“I HAVE BEEN THINKING it over again, Elizabeth,” said her uncle, as they drove from the town; “and really, upon serious consideration, I am much more inclined than I was to judge as your eldest sister does on the matter. It appears to me so very unlikely that any young man should form such a design against a girl who is by no means unprotected or friendless, and who was actually staying in his colonel’s family, that I am strongly inclined to hope the best. Could he expect that her friends would not step forward? Could he expect that her sisters would not pursue him to the ends of the earth with their swords? Could he expect to be noticed again by the regiment, after such an affront to Colonel Forster? His temptation is not adequate to the risk!”
“Do you really think so?” cried Elizabeth.
“Upon my word,” said Mrs. Gardiner, “I begin to be of your uncle’s opinion. It is really too great a violation of decency, honour, and interest, for him to be guilty of. I cannot think so very ill of Wickham. Can you yourself, Lizzy, so wholly give him up, as to believe him capable of it?”
“Not, perhaps, of neglecting his own interest; but of every other neglect I can believe him capable. If, indeed, it should be so! But I dare not hope it. Why should he fire upon the Colonel if that had been the case?”
“In the first place,” replied Mr. Gardiner, “there is no absolute proof that they do not intend to marry.”
“But why all this secrecy? Why any fear of detection? Why must their marriage be private? Oh, no, no-this is not likely. His fellow officer, you see by Jane’s account, was persuaded of his never intending to marry her. Wickham will never marry a woman without some money. He cannot afford it. And what claims has Lydia-what attraction has she beyond youth and good length of bone that could make him, for her sake, forego every chance of benefiting himself by marrying well? As to your other objection, I am afraid it will hardly hold good. My sisters and I cannot spend any substantial time searching for Wickham, as we are each commanded by His Majesty to defend Hertfordshire from all enemies until such time as we are dead, rendered lame, or married.”
“But can you think that Lydia is so helpless as to allow herself-nay, her family to be so dishonoured?”
“It does seem, and it is most shocking indeed,” replied Elizabeth, with tears in her eyes, “that a Bennet sister’s mastery of the deadly arts should admit of doubt. But, really, I know not what to say. Perhaps I am not doing her justice. But she is very young; and for the last half-year, nay, for a twelvemonth-she has been given up to nothing but amusement and vanity. She has been allowed to dispose of her time in the most idle and frivolous manner, and to neglect her daily sparring, meditation, or even the simplest game of Kiss Me Deer. Since the Militia were first quartered in Meryton, nothing but love, flirtation, and officers have been in her head. And we all know that Wickham has every charm of person and address that can captivate a woman.”
“But you see that Jane,” said her aunt, “does not think so very ill of Wickham as to believe him capable of the attempt.”
“Of whom does Jane ever think ill? I have seen her cradle unmentionables in her arms, apologising for taking their limbs, even as they tried to bite her with their last. But Jane knows, as well as I do, what Wickham really is. We both know that he has been profligate in every sense of the word; that he has neither integrity nor honour.”
“And do you really know all this?” cried Mrs. Gardiner.
“I do indeed,” replied Elizabeth, colouring. “I told you, the other day, of his infamous behaviour to Mr. Darcy; and you yourself, when last at Longbourn, heard in what manner he spoke of the man who had behaved with such forbearance and liberality towards him. And there are other circumstances which I am not at liberty-which it is not worth while to relate; but his lies about the whole Pemberley family are endless.”
“But does Lydia know nothing of this? Can she be ignorant of what you and Jane seem so well to understand?”
“Oh, yes! That is the worst of all. Till I was in Kent, and saw so much both of Mr. Darcy and his relation Colonel Fitzwilliam, I was ignorant of the truth myself-so ignorant that my honour required the seven cuts. And when I returned home, the Militia was to leave Meryton in a week or fortnight’s time. As that was the case, neither Jane, to whom I related the whole, nor I, thought it necessary to make our knowledge public; for of what use could it apparently be to any one, that the good opinion which all the neighbourhood had of him should then be overthrown? And even when it was settled that Lydia should go with Mrs. Forster, the necessity of opening her eyes to his character never occurred to me.”
