Will and Charles consumed their supper the following evening in silence. Mrs. Annesley and Georgiana had already retired to their rooms. An ungentlemanly case of nerves caused their disquiet. This evening, Charles’s footman would attempt to get Wickham drunk in the Meryton Tavern. Will had spoken to the young man, and he needed minimal coaching the play the sort of person Wickham would feel most comfortable around: an easy mark in cards and a drunken lightweight with just enough money for Wickham to win a few pounds. Will had once heard Wickham tell Sam to be careful of playing with the wealthy or titled. At the time, Will the thought that showed unusual insight on Wickham’s behalf before determining it only meant Wickham had learned those gentlemen did not always honor their debts and men such as he were powerless to call their honor into question.
It had rained all day making a visit to Longbourn impossible. Will and Charles consoled their troubled minds and lonely hearts with dull rounds of billiards. At last, the evening came, and Evans was sent on his way. It was after midnight before he returned. The servant was brought to Charles’s library.
“Well, man?” Charles asked after Evans had consumed a liberal amount of coffee to sober himself.
Will held his breath. Until this moment, he had not realized that he had begun to hope. He had not thought the plan would work. He told himself it could not so he ought not to expect it. Will wryly mused to himself that by now he ought to be used to his heart deciding whatever it wished regardless of his determination.
“He barely tasted a drop all night,” Evans said.
“What?” Charles cried.
“I suspected he could hold his liquor well,” Will said with an annoyed sigh. “I had not thought he would resist entirely.”
“It was not until the other men accused him of being a Methodist or a teetotaler that he drank more than a sip or two of his pint. At that point, I was at such a disadvantage that although he paid for several rounds, there was no getting him drunk.”
Will stroked his jaw in thought. Growing up, his father had told him never to overindulge, especially in a business meeting. Wickham had often heard same advice. Did he feel he had a reason to be on guard and keep his head clear at the Tavern? Had he suspected their plan? No one knew of it—even Georgiana. She was upstairs during the conversation and Evans was not asked until just before he left to perform the duty. Will sighed. The truth was the tactic was probably too obvious. They might have had better luck hoping to bribe one of Wickham’s usual drinking fellows. Of course, they then ran the risk of the men being loyal to Wickham and not keeping the secret. “Did you speak with any other people present? Did anyone remark on his usual habits?”
“Aye,” said Evans. “One or two of them said they never saw him drink. A few others acknowledged that he never drank to excess. Although, he would sometimes buy rounds for others when in a particularly good mood and spent much of his free time in the establishment.”
“It seemed like he was a fixture there?” Charles asked.
“More so than other officers, the footman answered.
“How curious,” Charles observed.
“Someone told me he was regarded as the most alert officer Colonel Forster had.”
“Very interesting,” Will answered. “Thank you, that will be all.”
Charles pressed a coin or two into the young man’s hand before he left the room. Charles shut the door then turned to his companion. “Well? “Do you want to try again? Perhaps we could bribe one of his cronies—”
Will interrupted, “I do not think that will work. I had considered it as well. Considering Wickham’s mission, he must think it best not to dull his senses. Unlike his colleagues, he cannot afford to relax when his shift is over. I wonder at his diligence, however. If his intention really is to wound or kill me then why must he worry about relaxing in the Tavern? I would never frequent the place. Surely he would want stealth and an alibi on his side when he perpetrates the act.”
“I do not doubt that,” Charles said. “If he were here with the intention to blackmail you, again, he would not need to be alert in the Tavern. If he were merely here on duty, he would behave as his other officers.”
Will shook his head. “I cannot make sense of it. If he wished to wound me by hurting Georgiana or Elizabeth, there would be no reason to be concerned at a tavern. In fact, he would be spending less time there and would surely attempt to meet the ladies while they were in a shop or out walking. Forster says that he is a model officer and is always present at duty. He would only have free time in the evening when they are not shopping. On the other hand, he does not go to the events other officers are invited to. It is unlike Wickham not to crave superior company.”
The gentleman sat in silence for another moment. Will continued to mull over the report, and he suspected Charles did as well. When the clock struck half past, they decided to get some sleep. Perhaps things would be more evident in the morning.
Unfortunately, the morning did not bring clarity to matters. It continued to rain, separating Will and Elizabeth. As he could not speak to her in person, he wrote a letter, knowing she would not be pleased to read his words.
I wish, my darling, that I could convey better news. Not only did we not learn any crucial information from Wickham last night, but our informant also claims that he barely touched any alcohol. Further reports from his colleagues and locals make it clear that Wickham will over-indulge for no one while here. I am afraid this way of thinking is at an end. Your plan was well-thought out, and I am pleased you suggested it. I wish it had succeeded and take no enjoyment from its failure.
