's thinly veiled disdain and inspection for the last half hour and now could not resist responding to Lady Carlisle's pronouncement.
"I do appreciate your willingness to find a reason to dislike me before actually doing so, your ladyship," she said sweetly. "I cannot recall ever having received such an offer before. Clearly I have much to learn of how things are done in the first circles."
Elizabeth glanced at Darcy, fearing she might have upset him by challenging his aunt, but Darcy merely widened his smile and squeezed her hand. Meanwhile his cousin, who had been unashamedly eavesdropping on the conversation, turned away with a laugh.
"Well played," the colonel thought. Although she appeared to be taken aback by Elizabeth's boldness, Fitzwilliam knew his mother would respect Elizabeth's wit and self-confidence. Assured that Darcy did not require his assistance, Fitzwilliam crossed the room to join Miss Elizabeth's beautiful older sister.
While his colonel was enjoying dinner with the Bennets, Sgt. Murphy spent the evening in the common room at the inn so that he might find out more about George Wickham. "Know thy enemy," had stood Murphy in good stead all his career, and although Colonel Fitzwilliam had never spoken of Georgiana's near misstep, his faithful sergeant had pieced enough together to know that this man was definitely no friend to his colonel and, therefore, by extension himself.
Mr. Darcy had brought Miss Georgiana to town unexpectedly last summer and the two of them, Darcy and Fitzwilliam, had held many secret councils. Knowing his colonel was distraught over something, Sgt. Murphy had done what any good sergeant would do to protect his colonel. He had spied on him, easily learning enough to identify the cause of the gentlemen's distress as a certain George Wickham, who had grown up near Pemberley. Finally one day the sergeant overheard enough to surmise the particular nature of the offense.
"You cannot call him out, Fitzwilliam," Darcy had said in a tone that made the sergeant's blood run cold. "If that were an option, I would have killed him myself in Ramsgate. You must think of Georgiana. You know how people are. It would make no matter that she is entirely innocent. A breath of scandal and she is ruined forever. Is it worth destroying her life to have your revenge?"
The sergeant had then understood his colonel's frustration. He clearly had cause to kill Wickham, but could not lest it reflect on Miss Georgiana's reputation.
With a shake of his head, Murphy brought his mind back to the present, for the source of his colonel's unhappiness was now here before him--George Wickham himself, sitting twenty feet away, smiling as if he thought himself a very fine fellow. The sergeant easily decided that he would kill him. After all Murphy's chosen profession required that he kill honorable men simply because they wore the wrong uniform. To kill a true scoundrel who had injured his colonel's kinswoman would not give the sergeant a moment's pause. In Murphy's eyes, it was a duty that would also be a pleasure.
Of course, the sergeant had no intention of calling the man out. Such folderol was for gentlemen--and rather silly in Murphy's opinion. Preferring not to tip his hand, Murphy would simply wait for the right opportunity and then he would kill Wickham nice and quiet like. The loyal sergeant did not consider the act a murder so much as an execution. Murphy's only pause was to consider how he might accomplish it without engendering any suspicions that he had a hand in it. In the field he would simply kill Wickham the night before a battle and then hide him where he would be discovered among the next day's dead. But here in quiet little Meryton there would be no battle to cover his tracks.
If only there were a plausible reason for Wickham to leave town without enlisting, Murphy reasoned, then he could just kill the man and take his body far from Meryton. It would be easy to make it look like he had fallen from his horse in the dark or been set upon by highwaymen. It did not escape Murphy's notice when Wickham began eyeing the barmaid in a particular way. Murphy knew Mary to be a good girl, the kind who would one day marry the blacksmith's apprentice or the innkeeper's son. She was not the type to give herself to strangers for a few coins or a little attention.
Murphy slumped over the table so that it would appear he was dozing, but inside he was tightly coiled instinctively knowing that Wickham's lust would be his downfall. The inn was quiet now. The officers had finally returned to their billets for the night and the townsfolk, to their homes, leaving a sleeping Murphy--or so he appeared--and Wickham nursing another pint by the fire. Murphy overheard the innkeeper bidding Mary to see to the fire and bar the door, and as his heavy footsteps retreated up the stairs, Murphy smiled to himself. Wickham had been drinking heavily and the sergeant was confident that the scoundrel would give him just the opening he required soon. He expected the rogue to attempt a liberty with the girl. Murphy would then "wake" and stop him. The humiliation of his ungentlemanly conduct could be spun into a plausible reason for the man to change his mind and go elsewhere to enlist, and Murphy had no doubt he could spin it. To Murphy's surprise, however, Wickham did more than grab the girl. He pulled a knife and threatened to harm her if she did not accompany him to the stables.
