TEN

Lydia and Wickham

 

On the third morning of her visit to Lambton, Elizabeth received two letters from Jane. The first had been badly addressed and sent elsewhere, then redirected. Her aunt and uncle were out walking, so she sat down to read them at once. The first had been written five days before, and started just as expected, with a description of Longbourn dinner parties and visits, but the second half of this letter was dated a day later, and was evidently written in a great hurry. This is what it said:

 

Dear sister,

Since writing the above, dear Lizzy, something most unexpected and serious has happened. But I do not wish to alarm you, we are all well. It concerns poor Lydia. An express letter came at midnight last night, when we were all in bed, from Colonel Forster, to inform us that she had run away to Scotland with one of his officers, with Wickham, in fact! There, of course, she can marry without her parents’ approval. Imagine our surprise. What a foolish marriage for both of them! But at least he is not interested in her money, as he must know my father can give her almost nothing. Kitty admits that she knew about Lydia’s attachment to Wickham, from Lydia’s letters. Our poor mother is very upset. I must finish now, as I cannot stay away from her for long. I hope you can read this. I hardly know what I have written.

 

Without allowing herself time to think, Elizabeth opened the second letter, dated a day later, and read impatiently:

 

My dearest sister,

I am so confused I cannot write properly. I have bad news for you. Foolish though a marriage between Mr Wickham and our poor Lydia might be, we are now only too anxious to hear that it has taken place. There is reason to fear they have not gone to Scotland. Colonel Forster arrived here yesterday. He tells us that one of the officers, a close friend of Wickham, believes that Wickham never intended to go to Scotland, or to marry Lydia at all. The colonel followed the couple as far as London, but they have not been seen leaving the capital.

Our anxiety, my dear Lizzy, is very great. My father and mother believe the worst, and the colonel fears Wickham is not a man to be trusted, but I cannot believe him to be so wicked. And is Lydia so completely lacking in morals, that she could live with a man without being married? Impossible. Now my poor mother is really ill, my father is angry, for perhaps the first time in his life, and Kitty is being scolded for keeping the attachment a secret.

While I am glad, dearest Lizzy, that you have been spared some of the confusion and worry we have been experiencing, I cannot help begging you all to come home as soon as possible. My father is going to London with the colonel to try to find Lydia. I think he is too upset to achieve results in the best and safest way, and my uncle’s advice and help would be everything in the world. I rely on his goodness.

 

 

‘Oh! Where, where is my uncle?’ cried Elizabeth, running to the door. But just as she reached it, Mr Darcy came in. Her pale face and strange manner prevented him from speaking, and she, who could think of nothing except Lydia, said hurriedly, ‘Excuse me, but I must leave you. I must find Mr Gardiner immediately. There is not a moment to lose.’

‘Good God! What is the matter?’ he cried, then added, ‘Let me, or let the servant, go to find Mr and Mrs Gardiner. You are not well enough. You cannot go yourself.’

Elizabeth hesitated, but her legs were trembling, and she realized he was right. After giving the servant her message, she sat down, looking so ill that Darcy could not leave her, or stop himself saying gently, ‘Let me call someone to look after you. Shall I get you a glass of wine? You are very ill.’

‘No, thank you,’ she replied. ‘I am quite well. I am only upset by some dreadful news I’ve just received from Longbourn.’ She burst into tears, and for a few minutes could not speak another word. Darcy watched her miserably, in sympathetic silence. At last, she spoke again. ‘It cannot be hidden from anyone. My youngest sister has eloped, with – with Mr Wickham. You know him too well to doubt what will happen. She has no money, no connections, nothing that can tempt him to marry her. She is lost forever. And I could have prevented it! I knew how bad his character was. If only I had told my family what I knew about him! But it is all too late now.’

Darcy looked at her in astonishment. ‘I am shocked,’ he said, ‘and sad, very sad. What has been done to find her and bring her back?’

‘My father has gone to London, and I hope my uncle will go too. We shall leave Lambton, I hope, in half an hour. But I know very well that nothing can be done. How can such a man be persuaded? How can we even find them? I have not the smallest hope. It is horrible!’

