Its a bit late to say happy new year, and it’s been a while since I posted anything, but, in my defence, I have been busy writing my 5th novel.
So, although I am not revealing the title yet, it is about to go into pre-order mode in the next week or so.
Hence, I am publishing the first chapter here for all my loyal friends and subscribers to read first.
I hope you like it. xx
Mr Darcy arrived at the inn in Lambton as soon as propriety allowed. He had been encouraged by the favourable looks Elizabeth had directed at him as she returned to his sister’s side. Miss Bingley had startled her with the mention of George Wickham.
His decision was made. Today, for the second and last time, he would propose to Elizabeth, confident that she would accept him.
Entering the Gardiners’ apartment behind the young serving girl, Darcy offered Elizabeth a warm smile and anticipated a welcoming one in return.
But the welcome he expected on his arrival was nothing like the one he received.
He stared down at Elizabeth’s tear-stained face and listened in silence as she informed him of the morning’s events.
When the serving girl, Hannah, had brought Elizabeth two letters from home, she had been about to set off on a day’s touring with the Gardiners.
Begging her aunt for time to read them before they departed, Mr and Mrs Gardiner agreed and then set off to visit Lambton church for an hour. This, they surmised, would be ample time for Elizabeth to read and enjoy the contents of her letters.
It was bad news for sure, and Darcy was instantly reminded of his sister Georgiana’s narrow escape. However, to receive such tidings when one was at home was bad enough, but to receive such distressing news when you were such a distance away, was quite another. His heart went out to the woman he loved, as she made no attempt to hide her pain and embarrassment from him, or even the serving girl.
Sending Hannah to fetch the Gardiners, Darcy took the chair opposite Elizabeth.
“Are you quite sure the letter stated they were only traced as far as London, Miss Bennet?”
Dabbing at her eyes, Elizabeth offered Darcy the tear-stained note.
“See for yourself, sir. My sister writes that Lydia and Mr Wickham were tracked as far as Clapham by Colonel Forster’s men, but no further. Indeed, when Colonel Forster questioned Wickham’s friend, Mr Denny, he confirmed that Wickham had confided to him he had no intention of going to Scotland. I fear his plans for Lydia do not include marriage.” Elizabeth said with a sob.
Taking the letter, Darcy quickly scanned the sheet. It was as he suspected. He tucked it into his breast pocket and then summoned another serving girl to sit with Elizabeth. Then, he reluctantly made his excuses.
“I fear you have long wished me gone. If you will excuse me, Miss Bennet, there is much to do.” And he left before she could reply.
With long strides, Darcy quickly closed the gap between himself and the approaching Gardiners as they hurried back from the church.
Making a quick bow to Mrs Gardiner, Darcy then spoke directly to Mr Gardiner.
“A word in private, if you please, sir,” Darcy said as he motioned for the other gentleman to step to one side with him.
“Forgive me, sir, but circumstances require me to speak plainly. Your niece, Miss Lydia Bennet has thrown herself, and her entire family into jeopardy by eloping with one of the officers from the militia stationed in Brighton.”
Mr Gardiner’s mouth dropped open in shock, but before he could question Darcy further on the matter, the latter continued;
“He tricked Miss Lydia into believing they were to be married at Gretna Green, while at the same time, boasting to his friend that marriage was not on his mind. You understand my meaning, sir?” Darcy asked with some urgency.
“I am afraid I understand all too well,” replied Mr Gardiner with a scowl. “So, where are they to be found if not Gretna Green?”
Darcy retrieved Elizabeth’s letter from his pocket and thrust it into the older man’s hand.
“They were traced as far as the capital, sir, but I am betting it was done purely to throw Colonel Forster’s men off his trail. I may be wrong, but I think Wickham will make his way back here, to Derbyshire. He was born and raised here, and although he has only a few distant cousins remaining, he knows the layout of the country well.”