Evidently Wickham had also discerned the girl's character Murphy thought sourly, and knew she would not accommodate his demands willingly. The scoundrel probably assumed he could intimidate her into keeping silent afterwards, with her being just a servant and him being an officer and all.
An enraged Murphy silently followed them out into the night. Mary was quietly crying and begging Wickham to let her be when the sergeant slipped into the stable. The girl's eyes widened at the sight of him, but she did not give his presence away. Murphy crept in close and hit Wickham over the head with a bottle he had brought along for just that purpose. Wickham staggered and went down. Murphy uttered what comfort he could to the sobbing girl even as he grabbed a length of rope and began to tie Wickham up.
Realizing she was now safe, Mary finally stopped crying and whispered, "What will you do with him?"
"That is not for you and me to decide," Murphy lied. "You are safe now so I say we leave him tied to this post for the night. Then in the morning I will speak to your master. He and the magistrate can decide what to do with him."
Murphy gagged his prisoner for good measure and then escorted Mary from the barn. She thanked him repeatedly before slipping up the stairs to her room. Murphy also retired to his chamber, but only to wait until he was sure the entire town was asleep. In the wee hours of the morning, Murphy slipped back out to the stables. Wickham was conscious and his eyes grew wide with fear. The sergeant simply knocked him out again and tied Wickham's body across one of the horses. Murphy checked to be sure all was still quiet outside before he led the horse from the stable.
Thanking all the saints that the inn was situated at the edge of the village, Murphy slowly led the animal across country, counting on the grass to muffle the sounds of its passage. When they rejoined the road a mile or so from town, Murphy mounted the animal, riding behind Wickham's body until they were well away from Meryton. The sergeant was thankful for the full moon as he searched for the place, feeling vastly relieved when he finally found it. The gully was just as Murphy had remembered it--definitely steep enough and not far from the road. He urged the horse to pick up speed and then reined her in abruptly just before it was too late. If any tracks were left, it would appear that the horse had stopped just in time. Unfortunately that would not prove true of her rider. Still astride his mount, Murphy unbound Wickham's body. He turned the horse slightly and threw Wickham over the side head first down into the gully. The sergeant heard the crack of his skull on the rocks below with deep satisfaction. Wickham was dead or if not yet, he would be by the time anyone found him.
Murphy rode the mare back toward the village at a gentler pace. A mile or so from Meryton the sergeant abandoned his mount and slipped back into town on foot. All was quiet when he re-entered the inn. Murphy quietly barred the door and slipped upstairs where he quickly fell into an exhausted sleep. His last conscious thought was that it had been a good night's work.
Knowing that he was obligated to spend most of the day with his guests, Darcy quietly made his way downstairs early the next morning with the intention of slipping away to see Elizabeth before he would be missed. Although Darcy spoke kindly to the stable boy, his eagerness to be off was unmistakable. The lad, having rightly interpreted Darcy's impatience to mean he was going to see Miss Lizzy, saddled the horse as quickly as he could, all the while hiding his grin from the gentleman. Never dreaming his intent was so easily divined by a mere boy, Darcy rode out for Longbourn.
In his eagerness to see Elizabeth, Darcy had not stopped to contemplate the oddity of his calling at such an early hour, but he flushed with embarrassment when the servant ushered him in to join the family at breakfast. To Darcy's relief the Bennets did not seem unduly surprised and Mr. Bennet interrupted his attempt to apologize for his untimely call.
"You need not apologize, Mr. Darcy," the older man reassured him. "It does a father's heart good to see his daughter so valued by her future husband. Please sit down and join us. I am sure the morning air has given you an appetite."
Even as her father was greeting their guest, Kitty moved to an empty chair across the table to allow Darcy the seat beside Elizabeth. No further persuasion was required. Darcy took the vacant chair and was content. Many smiles were shared around the table, but the family graciously resumed their assorted conversations, realizing that Darcy neither wanted nor needed their attention. Clearly he had come to see Elizabeth for he could scarcely tear his eyes away from her. Darcy boldly took advantage of the conversations buzzing around them to lean in and whisper, "I love you, Lizzy."
His heart pounded when she squeezed his hand under the table and faintly whispered, "And I, you, Fitzwilliam," in response.