How I hate this rain which keeps us apart! What was I thinking of purchasing a common license? If I had spent the money on a special license we could call the minister to your house whenever we pleased—and I would be well-pleased to marry you this instant—and then we would never be separated again. However, I do not doubt that in a fortnight we will wed and a more beautiful bride there will never be on this earth. Regardless of matters with Wickham, I will meet you at that church and promise to love, honour, and cherish you. I have in thought for many years and soon will show you every day. Do you long for the day we are husband and wife as I do?
I know you must be afraid for the next plan we have considered. I see no other way. There is naught to be done but to be brave and have faith. As soon as I can, I will be acting upon it, and I trust when we next meet that all shall be over and we will triumph in victory.
Until then, remember my love for you. My memory is dotted with the exquisite torture of your gentle caresses and passionate kisses. I pray you have the same. May the remembrance of them steal your breath as you feel as though my arms are wrapped around you, and our hearts beat in unison. In the quiet moments of your day, hear the whisper of my heart: I love you until the end of my days. Always and forever, you are my only love.
Will looked over his letter as a nervous flutter filled his heart. He was full of bravado in his message, but he could not ignore the possibility that he might never see Elizabeth again. The acknowledgment that he might never taste her lips again nearly had him calling for his horse. Perhaps he could visit Longbourn before the carriage ride which would determine his fate.
No, he shook his head. The plan was for him to suddenly leave Netherfield in the direction of London. He and Richard had arranged for there to be scouts every few miles, hidden well off the road. They would await his arrival at a set time, and if he did not come, they would investigate. The hope was that if Wickham did attack, Will would not be without help for too long and if he were wounded there would be hope of help arriving in time.. He had not explained this portion to Elizabeth, and she had not asked. They silently agreed to not go into the details so she might worry less.
Looking at the rain falling, Will sighed to himself. There was another matter he had to deal with before he could hope to lure Wickham out. He had not spoken with Georgiana beyond the merest civilities since his visit to Longbourn the other day. If anything should happen to him, he did not want her living the rest of her life thinking he hated her and the last words they spoke were in a quarrel. He rang the bell and awaited the arrival of a servant. Then, he asked for his note to be taken to Longbourn and if his sister would like to play for him in the drawing room. Again, the fragile hope beat in his heart. He hoped she would. Perhaps not all would be lost between them.
Elizabeth smiled as she took Will’s missive from the platter the servant held toward her. She knew the previous evening her plan would be enacted. It must contain good news! It simply must!
Until she began reading, the thought that scheme might fail had not entered her mind. For the alternative meant… It did not bear thinking of it! Before Elizabeth read more than the second line, tears shrouded her vision, and her grip tightened on the paper. Conscious of the watchful eyes of her family, she fled the drawing room for the privacy and solitude of her chamber.
Flinging herself on her bed, she sobbed as though she had already heard the news of Will’s demise. Her tears now envied the ones she shed upon Sam’s death. Was Will even now foolishly calling for his carriage and hurtling himself toward Wickham’s clutches?
A gentle knock interrupted Elizabeth’s anxious thoughts. Jane slipped into the room and softly rubbed Elizabeth’s back until her tears slowed.
“What does he say?” Jane asked quietly.
“Can you not guess?” Elizabeth asked as she pushed herself up on elbows before moving to a sitting position.
Jane only nodded, entirely at a loss of what to say to soothe her sister. “When?”
Elizabeth blinked at her sister’s question. She had not finished reading Will’s letter. She had leapt to the conclusion that he was now hoping to ensnare Wickham at his own game. Perhaps he had changed his mind! Maybe he saw the sense in being less courageous. After all, they had not determined what Wickham’s motive was. There were times when Elizabeth could almost convince herself this was naught but a nightmare and Will was in no danger.
Taking a deep breath and wiping at her eyes, Elizabeth readied herself to read the rest of Will’s note. She smoothed the crinkled paper, and he eyes devoured the words.
His loving words consoled but could not relieve. His ending was too much like a farewell—a final farewell! “I must go to him!” she exclaimed.
“You cannot!” Jane said and tugged on Elizabeth’s hand. She had immediately stood upon her pronouncement and was ready to fly from the house that instant.
Jane lead Elizabeth to the window where she surveyed the outside. The rain had ceased to be a constant flow and now came in drips and dribbles, but the ground was too wet for walking. She would be caked in mud. “The carriage or—or—” Elizabeth gulped, “a horse?”
“There is too much mud,” Jane said.
Slowly, Elizabeth nodded. Indeed, today it would be too dangerous for horses to brave the roads but soon—in a day or two at most—they would be driveable and then Will would hope to catch Wickham.
“How will it be done?” Jane asked as she looked over Elizabeth’s shoulder at the letter she still held.
