Wickham has struck! What shall happen to our dear couple’s blossoming romance?
Mrs. Phillips, Elizabeth’s maternal aunt, was even more vulgar than Mrs. Bennet. She did not shy away from repeating the most disgusting gossip and in the most outrageous language, even if it involved one of her nieces.
At first, very little could be understood through Mrs. Bennet’s shrieking, so she was promptly sent upstairs to be cared for by Jane and Kitty. Lydia was taken into her father’s study with Mr. Bennet staring her down. The others followed him.
“Well, Lydia, what do you have to say to this charge?” Mr. Bennet asked his youngest.
Elizabeth trembled in fear of what her sister would say.
“All I did was dance with Mr. Wickham! The same as many other girls—including Lizzy!” She folded her arms across her chest and threw herself into a chair.
“Well, they are saying quite another thing in town, I assure you!” Mrs. Phillips said. “I heard tell of a compromise and whispers of obscene liberties.”
“They’re lying!” Lydia cried. “I bet it is that nasty Mary King! She couldn’t stand that I was introduced to Mr. Wickham first.”
“Good heavens, Lydia,” Elizabeth said. “It hardly matters who started the rumours or why. We must know if there is substance to them. Were you ever alone with him?”
“No,” Lydia immediately and firmly said. Then, she stood upright. “Kitty and I went to the balcony to enjoy the fresh air. Kitty went back in before me, just as Mr. Wickham came outside. He spoke with me a moment—but we were not alone. Miss Bingley was there!”
“We must hope, then, that Miss Bingley will defend you,” Mr. Bennet said gravely.
“Pigs will fly first!” said Mrs. Phillips. “She and her sister were in the milliner’s gossiping as I left!”
A collective gasp was heard throughout the room.
Lydia’s lower lip trembled. “What—what does that mean for me?”
“It means you will have to marry him,” Mr. Bennet said. “We do not know him well, and you will be poor enough, but he may prove a good husband.”
“But I don’t want to get married yet!” Lydia wailed.
“Fordyce says much about the estate of matrimony,” Mary said. “You will find it a most satisfying and spiritual experience.” Her words only made Lydia cry louder.
“Pardon me,” Mr. Darcy said, startling Elizabeth, who had momentarily forgotten about him. “But I fear this is entirely my fault. As such, I will bear any blame and cost to rectify the situation.”
“Cost? Rectify?” Mr. Bennet peered at the younger man over his glasses. “Why are you here, Darcy? This has nothing to do with you.”
“I am afraid it does. I have a long acquaintance with Mr. Wickham, who has decided he is my enemy. I happened upon Miss Elizabeth this morning while out walking, and she mentioned that he was in the country. I knew immediately that I must speak with you, but it seems the villain was one step ahead, finding an eager ally in Miss Bingley. I should have thought of such a possibility.”
“What particulars can you tell us of this man?” Mr. Bennet asked.
Mr. Darcy glanced at the sobbing Lydia and then at her aunt. “I would appreciate more privacy, sir.”
“Ah, girls, please see to Lydia. Then, sister Phillips, perhaps you would visit with my wife. This may allow Jane or Kitty to console Lydia, as they are her favourites.”
Reluctantly, Elizabeth stood to leave. Darcy stepped toward her and opened his mouth before jamming it closed again. He resumed his position by the window and stared at his boots. Elizabeth had a terrible sinking sensation that she would never see him again. No one in his family would ever be so susceptible to gossip. How could he ever attach himself to her now?
Once Lydia was settled in her chamber with Jane and Lydia, Elizabeth chose solitude in her room. She would not make herself available downstairs so Darcy would not need to take leave of her against his wishes. Worse, he could avoid saying anything to her at all. This way, she could pretend that they were nothing but indifferent acquaintances. However, there was no fooling her heart.
Later, Elizabeth would learn about Darcy’s past with Wickham. The younger man had always been jealous for the attention of the Pemberley master. He was raised as his godson and favoured accordingly, even sent to school and Cambridge with Darcy. However, their characters did not match. Wickham became a rake, liar, gamester, and cheat. For particular proof of his malfeasance, Darcy told Mr. Bennet about his father’s will. Wickham was given one thousand pounds immediately and was destined for a specific a valuable living. However, instead of staying the course, he gave up the living and asked for compensation. He signed a contract for an additional three thousand pounds, promising to never claim it again. Unfortunately, two summers ago, he did just that. When Darcy did not relent, Wickham verbally abused him terribly.