Darcy made no answer. He was walking up and down with a serious, thoughtful expression on his face. Elizabeth soon observed and instantly understood it. She was losing her influence over him. This proof of moral weakness in her family was driving him away from her. Never before had she so honestly believed she could have loved him, as now, when mutual affection must be impossible. But she could not think for long of herself, when Lydia’s situation was so desperate. Mr Darcy left almost immediately, politely regretting that Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle would not, in the circumstances, be able to come to dinner at Pemberley that day, and again expressing his sympathy.

When Mr and Mrs Gardiner entered the room, Elizabeth hurriedly explained everything to them, and was greatly relieved when they agreed to leave at once, to return to Longbourn. Their packing was done at great speed, and soon they were in the carriage, driving south.

‘Lizzy,’ began Mrs Gardiner, ‘I cannot believe that Wickham’s character is so bad that he would run away with Lydia, and not marry her. Do you really think he is capable of that?’

‘My dear aunt, Jane and I both know that he has neither honesty nor honour. He has falsely accused Mr Darcy, and has lied wickedly about the whole Darcy family. You saw what a shy, gentle girl Miss Darcy is, but he had described her as proud, disagreeable and disdainful.’

‘But does Lydia know nothing of this?’

‘Oh, no! That is the worst of all. I didn’t know the truth myself until my visit to Kent, and when I returned, and told Jane, she and I decided not to make our knowledge public. Now I know that was a mistake. I never thought that Lydia could be in any danger from him.’

When they arrived at Longbourn, Elizabeth and her aunt were able to help Jane in looking after the children. They also attempted to calm Mrs Bennet, who, however, refused to be calmed, and blamed everyone except herself for the disaster. ‘If only I had been allowed to take the family to Brighton, this would not have happened. Poor dear Lydia had no one to take care of her. Why did those Forsters ever let her go out of their sight? I am sure they neglected her. Of course, I did not want her to go to Brighton, but nobody took any notice of me, as usual. And now Mr Bennet has gone to London, and I’m sure he’ll fight Wickham, and then he’ll be killed, and then the Collinses will turn us out of the house, before he’s cold in his grave!’

‘Do not worry, sister,’ said Mr Gardiner kindly. ‘I’m going to London tomorrow, to help my brother-in-law.’

‘Oh, thank you, my dear brother,’ replied Mrs Bennet. ‘Make sure you find Lydia and Wickham, and if they are not married yet, make them marry. And tell Lydia, they mustn’t wait for wedding clothes, but she shall have as much money as she wants to buy them, after they are married. And keep Mr Bennet from fighting – tell him what a dreadful state I am in, so ill that I can get no rest by night or by day. And tell Lydia not to buy any clothes until she’s seen me, because she doesn’t know the best shops. Oh, brother, how kind you are! I hope you will manage everything.’

The next day Mr Gardiner travelled to London, as he had promised. Now began a painful period of waiting for those left at Longbourn. They became even more anxious, as news came from Meryton of Wickham’s lies, debts, and secret attachments to most of the servant girls in the town. Everybody declared that he was the wickedest young man in the world, and protested that they had always distrusted his great charm and appearance of goodness. Although Elizabeth did not believe half of these stories, she believed enough to feel sure that her sister’s reputation was already lost, and even Jane almost despaired of receiving good news.

In a few days’ time they were relieved to receive a letter from Mr Gardiner, but unfortunately it only informed them that Wickham and Lydia had not yet been found. Apparently Wickham had left gambling debts of over a thousand pounds behind him in Brighton. Mr Bennet was returning home the following day, leaving his brother-in-law in London to continue the search. When she heard this, Mrs Bennet did not show as much satisfaction as her children expected, considering the anxiety she had previously expressed for her husband’s safety. ‘What, is he coming home without poor Lydia?’ she cried. ‘And who will fight Wickham, and make him marry her?’

Mrs Gardiner took the opportunity of Mr Bennet’s return to go back to London herself, with her children. She was still longing to know how Elizabeth’s relationship with Darcy had developed, but Elizabeth had not once mentioned his name, so her aunt did not dare to ask any direct questions.