“I do not know,” Elizabeth sighed. Wrapping her arms around herself, she walked back to the bed and sat upon it. “I did not ask for any particulars. I would rather not know the exact scenario so my mind can picture it with perfect detail.”
“You are so fatalist! It is not like you to be so defeated!”
“And you are too optimistic! Our brother died—died!—at the lunatic’s actions. How can I hope that Will is any different?”
“Do you think Wickham has some supernatural ability? Will knows his enemy’s intentions and his probable method. Indeed, he knows he has an enemy. Sam never did. Do you not see how Will’s knowledge is an asset? Do you not trust his ability to plan?”
Elizabeth’s lips quirked but she could not entirely give in to the desire to smile. “I am certain he is a brilliant landlord and master. He is a loyal friend and a devoted lover. However, what does he know about subverting the tactics of a madman? Oh! I wish we could have involved the police or Will could have hired a guard.”
“I would think that would be quite expensive. I do not think even the Prince Regent has a standing guard at all times.”
“Who would want to kill him? A brother? Who would want to be heir to the crown if they could? Is it not more trouble than it is worth? If history has taught us nothing, you are in dire jeopardy of losing your head either by the ax or from madness. No, no one can envy Prinny the way Wickham envies Will.”
Jane let out a sad sigh and squeezed her sister’s hand. “What will you do then?”
“Wait,” Elizabeth said with a determined tone as she straightened her back. “I have waited for him once, and I can wait again. I shall also pray for sunshine.”
“Do you not wish to delay his actions?”
“No!” Elizabeth said as she walked to the window and willed the clouds to break. “No, I would rather get it over with.”
“There is the fierce Lizzy that I know,” Jane wrapped her arms around her sister. “Now that you are in better humour, you should reply to his note. The servant waits for your answer.”
Elizabeth nodded and settled at the small writing desk in their chamber as Jane left her alone. Pouring all of her love into words, Elizabeth filled three sheets front and back with expressions of tenderness and affection. Will should never doubt her devotion. She added that he should carry it in his coat pocket. If she were to imagine his arms around her, then he should allow her words to surround him. They would provide protection and shelter more than any armed guard ever could. Love would prevail, she was sure of it.
The rest of the day continued in listless activities. Mary was put out with the weather and scowled every time she crossed a window. At dinner, Mrs. Bennet reported that the “little girls” were quite wild with being cooped up due to the rain. Then, she recalled that they could not have been any worse than a young Elizabeth and Sam after being ill in bed for days. The evening closed with fond memories. It was the first time Mrs. Bennet had mentioned Sam in many years, and she even mentioned Will a time or two. Elizabeth hoped that meant her step-mother was softening toward her betrothed.
Elizabeth awoke to sunny skies the next day. She nearly faced the residual mud to walk to Netherfield and Mary had offered to go as far as Meryton with her, but their father refused. Elizabeth sighed. It was true, they should not be walking about when Wickham might be on the loose. Will sent another loving note but was too busy with his plans to spare time for a visit.
During her nighttime prayers, Elizabeth fervently beseeched the Almighty for protection of her beloved. She felt akin to Abraham when he was asked to sacrifice his longed-for son as a test of his faith. At every instant, Elizabeth half expected an archangel to appear and tell her she had prevailed and Will would be spared. That it did not happen made Elizabeth wonder if she should become a shepherdess. Against her will, she fell asleep that night dreaming of flocks of sheep.
She dressed the following day with trembling hands. There was no more delaying it. In the pit of her stomach, she knew this would be the day that Will would face Wickham. She could not bear to eat at breakfast. She consumed tea and watched fretfully at the window. Mary chided her lack of faith, and Jane worried about her constitution between refusing food and pacing the rooms. Mrs. Bennet, shockingly, sensibly suggested occupation instead and had spent much of her time in the drawing room rather than in the nursery giving Kitty and Lydia their lessons.
By the afternoon, exhaustion crept in. Elizabeth had been convinced to sit in a chair and sip on more tea as tempting, and flavourful biscuits were waved before her. If anyone would leave her alone for more than half a moment, she was sure she would fall asleep from the exertion of it all.
At first, she did not hear the sound of hooves on the drive. Soon, the panicked rate at which they ran drew the notice of Mary as she sat near a window and read. Within seconds there was a flurry of activity. Mary’s gasp almost muffled the sound of boots on the drive and banging on the door. Jane ran to it before a servant could answer, and Mr. Bingley’s voice was heard in the hall. Time felt as though it slowed as Elizabeth’s head turned in the direction of the door frame where he now stood with a hat in his hand, pale face, and unable to speak. Elizabeth’s cup fell from her hand and shattered on the floor in a thousand pieces.