The eldest Bennet ladies listened to such news with alarm. It spoke severely of his character. However, Kitty and Lydia were not sufficiently impressed with Wickham’s foulness until Mr. Bennet swore that there was evidence of Wickham as a scoundrel and a rake, though he would not elaborate.
The situation deteriorated further when Wickham refused to meet with Mr. Phillips regarding the marriage contract. Against his will, Bennet finally allowed Darcy to intervene. Elizabeth nearly despaired of hope entirely. How could such a man be worked upon? And how could she have ever thought Darcy would connect himself with a family so low that even a cad like Wickham would feel no interest in attaching himself to?
George Wickham lingered in the officers’ common areas, confident Darcy would be searching him out soon. Events went even better than Wickham had planned. He had not considered Miss Bingley and her jealousy in his plot. Her zealous desire to be Mrs. Darcy served Wickham quite well. The news of his supposed compromise of Lydia Bennet at the assembly had travelled fast. Within a day, Mr. Bennet had sent a lawyer to speak with Wickham regarding a marriage. He flatly refused the overture, intent on baiting Darcy.
As the time grew late, Wickham grew uneasy as he had expected Darcy hours earlier. Then, at last, his eyes alighted on a familiar frame entering the room. He schooled his features into calm disinterest.
“Wickham,” Darcy growled out to the man.
“Darcy. What brings you here to this fine establishment?” Wickham returned.
“You know exactly what brings me here.”
“My, I cannot recall the last time you took such an eager interest in my affairs. But, hmm…oh yes, it was last summer, and you had just come to visit your sister.”
Wickham delighted in provoking Darcy but knew better than to attempt to publicly smear Georgiana’s name or admit to anything.
Darcy reddened, and he clenched his fists. “Wickham, do not test my patience.”
Wickham could not resist going further. “Have you come to bring me news on your sister? Or perhaps just one you had hoped to make your sister?”
In Wickham’s most extreme dreams, his latest plot against Darcy would profit him and cause Darcy extreme misery, as he could not marry Miss Elizabeth due to the scandal.
However, this morning, Wickham realised this was unrealistic. The whole point of the marriage was to hush up the scandal. Instead, he happily settled upon the notion of marrying Miss Lydia for a sizeable sum. If the scandal was avoided, then Darcy would marry Elizabeth. Wickham was hopeful that he would be able to drain more from the Darcy coffers through a lifetime as brother to Darcy. It would also serve as quite a blow to his nemesis’s pride and result in a suitable amount of revenge.
Darcy let out an uncharacteristic chuckle which alarmed Wickham greatly. Still, the man was a true proficient at masking his thoughts. Darcy leaned forward and looked Wickham directly in the eye, causing him to gulp and look away in uncertainty.
“I know your game, Wickham, and you failed. I indeed have a care for the Bennet reputation, and I am here to facilitate a marriage between Miss Lydia and yourself. However, you will not find it very profitable. You see, since this summer, my cousin, you remember Colonel Fitzwilliam, correct?”
Darcy paused, and Wickham merely nodded, feeling his blood turn cold.
“Well, he has been reassigned to the war office in London and actually trained with Colonel Forster.”
Wickham closed his eyes, realizing that all of his plans had turned to dust, but Darcy continued speaking.
“A commission as an ensign has been bought for you in the Lancashire Regiment. You are to report to Newcastle by the 27th and should know the regiment has orders to depart for Spain in the spring. You have seen the casualty rates, yes? You have no alternative and will not receive any financial inducement to marry Lydia. If you flee now, then you shall be facing charges of desertion, and my cousin will personally lead the chase.”
Wickham paled as soon as Darcy mentioned Colonel Fitzwilliam. Then, as Darcy continued his narrative, a bead of sweat began to inch down Wickham’s charming face.
“What of Lydia? Surely the Bennets cannot wish for her to be a soldier’s wife and for her to remain friendless in the North. How shall I support her on an ensign’s pay? You would send your father’s godson to battle? What if there are children left behind after my death?”