Everyone pretended not to notice their murmurs, but Mrs. Gardiner could not help smiling and nodding to her husband. Having grown up in Derbyshire, she was more fully cognizant of Darcy's wealth and position, and it pleased her to see his unabashed affection for her niece.
While Darcy was so pleasantly engaged at Longbourn, Murphy was explaining the previous evening's excitement to Mr. Smyth, the innkeeper.
"--I trust I will not come to any trouble for striking the man," the sergeant said feigning uncertainty, "but it would not have been right to let him hurt the poor girl--"
"No, of course not. Do not even think on it," Smyth assured him. "You did the right thing. You stopped Wickham from doing Mary any real harm and then you tied him up for the law to deal with."
Murphy started to protest, "But--"
"No. You did right," Smyth repeated firmly, "and you are a better man than I am. I might have done him permanent harm if I'd been the one to stop him. It is not uncommon for a man to be a little forward if he's had too much to drink. Mary is used to handling such foolishness, but to pull a knife on the poor girl and after he made such a pretense of what a gentleman he was."
"Ah, 'tis just lucky I woke up when I did," Murphy smoothly agreed. "I felt the need for a little fresh air before going up to bed and that's when I heard the commotion from the stables."
"Twas the good Lord looking out for Mary, it was," the innkeeper avowed.
"Well, I have never been mistaken for an angel of mercy," Murphy said with a grin, "but there is for sure a devil out there in your stable. Make no mistake of that. I tied him up good. He hasn't enlisted yet so I don't know if we should bother the colonel or go straight to the magistrate, sir?"
At Smyth's behest, they went to the stable first that he might have the satisfaction of railing at the miscreant himself. There they found the broken bottle and a length of rope attesting to the validity of Murphy's story but no Wickham. When he saw the first stall empty, Smyth swore under his breath.
"Oh, no," Murphy said contritely, "I thought I had him all secure, sir, but it looks as if the bugger has escaped."
"And taken my best mare with him," Smyth said disgustedly.
"Oh, 'tis all my fault," Murphy lamented. "I thought it best not to disturb anyone so late and now he's gone and stolen your horse, sir."
"Not your fault, Murphy," the innkeeper consoled him. "You did your best. Well, there is no need to hurry now. Let us go back inside and have a bite of breakfast. Then we will call on the magistrate."
Murphy was an accomplished actor and he managed to maintain a serious expression as befit the situation, but inside he was smiling. The sergeant's only regret was that Colonel Fitzwilliam did not already have the pleasure of knowing that the lying, conniving cheat was dead.
"But then," Murphy thought philosophically, "what the colonel doesn't know, cannot hurt him."
Even as Murphy was congratulating himself on evading prison, Caroline Bingley was convinced she had entered one. An elderly manservant was waiting at the docks in Dublin to drive them to Mrs. Annesley's sister's home. Caroline was still wan and pale, but the return to solid ground immediately made her feel somewhat better.
"I 'pologize for coming to fetch you in the cart," the servant said, "but Mr. Cassidy has the carriage."
Mrs. Annesley assured him that it made no matter, even as Caroline inwardly seethed. In Caroline's view, what was merely a slight at the docks proved to be source of great annoyance when they reached the home of Mrs. Annesley's sister. While far from grand, Mrs. Cassidy's home was spacious and comfortable, and the neighborhood was much better than Caroline had expected. Her pleasure in that surprise quickly evaporated when Mrs. Cassidy explained that while her son Michael would be pleased to convey Caroline to her aunt's, he would be away on business for at least a seven night more. Mrs. Cassidy graciously offered her hospitality in the meantime.
Realizing that Caroline's temper was rising, Mrs. Annesley thanked her sister for her kindness and hurried Caroline upstairs murmuring about her recent illness as excuse. When they had reached the privacy of the room appointed for Caroline's use during her stay, Mrs. Annesley accompanied her inside and shut the door behind her.
"I know you are disappointed, Miss Bingley," she began, "but you must collect yourself. My sister has kindly opened her home to you, and my nephew will see us to your aunt's in safety and comfort. However, you must be patient. This is not Netherfield. You do not have your brother's wealth and good will to smooth things over for you here. You are a guest, and if you want to be treated like a fine lady, then I suggest you begin to act like one. Monique and I will help you to endure the wait as best we can, but you must exert yourself. Now I am going downstairs to visit with my sister. I will have some tea and toast sent up for you. I suggest you take that and then try to rest so that you might be fit for company later."