“When they all removed to Brighton, therefore, you had no reason, I suppose, to believe them fond of each other?”
“Not the slightest. I can remember no symptom of affection on either side, other than her carving his name into her midriff with a dagger; but this was customary with Lydia. When first he entered the corps, she was ready enough to admire him; but so we all were. Every girl in or near Meryton was out of her senses about him for the first two months; but he never distinguished her by any particular attention; and, consequently, after a moderate period of extravagant and wild admiration, her fancy gave way, and others of the regiment, who treated her with more distinction, again became her favourites.”
However little of novelty could be added to their fears, hopes, and conjectures, on this interesting subject, by its repeated discussion, no other could detain them from it long, during the whole of the journey. From Elizabeth’s thoughts it was never absent. Fixed there by the keenest of all anguish, self-reproach, she could find no interval.
They travelled as expeditiously as possible, until they neared the village of Lowe, where there had lately been a skirmish between the King’s army and a southerly herd. Here, the road became so littered with bodies (human and unmentionable alike), that it was rendered almost impassable. As the bodies were unsafe to touch, the coachman was forced to lift the iron beak from the undercarriage and affix it to the horses-hanging it with leather straps from their necks, so that it rested front of their feet, forming a plow, which pushed the bodies aside as they continued.
Determined that they should lose no more time, Elizabeth sat next to the coachman with her Brown Bess, ready to meet the slightest sign of trouble with the crack of powder. She ordered him to stop for nothing; even that most personal business would have to be attended to from where they sat. They drove through the night, and reached Longbourn by dinner time the next day. It was a comfort to Elizabeth to consider that Jane could not have been wearied by long expectations.
The little Gardiners, attracted by the sight of a chaise, were standing on the steps of the house as they entered the paddock; and, when the carriage drove up to the door, the joyful surprise that lighted up their faces was the first pleasing earnest of their welcome.
Elizabeth jumped out; and, after giving each of them a hasty kiss, hurried into the vestibule, where Jane immediately met her.
Elizabeth, as she affectionately embraced her, whilst tears filled the eyes of both, lost not a moment in asking whether anything had been heard of the fugitives.
“Not yet,” replied Jane. “But now that my dear uncle is come, I hope everything will be well. Oh! Lizzy! Our sister abducted and repeatedly dishonoured, even as we stand here helpless!”
“Is my father in town?”
“Yes, he went on Tuesday, as I wrote you word.”
“And have you heard from him often?”
“We have heard only twice. He wrote me a few lines on Wednesday to say that he had arrived in safety, and to give me his directions, which I particularly begged him to do. He merely added that he should not write again till he had something of importance to mention.”
“And my mother-how is she? How are you all?”
“Mother is tolerably well, I trust; though she vomits often, and quite copiously, as you no doubt expected. She is upstairs and will have great satisfaction in seeing you all. She does not yet leave her dressing-room. Mary and Kitty, thank Heaven, are quite well, and have both sworn blood-oaths against Mr. Wickham, bless their hearts.”
“But you-how are you?” cried Elizabeth. “You look pale. How much you must have gone through!”
Her sister, however, assured her of her being perfectly well; and their conversation, which had been passing while Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were engaged with their children, was now put an end to by the approach of the whole party. Jane ran to her uncle and aunt, and welcomed and thanked them both, with alternate smiles and tears.
When they were all in the drawing-room, the questions which Elizabeth had already asked were of course repeated by the others, and they soon found that Jane had no intelligence to give. She still clung to the sanguine hope that it would all end well, and that every morning would bring some letter, either from Lydia or her father, to explain their proceedings, and, perhaps, announce their marriage.
Mrs. Bennet, to whose apartment they all repaired, after a few minutes’ conversation together, received them exactly as might be expected; with tears and lamentations of regret, invectives against the villainous conduct of Wickham, and half a bucket’s worth of vomit; blaming everybody but the person to whose ill-judging indulgence the errors of her daughter must principally be owing.