Mr Gardiner paused to study the young man’s countenance. Although their acquaintance was only a few days old, Edward Gardiner had instantly liked the gentleman. Though Darcy had tried to hide the true depth of his feeling from both him and his wife, whenever he was in Elizabeth’s presence, his admiration could not be denied. All too soon, through the increasing chinks in his metaphorical armour, Darcy’s love for Elizabeth burst through like shafts of sunlight, visible to all. Yes, he would make Elizabeth an excellent husband.
“Am I correct in assuming you have a plan, sir?” Mr Gardiner enquired.
“I do, sir. In Miss Jane Bennet’s letter, she asks that you make haste to join her father in London, where your greater knowledge of the city will aid the search for the couple. I believe you should go, sir, but I would ask that you leave your wife and Miss Elizabeth, here.”
“Leave them here, alone, with no transport and no man to protect them? You are not serious, sir!”
“If I am correct, Wickham will bring Miss Lydia to Derbyshire and then demand a ransom for her release. But,” Darcy, cautious of mentioning the unthinkable, hesitated before saying, “if things should turn out badly, sir, at least the girl will have her family to comfort her.”
“You mean should Lydia need a shoulder to cry on when this worthless young man deserts her!” Mr Gardiner scoffed.
Darcy did not answer, but the grim set of his mouth told Mr Gardiner that their thoughts were akin.
Edward Gardiner turned to look at his wife. Her expression, a mixture of curiosity and concern, conveyed how worried she was.
Although they had been blessed with four healthy children, the Gardiners’ could not help but look on Elizabeth as one of their own. There was no blemish to her personality, only kindness, and compassion, and charm and a lively wit. She was one of a kind, and they loved her dearly.
Whatever the outcome with Lydia and this fellow Wickham, Edward Gardiner had no doubt that, with Madeline at her side, Elizabeth would find the strength to deal with what was to come.
Knowing he could not leave his wife and niece at the Inn unaccompanied while he headed off to London in search of his foolish niece, Mr Gardiner stated his terms to Mr Darcy in a firm and resolute tone.
“Very well, but I must insist that you take Mrs Gardiner and my niece to stay at Pemberley. I cannot abandon the women in my charge at a tavern with no gentleman present,” Mr Gardiner said as he raised himself up to his full height.
If the circumstances had been different, Darcy might have smiled as he watched Elizabeth’s uncle puff out his chest assertively, but his mind was too preoccupied with catching Wickham to tarry on such thoughts.
Darcy knew of Wickham’s preference for innocent young girls, seducing and using them wherever and whenever he could. Even now, Darcy felt a hint of colour rise to his cheeks as he remembered one occasion at Cambridge University when he interrupted Wickham bedding a serving girl. What made it worse was that Wickham had expected Darcy to return and had purposely taken the girl to their shared rooms, knowing he would be caught. It irritated Darcy that he should have such memories thrust upon him by a man like Wickham.
Unfortunately, it was Mr Gardiner who was on the receiving end of Darcy’s irritation. It was unthinkable that Elizabeth and her aunt should not move to Pemberley once Mr Gardiner had left for the capital. Where better for Darcy to secure and oversee their protection than at Pemberley?
With renewed determination, Darcy spoke sharply to Mr Gardiner.
“That goes with saying, sir. Now, we must tarry no longer. Where George Wickham is concerned, every second counts.” With that, Darcy turned on his heels and strode back the way he had come.
When her aunt and uncle entered the small sitting room that adjoined their suite of rooms, Elizabeth rushed forward into the open arms of Mrs Gardiner.
“Oh, aunt, the most awful news! Lydia has eloped, and with Mr Wickham. We must return to Longbourn at once…,” It was now that Elizabeth saw Darcy had returned. “Oh, Mr Darcy…pray excuse me,” Elizabeth faltered, “I…I thought you had returned to Pemberley?”
“I needed to speak urgently to your uncle, Miss Bennet.” then Darcy turned once more to Mr Gardiner.
“Is one hour sufficient for you to settle your business here in Lambton?”
Mr Gardiner nodded.