Caroline was shocked. She had never been spoken to in such a fashion. She grabbed up a hand mirror from the dressing table, heedless of the thoughtfulness that had placed it there for her use. Caroline's intent was to smash the mirror against the wall, but her hand was stayed by a chance glimpse of her own reflection. Caroline gasped in horror when she saw the madness and malice in her eyes.
"No," she thought, "that cannot be me. I am Caroline Bingley. I may not be a great beauty, but I am widely admired for my height and my well-appointed appearance. I am--"
Caroline fell on the bed sobbing. She did not want to grow into a bitter old woman, and she certainly did not want to be alone, but sadly she had not the least idea of how to change her fate.
As Mrs. Annesley had ordered Monique to bed for several hours, the second maid was charged with delivering tea to their mysterious guest. The girl heard Caroline weeping through the door, and uncertain of the best course of action, she quietly crept away still carrying the tea tray and sought out Mrs. Annesley.
"Excuse me, ma'ams," the maid murmured to the two sisters who were happily sharing their news in the parlor, "but the woman what come with you, Mrs. Annesley--she's crying. I did not know if I should disturb her. Do you think she'll still want her tea?"
"No, Sally, I think not," Mrs. Annesley said softly. "We had best let her have her cry. Poor Miss Bingley has not been well. You may return to your other duties and I will see to her in a bit."
Seeing the question in her sister's eyes, Eleanor Annesley waited until the maid's footsteps had faded down the hallway before she said with a smile, "No, Carrie, I will not tell you Miss Bingley's story. That is for her to tell, but I will say that she is a most unhappy young woman."
"Poor dear," Mrs. Cassidy clucked sympathetically. "Well then, perhaps a good cry will ease her distress."
"Yes," her sister agreed aloud, even as she thought, "It would require much more than a good cry to cure what ails that woman--it would take a miracle."
Back in Meryton, the missing horse had wandered into town later that morning--none the worse for wear--to the innkeeper's great satisfaction. The mare's reappearance was actually a cause for universal rejoicing in the village for not only had their neighbor's property been safely recovered, but the local gossips also had fresh cause for denouncing the villainous Wickham. By the time the animal returned, their wagging tongues had already judged him to be not only wicked, but cowardly, too, and the good folk of Meryton delighted now in adding incompetence to the man's list of failings. There was much laughter over the clumsy horse thief who could not keep his seat. Happily with Mary unharmed and the animal safely back in the inn's stable, there was no inducement to hunt the blackguard down, and Sergeant Murphy settled in to enjoy a few more peaceful days encamped at the inn.
Meanwhile news of such magnitude quickly spread throughout the village, and Aunt Philips took it upon herself to escort Lydia and the little Gardiners back to Longbourn that she might personally enlighten her relations. With such a shocking tale to relate, Aunt Philips was in her element and as soon as the young ones had been taken upstairs, she regaled the remaining family members with her account of the inept reprobate. Everyone was most entertained--everyone except Elizabeth, for she recognized the name of Wickham and was immediately concerned for Darcy and Georgiana. Not wanting to raise any unwanted questions, she pretended to share the company's amusement until she could discretely slip away with murmured excuses.
Although she would normally desire to spare Darcy her Aunt Philips' company, Elizabeth wished with all her heart that he had not already returned to Netherfield, for she deemed it imperative that he know of Wickham's recent presence in the neighborhood. Although the man's return to Meryton seemed most unlikely, Elizabeth would not risk the possibility of Darcy and, even more importantly, Georgiana encountering him unawares.
Such news would surely reach the Netherfield servants, but as the family had not yet formed any intimate acquaintance in the neighborhood, Elizabeth thought it likely they would not learn of these events until the evening's dinner engagement. Her mother was no doubt already relishing the prospect of enlightening them, but Elizabeth could not allow such news to take Darcy and Georgiana by surprise in company. Their reactions might expose them to curiosity that was best not aroused.
In the safety and relative privacy of her chamber, Elizabeth set about composing a note to Darcy. She paused after writing the salutation, considering how to proceed. She could not write of Wickham, for that would surely raise unwanted questions if the message were read by anyone else, and while reading another's letter would be an unthinkable breach of privacy, Elizabeth was not so naive as to believe that it was impossible or even unlikely to occur. Therefore, she decided upon a more subtle approach.