Darcy laughed again. “Miss Lydia shall stay at Longbourn. I shall settle some money on her; my solicitor is drawing up the documents for Mr. Bennet. It shall be in her name and for her discretion alone should you survive the war and she ever seek to join your household. But, for now, there will be no possibility for children by Miss Lydia.”
He gave Wickham a stern look, and Wickham entirely understood there would be no traditional wedding night. Darcy clearly did not desire any loose strings attached to Miss Lydia.
Additionally, left unsaid was the fact that Wickham had several children by his conquests that he did not provide for and possibly many more than he ever heard about. Wickham’s life-long ambition to leach money from the Darcy accounts was finally at an end. He had been undone by his own schemes.
Darcy travelled to London to prepare for Wickham’s marriage to Lydia. He returned to Hertfordshire only to ensure the ceremony itself took place. Bingley was courting Jane Bennet and constantly called on Longbourn. Visiting Hertfordshire would mean spending too many hours either at Longbourn, torturing himself with the presence of Elizabeth, or at Netherfield with only the Hursts for company. Fortunately, Bingley had sent Caroline to an aunt in Scarborough for her part in the scandal.
Darcy could not bear to see Elizabeth. He once thought he would marry her, but now, he knew she deserved better. What type of dishonourable gentleman had he been?
He knew what Wickham was! He dealt with Wickham many times over, and yet he never considered the threat Wickham was to the greater public. To know that Wickham targeted Lydia Bennet because of Darcy’s rumoured esteem for Elizabeth broke him.
In the past, Wickham’s schemes always involved maligning Darcy’s name and reputation. However, he firmly believed his character spoke for itself. Additionally, he had contented himself with the fact he could do little to nothing about it. Other than calling Wickham out, which was illegal and would jeopardize his family, Darcy had no recourse for Wickham’s slander.
After the attempted elopement, Darcy desired to protect Georgiana’s reputation. Although collecting Wickham’s debts, Darcy feared punishing Wickham would tempt him to enlighten the whole world about the affair. Was Darcy’s sister’s credit more important than that of innocent and respectable people everywhere? What of the tradesmen who offered Wickham credit? How many ladies were ruined at Wickham’s hand? How many families were destroyed and left grieving? Darcy had never considered it. He had cared only for his family name and anything that might taint that made the cost too high. So he let a villain run free.
Darcy had small hopes that his efforts to ease Lydia’s pain at becoming Mrs. Wickham, in addition to time, would lessen his affront to Elizabeth. Still, she would not meet his eye and was not encouraging during his visit to the area. They were not placed near each other during dinner or at the same card table later. Even while refilling his coffee, Elizabeth remained resolutely silent and preferred the company of a gaggle of women to him. Darcy could not blame her in the least.
Despite Mrs. Bennet’s best attempts, the wedding breakfast was a subdued affair. Elizabeth appeared even less receptive to Darcy’s attention during the attempted celebration. Much subterfuge was involved in escorting Wickham and Lydia to London, where she would stay with the Gardiners while Wickham continued to Newcastle.
Elizabeth’s indifferent response and the deceit weighed heavily on Darcy. When he had met Elizabeth, he realized quickly he was enchanted — bewitched even. It was almost improper to ask for a courtship on such a short acquaintance when he first intended. However, his heart desired marriage even then.
After he left Netherfield, rather than face her rejection, he had much time to give the situation more thought. He fell in love with her that day in the park as she twirled little Michael Gardiner around with her petticoat six inches deep in mud. Before she even spoke, her mannerisms said much of her character. Surely their conversations detailed more illumination of character than many couples faced in months of courting in a drawing room.
He thought back on Elizabeth’s words to Georgiana about love. If asked the day before the assembly, he would have declared there was nothing on earth to motivate him to face George Wickham again. However, when the news of his plot against the Bennet family broke, Darcy barely gave any thought at all to dealing with the scoundrel just to give Elizabeth some form of peace.
While he was not in a position to give constant friendship, his respect and esteem for her had remained the same even after the excitement of being in her presence and of being the recipient of her dazzling smiles disappeared. It was love and not mere infatuation, Darcy was quite sure, and his heart was utterly broken at the thought of living without her.