When Mr Bennet arrived home, he appeared as calm as ever, but in a conversation with Elizabeth he admitted that he felt to blame for Lydia’s elopement. ‘I know I should have had more control over her,’ he said. ‘And, Lizzy, you were right. I should never have let her go to Brighton.’

Kitty, who was listening, said, ‘Papa, if I ever went to Brighton, I’d behave much better than Lydia has done.’

‘You go to Brighton!’ cried her father. ‘I would not trust you within twenty kilometres of the place, for fifty pounds! No, Kitty, I have at last learnt to be cautious, and you will feel the effects of it. No officer may ever enter the house again, or even pass through the village. And balls will be absolutely forbidden, unless you dance only with your sisters.’

Kitty, taking these threats seriously, began to cry. ‘Well, well,’ said he, ‘don’t make yourself unhappy. If you are a good girl for the next ten years, I’ll take you to the theatre at the end of that time.’

Two days later, the news for which they had all been waiting so anxiously arrived. Mr Gardiner’s letter informed them that Wickham and Lydia had been found, but that they were not married. However, certain financial arrangements had been made with Wickham. Mr Bennet was asked to pay Lydia one hundred pounds a year, as well as arranging for her to inherit her equal share of the five thousand pounds which the Bennet girls would inherit after their parents’ death. If these reasonable conditions were agreed, Wickham had promised to marry Lydia.

At first Elizabeth and Jane were delighted that their sister’s reputation would be saved through marriage, even to such a man as Wickham. But then their father explained that Wickham would never have agreed to marry Lydia, unless he had been paid a considerable amount of money immediately. They began to worry that it would be difficult to repay Mr Gardiner, who must have bribed Wickham in this way. Mrs Bennet, however, had no such worries. ‘He is her own uncle, after all!’ she cried happily. ‘Why shouldn’t he pay? My dear, dear Lydia! Married at sixteen! How I long to see her, and dear Wickham too! But the wedding clothes! I’ll write to my sister-in-law about them at once! I’m so happy. In a short time I’ll have a daughter married. Mrs Wickham! How well it sounds!’

Now that Lydia was going to be married, Elizabeth greatly regretted telling Darcy of her fears for her sister. But even if Lydia had been married in the most honourable way, it was extremely unlikely that Mr Darcy would wish to connect himself with a family in which there was a close relationship with Wickham, the man he most justly disliked. She could not expect him to go on caring for her, as she felt certain he had done when they met in Derbyshire. But now that she was sure he could not love her, she was convinced they could have been happy together. He seemed to be exactly the man who would have suited her. They could have usefully influenced each other. His mind might have been softened and his manners improved by her sociability, and she might have learnt from his greater judgement and knowledge of the world. But no such relationship could now teach an admiring world what happiness in marriage was really like. Instead, Wickham would marry Lydia, with little chance of happiness for either of them.

Mr and Mrs Gardiner had arranged for Lydia to be married quietly in London, from their house. At first Mr Bennet had refused to allow his youngest daughter ever to enter his house again, but eventually Jane and Elizabeth persuaded him to receive Lydia and her husband after the wedding. It would only be a short visit, as almost immediately she and Wickham would be moving north to Newcastle, where he had accepted a new army post.

When the carriage containing the young couple arrived at Longbourn House, the two elder Bennet sisters were shocked to see how unashamed Lydia was. She entered the house, laughing and joking, and asked all her sisters to congratulate her. Wickham was no more embarrassed than she was, and spoke to everyone in his usual flattering, agreeable manner. They seemed to have no idea of the anxiety they had caused by their shameless and wicked behaviour. Elizabeth was quite disgusted by their relaxed, confident appearance, and determined not to show any interest when Lydia insisted on describing every detail of her wedding day.

She could not help reacting with astonishment, however, when Lydia let slip the name of Mr Darcy. He had apparently been present at the ceremony. Why would Mr Darcy, Elizabeth wondered, attend the wedding of two people he must hold in the greatest contempt? She could not discover the reason from Lydia, who suddenly remembered it was supposed to be a secret, and she could not rest without knowing the truth, so she hurriedly sent a note to her aunt in London, asking urgently for an explanation.