Dearest Fitzwilliam,Your visit this morning was a wonderful surprise, and I should now be vastly contented. However, I find the thought of so many hours before I see you again very trying. I feel like young Johnny Clay, high atop the tree, except that I am longing and watching for your return. Who would have thought that such a distressing day would end so well? Yet, that day ended very well indeed--for the Clays--and for us. I am confident that all will be equally fine today and that my foolish worries will be vanquished entirely when I see your dear face again. All my love to you--and dearest Georgiana. I wish you were both here.Your Elizabeth
Elizabeth glanced back over the note and was satisfied. It read like the emotional ramblings of a nervous bride, but she trusted that Darcy knew her well enough to interpret it otherwise. Although their engagement allowed the familiarity of private correspondence, there had been little need as Darcy and Elizabeth had been in each other's company almost daily. Hoping that the novelty of the note would also arouse Darcy's suspicions, Elizabeth slipped down the back stairs and out to the stable where she asked Tom, who was easily the most accomplished rider at Longbourn, to follow after Mr. Darcy and deliver the letter. To Elizabeth's satisfaction, the young man grinned shyly and blushed at her request. He undoubtedly assumed it to be a simple love letter, which was as she had hoped.
Tom was glad to be of use of Miss Lizzy and quickly set off at a gallop toward Netherfield and Darcy. Conversely that gentleman in his reluctance to leave Elizabeth behind--even for the day--had ridden away from Longbourn at a very sedate pace. When he was nearing Netherfield and the prospect of a day spent politely ignoring his aunt's remarks and questions, Darcy had even allowed his animal to graze a bit. This delay allowed Tom to reach the Netherfield stables just behind him.
Darcy's surprise at receiving the note was as nothing when compared to his astonishment at its contents. He knew enough of Elizabeth's mind to realize that this was not a mere love letter, and he had to admire her cleverness. It was all so vaguely worded as to be easily misconstrued by most. Darcy would have been thoroughly delighted by her ruse were he not anxious to know what had alarmed her. As soon as a fresh horse was readied Darcy set out for the borders of Longbourn and Johnny Clay's "watching tree," for he did not doubt that Elizabeth would be there waiting for him.
Darcy wondered if he had foolishly misunderstood her note, when the tree came into view and there was no sign of Elizabeth. Then chiding himself that she would surely exercise caution not to be seen when they were meeting privately the day before their wedding, Darcy urged his horse across the field and into the stand of trees. When he had ridden far enough into the woods so as to be hidden from view, Darcy was arrested by the sound of his name softly spoken from above. Looking up he saw his affianced perched in a nearby tree.
Had Elizabeth not looked so relieved to see him, Darcy would have been torn between laughing at her antics and scolding her recklessness. As it was he quickly dismounted and moved to assist her in climbing down. When she was safely on the ground Elizabeth made no move to leave Darcy's arms, but rather she clung to him.
"Dearest," Darcy whispered, "what has happened to distress you so? Please tell me."
"My Aunt Philips arrived shortly after you left this morning," Elizabeth began and Darcy's expression tightened.
"Oh, no," Elizabeth hastened to explain, "my aunt is not the cause of my anxiety. It was rather some news that she brought from Meryton--"
She proceeded to relate the facts of Wickham's arrival in the neighborhood and the subsequent events including his ignominious departure as Darcy held her close.
"--it seems unlikely that Wickham will return," Elizabeth concluded, "but I could not risk either you or Georgiana encountering him without warning. I would also hate for her to learn of this in a public setting. It is sure to be distressing and we cannot risk her reaction occasioning impertinent speculation."
"You are right, my love," Darcy agreed, his ardor only increased by her desire to protect Georgiana. "I must return to Netherfield immediately so that she will be prepared. Were it not necessary that I return my sister, I do not think I could willingly leave you now."
Darcy tightened his arms around her and dared to lean in so that his lips brushed against Elizabeth's ear as he whispered, "I love you, Lizzy."
She trembled and buried her face in his chest as she whispered, "I love you, too, Fitzwilliam--you and Georgiana."
The mention of his sister's name was sufficient reminder to Darcy of his duty. He hastened back to Netherfield and Georgiana while Elizabeth rambled on through the wood so that she might compose herself before returning to the house. Confident that Darcy would act to protect Georgiana's interests, Elizabeth forsook her worries and was soon more agreeably engaged in contemplating the new life that she would begin tomorrow as Fitzwilliam Darcy's wife.