“Very well, I will return to Pemberley and make the necessary arrangements for their arrival.” With a short bow, Darcy took his leave.
It took a moment for this information to filter through Elizabeth’s jumbled thoughts, but when it did, she turned to her uncle and asked,
“We are returning to Longbourn, are we not, Uncle? My family will be expecting us.”
Taking Elizabeth by the elbow, Mr Gardiner led her to a chair by the window and sat her down. Pulling up a chair for himself, he took hold of her hand.
“I understand that Mr Darcy and this Wickham fellow were friends at one time?” he asked in a soft tone.
“Yes, they were raised together, but I do not understand what this has to do with us returning to Longbourn?” Elizabeth replied.
Mr Gardiner glanced over to his wife, who also had no idea of the plans made by her husband and Mr Darcy.
“Mr Darcy believes that Wickham’s stay in London will be of a short duration, a few days at most. He predicts that this Wickham fellow has fooled everyone with his story of going to Scotland, and, in truth means to make his way north to Derbyshire. If that be the case Elizabeth, someone who knows the man and his idiosyncrasies will need to be at hand. Mr Darcy proposes to be that man. He has suggested, and I entirely agree with him, that I should make my way back to London and assist Mr Bennet in any way that I can. I understand from Jane’s letter that Colonel Forster has returned to Brighton and will continue to search for them there. Although, the odds of Mr Wickham returning to his regiment seem slim to me.”
Conscious of Elizabeth’s innocence, Mr Gardiner chose his next words with extra care.
“If Mr Darcy is correct, and I see no reason to doubt him, this Wickham fellow is likely to…tire…of your sister in a relatively short space of time.”
Although this notion had already crossed Elizabeth’s mind, these were harsh words for her to hear. She turned her head away as she tried to restrain the sob that had sprung up in her throat.
Mr Gardiner paused, giving Elizabeth a moment to compose herself, then continued with what needed to be said.
“When this happens, if this happens, it would be more reassuring for Lydia to have a member of her own family to hand. Someone to comfort and console her, rather than a stranger. That is why I have agreed to Mr Darcy’s plan. That you and Madeline stay at Pemberley until this matter is settled.”
“Stay on?” questioned Elizabeth, as she looked from her uncle to her aunt. “But I will be needed at Longbourn to help comfort my mother. You cannot expect me to leave poor Jane, who has suffered so much recently, to deal with the fallout of this scandal on her own.”
Mrs Gardiner acknowledged the pleading look from her husband and came to stand by his side.
“We must stay Lizzy; don’t you see? If Mr Darcy is right, and this man abandons Lydia, who would you have her to turn to? Miss Bingley? Mrs Hurst? Besides, there is Mary and Kitty and your Aunt Philips for Jane to call on. Lydia will have no-one if we do not stay.”
Elizabeth heard their words and agreed with their reasoning, but her heart still yearned to return to Longbourn, and not just to be of some comfort to Jane or her mamma.
Was it not humiliating enough that Mr Darcy knew of Lydia’s selfish and reckless behaviour? What if he shared her family’s humiliation and imminent disgrace with the rest of his party? It was almost too much to bear.
Elizabeth gave a scoff, reminding herself that soon the whole country would know of their family’s disgrace and not just Mr Darcy’s house guests. Oh, Lydia! Why had she done such a foolish thing? She must have realised she would expose her sisters to derision and censure.
Elizabeth’s thoughts quickly turned to who had encouraged Lydia in her foolishness. Have fun, my dear, enjoy yourself at every opportunity. Her own mother had promoted Lydia’s obsession with husband hunting and marriage. With these words ringing in her thoughts, Elizabeth’s heart hardened towards Mrs Bennet.
Poor Lydia. The possible fate that Mr Wickham intended for her was almost beyond comprehension; but not quite. Used and ruined, he would probably toss her aside like an empty wine bottle, with no regard for her safety, future, or reputation.
Elizabeth turned back to her uncle, and with a defiant tilt of her chin, said,
“Yes, of course, you are right, we must stay in Derbyshire.”