“If I had been able,” said she, “to carry my point in going to Brighton, with all my family, this would not have happened; but poor dear Lydia had nobody to take care of her. Why did the Forsters ever let her go out of their sight? I am sure there was some great neglect or other on their side, for she is not the kind of girl to do such a thing if she had been well looked after. I always thought they were very unfit to have the charge of her; but I was overruled, as I always am. Poor dear child! And now here’s Mr. Bennet gone away, and I know he will fight Wickham wherever he meets him, and then he will be killed-for no matter how full his mind of Oriental trickery, his frail old body possesses none of its former grace. And then what is to become of us all? The Collinses will turn us out before he is cold in his grave, and if you are not kind to us, brother, I do not know what we shall do.”
They all exclaimed against such terrific ideas; and Mr. Gardiner, after general assurances of his affection for her and all her family, told her that he meant to be in London the very next day, and would assist Mr. Bennet in every endeavour for recovering Lydia.
“Do not give way to useless alarm,” added he. “Till we know that they are not married, and have no design of marrying, do not let us give her honour over as lost. As soon as I get to town I shall go to my brother, and make him come home with me to Section Six East; and then we may consult together as to what is to be done.”
“Oh! My dear brother,” replied Mrs. Bennet, “that is exactly what I could most wish for. When you get to town, find them out; and if they are not married already, make them marry. And as for wedding clothes, do not let them wait for that, but tell Lydia she shall have as much money as she chooses to buy them, after they are married. And, above all, keep Mr. Bennet from fighting. Tell him what a dreadful state I am in, that I am frighted out of my wits-and have such tremblings, such flutterings, all over me-such spasms in my side and pains in my head, and such a ceaseless torrent of sick into my bucket, that I can get no rest by night nor by day.”
Mr. Gardiner assured her again of his earnest endeavours in the cause, and after talking with her in this manner till dinner was on the table, they all left her to vomit in the company of the housekeeper, who attended in the absence of her daughters.
Though her brother and sister were persuaded that there was no real occasion for such a seclusion from the family, they did not attempt to oppose it. In the dining-room they were soon joined by Mary and Kitty, who had been too busily engaged in their sparring to make their appearance before. They had been busy at little else since swearing their blood oaths. Soon after they were seated at the table, Mary whispered to Elizabeth:
“This is a most unfortunate affair, and will probably be much talked of. But we must stem the tide of idle chatter, and pour into our wounded bosoms the soothing balm of vengeance.”
Then, perceiving in Elizabeth no inclination of replying, she added, “Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that virtue in a female is as easily removed as a piece of clothing; that one false step can cause endless ruin; that the only remedy for wounded honour is the blood of he who hath defiled it.”
Elizabeth lifted up her eyes in amazement, but was too much oppressed to make any reply. Mary, however, continued to console herself with such kind of moral extractions from the evil before them.
In the afternoon, the two elder Miss Bennets were able to be for half-an-hour by themselves; after joining in general lamentations over the dreadful dishonouring of their sister, which Elizabeth considered as all but certain, and Jane could not assert to be wholly impossible, the former continued the subject, by saying, “But tell me all and everything about it which I have not already heard. Give me further particulars. What did Colonel Forster say? Had they no apprehension of anything before the abduction took place?”
“Colonel Forster did own that he had often suspected some partiality, especially on Lydia’s side, but nothing to give him any alarm. I am so grieved for him! His behaviour was attentive and kind to the utmost. He was coming to us, in order to assure us of his concern, before he had any idea of Wickham’s having no intention of marrying: when that apprehension first got abroad, it hastened his journey.”
“And was the officer convinced that Wickham would not marry? Did he know of their intending to go off?”
“Yes; but, when questioned by him, the officer denied knowing anything of their plans, and would not give his real opinion about it, even after the Colonel threatened to feed his most English parts to the unmentionables. He did not repeat his persuasion of their not marrying-and from that, I am inclined to hope, he might have been misunderstood before.”
“And till Colonel Forster came himself, not one of you doubted that they would be hastily married?”
“How was it possible that such an idea should enter our brains? I felt a little uneasy-a little fearful of my sister’s happiness with him in marriage, because I knew that his conduct had not been always quite right. My father and mother knew nothing of that; they only felt how imprudent a match it must be. Kitty then owned, with a very natural triumph on knowing more than the rest of us, that in Lydia’s last letter she had prepared her for such a step. She had known, it seems, of their being in love with each other, many weeks.”
“But not before they went to Brighton?”
“No, I believe not.”
“And did Colonel Forster appear to think well of Wickham himself? Does he know his real character?”
“I must confess that he did not speak so well of Wickham as he formerly did. He believed him to be imprudent and extravagant. And since this sad affair has taken place, it is said that he left Meryton greatly in debt, and left at least one poor milkmaid in a delicate condition; but I hope this may be false.”
“Oh, Jane, had we told what we knew of him, this could not have happened!”
“Perhaps it would have been better,” replied her sister. “But to expose the former faults of any person without knowing what their present feelings were, seemed unjustifiable. We acted with the best intentions.”
“Could Colonel Forster repeat the particulars of Lydia’s note to his wife?”
“He brought it with him for us to see.”
Jane then took it from her pocket-book, and gave it to Elizabeth. These were the contents:
MY DEAR HARRIET,
You will laugh when you know where I am gone, and I cannot help laughing myself at your surprise to-morrow morning, as soon as I am missed. I am going to Gretna Green, and if you cannot guess with who, I shall think your brains in a zombie’s teeth, for there is but one man in the world I love, and he is an angel. I should never be happy without him, so think it no harm to be off. You need not send them word at Longbourn of my going, if you do not like it, for it will make the surprise the greater, when I write to them and sign my name “Lydia Wickham.” What a good joke it will be! I can hardly write for laughing.
I shall send for my clothes and weapons when I get to Longbourn; but I wish you would tell Sally to mend a great claw mark in my worked muslin gown before they are packed up. Good-bye. Give my love to Colonel Forster. I hope you will drink to our good journey.
Your affectionate friend,
“Oh! Thoughtless, thoughtless Lydia!” cried Elizabeth when she had finished it. “What a letter is this, to be written at such a moment! But at least it shows that she was serious on the subject of their journey. Whatever he might afterwards force her into, it was not on her side a scheme of infamy. My poor father! How he must have felt it!”
“I never saw anyone so shocked. He could not speak a word for full ten minutes. My mother was taken ill immediately, and the whole house in such confusion!”
“Oh! Jane,” cried Elizabeth, “you do not look well. Oh that I had been with you! You have had every care and anxiety upon yourself alone.”
“Mary and Kitty have been very kind, and would have shared in every fatigue, I am sure, had they not been engaged in crafting Mr. Wickham’s doom. My aunt Philips came to Longbourn on Tuesday, after my father went away; and was so good as to stay till Thursday with me. She was of great use and comfort to us all. And Lady Lucas has been very kind; she walked here on Wednesday morning to condole with us, and offered her services, or any of her daughters’, if they should be of use to us.”
Upon hearing Lady Lucas mentioned, Elizabeth’s thoughts turned to Hunsford. She wondered if there were any of the old Charlotte left, or if Mr. Collins had yet perceived her affliction. It had, after all, been some time since she had received a letter from the parsonage. Was her friend still living? It was too frightful a subject to long dwell upon. She then proceeded to inquire into the measures which her father had intended to pursue, while in town, for the recovery of his daughter.
“He meant I believe,” replied Jane, “to go to Epsom, the place where they last changed horses. His principal object must be to discover the number of the hackney coach which took them from Clapham after Mr. Wickham tried to kill the Colonel. It had come with a fare from London; and as he thought that the circumstance of a gentleman and lady’s removing from one carriage into another in a hail of musket fire might be remembered, he meant to make inquiries at Clapham.”