Though it came at the cost of many a long and frustrating year, Mrs. Lydia Wickham came at last to see the folly of rushing into marriage at too young an age.
While it was true that Lydia had experienced a great thrill of triumph at beating her four elder sisters to the alter, married life failed to meet her expectations. Soon after joining her husband's regiment, but a few weeks past their elopement, Mrs. Wickham learned a vital lesson: that keeping a man's home and warming his bed are two wildly different things.
As it happened at the time, Lydia was only proficient in the latter.
If only she possessed her sister Eliza's wisdom or, her sister Jane's patience. Either would have served her well during those early years. Her sisters, she wagered – while months slower in procuring their husbands – found not so much difficulty in performing their wifely duties. Elizabeth had certainly never once been forced to forgo a meal because she had spent the greater part of her housekeeping on a particularly fetching bonnet. Nor, Lydia felt positive, had Jane ever been the victim of her neighbours' malicious gossiping because she had over-confided in a servant
No, they would not have made the same errors that their foolish youngest sister had. If only Lydia had been more wont to follow their example when she still had them to learn from. Many a sleepless night, fraught with worry, she would have spared herself – but, alas for poor Lydia, that was not the case.
Though the first of her sisters to claim the mantle of wife, Lydia was the last to become such in practice.
Not three years since Mr. And Mrs. Wickham's first visit to Longbourn as husband and wife did the last of her sisters, Mary, take leave of it – albeit temporarily. Dearest Catherine had found an officer of her own in a Lieutenant James Worthington the year previous, leaving only the most pious of the Bennet girls to keep company their poor mother's nerves. (What little comfort Mary was capable of providing, in any case.)
It was at that time and in due course, that their cousin, Mr. Collins, shed his twelve-month mourning – for his dutiful wife, Charlotte, had passed in the throes of childbirth. Mr. Collins took the advice of his noble patron, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, and set off at once to acquire a suitable wife and mother for his two young children. Mary Bennet, Lady Catherine declared, was a far more acceptable choice than her elder sister, Elizabeth, though it had to be said that her beauty was nowhere near as great.
This, Lady Catherine assured Mr. Collins, could only be a benefit – as it was all too evident that an over-abundance of said quality could only lead to the development of ideas far above one's station. Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy, duly paying her respects to that great woman for the sake of her beloved husband, did not miss the poorly concealed sneer levied in her direction at that declaration. Rather than reply in kind, as was her custom where Lady Catherine was concerned, Mrs. Darcy instead smiled beautifully and seconded the suggestion, saying only that Mary Bennet and Mr. Collins suited one another very indeed.
If nothing else, Mrs. Darcy later confided to her husband, it would ensure that Longbourn would remain in the family, where it belonged, while also ensuring her mother's future comfort, providing her nerves did not best her before Mr. Bennet's passing.
Mrs. Lydia Wickham found the alliance between any of her sisters and Mr. Collins most distasteful but, as Mary was not likely to be in receipt of many such offers, she owed the match was a wise union, indeed. By this time, already, the first signs of difficulty had begun to leave their marks on Mrs. Wickham's charming young visage.
Time marched steadily on, as it inevitably does, and Lydia Wickham – at extraordinary length and often through studying her sisters' interactions with their respective partners – came to learn what the fine institution of marriage ought to be. Regrettably, she also came to realise that her own marriage fell terribly short of that ideal.
In the early days of married life, Mrs. Wickham was inclined to blame herself for those failings. She railed against her own faults: immaturity, lack of censure, ignorance – and numerous others she was too shamed to admit, even to herself. As Lydia's sisters blessed their husbands with children, she endeavoured to cease being one herself. She taught herself, at last, the one thing her dear father despaired of her ever learning.
Mrs. Lydia Wickham was in possession of all the discipline Lydia Bennet had steadfastly defied. Whispers of her wild ways continued to haunt Mrs. Wickham, long after she put them behind her. Indeed, there were still some who, in the corners of ballrooms and in darkened parlours, spoke ill of her. Those who had not been long in her acquaintance, however, could not accept that the Mrs. Wickham they knew would quit her family sphere to live in sin with any man, even a man as charming as Mr. Wickham.
For it was clear to any who witnessed them in public that Mr. George Wickham doted on his wife. He was ever attentive; always smiles and compliments – when others were present, at least. Behind closed doors, Mr. and Mrs. Wickham's relationship was polite but indifferent. Lydia, feeling the sting of many reprimands for her incessant chatter in the early days of their relationship, had grown silent, speaking only to discuss household business or in response to queries.
Mr. Wickham, at first, was glad of the silence but eventually, as any gentleman would without good conversation, grew bored with his wife's company. Being a well-liked, charming officer, Mr. Wickham did not struggle to find it elsewhere. When rumours of his indiscretions reached Mrs. Wickham, she was saddened but not surprised.
So things continued for the Wickhamses until George Wickhams's second commission – purchased at no small cost by his brother-in-law – ran its course. At a loss and, as ever, in debt, Mr. Wickham was left at the mercy of his wife's rather large family. Due entirely to affection for Lydia and not at all to her husband’s character, Mr. and Mrs. Wickham found welcome within Pemberley's grand halls.
If his sweet sister, Georgiana, had not herself married a kind, quiet gentleman and settled some distance away, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy would not have entertained even the idea of allowing such a blackguard entry into his home. As it was, the invitation was worded as to last only as long as it took for Mr. Wickham to find employment elsewhere – a task Mr. Darcy gave much diligence to completing as speedily as possible.
Lydia Wickham was glad to share her sister Eliza's company once more and found it infinitely more agreeable than she had as a child. Elizabeth, too, found her sister's temper much improved. They spent many a pleasant afternoon in earnest discourse, woman to woman.
When Mrs. Wickham was not occupied in conversation with her dear sister, or making herself useful in any way that the household staff would allow – which, she learned, was not much; the servants of such stately houses as Pemberley see it as a great offence to their capability for a Lady to perform their duties, after all – she spent a great deal of time with her beloved nieces and nephews. The experience was both bitter and sweet, for Mr. and Mrs. Wickham had themselves never been blessed with children.
Bennet, Thomas, and Laurence Darcy were strapping, dark-haired lads who promised to make their fine father proud; while their older sisters, Jane and Charlotte, were both charming and already very accomplished. Jane, who had inherited her mother’s laughing eyes and easy smile, was just turned fourteen and, her parents often teased, likely to be allowed out in society the following season – if only she would stop leaving books lying about the house.
Mrs. Wickham was excessively fond of her niece. In Jane, Lydia saw the fine young lady she failed to recognise in Eliza in their youths and also how very unladylike she, herself, had been at the same age. Her niece was both intelligent and beautiful; whimsical and considerate at once. She would, undoubtedly, secure a very good future for herself – providing she avoided scoundrels like her Uncle Wickham.
George Wickham gave no indication, in company, of giving either his nieces or nephews any particular favour. He taught the boys the proper way to fire his Flintlock and read poetry aloud to his nieces. As much as Mr. and Mrs. Darcy were concerned – which is to say, no small amount – Mr. Wickham behaved exactly as a gentleman ought toward his family. It did not increase their fondness for that man, but it did allow them to sleep more easily at night.
They, however, had never been the object of George Wickham’s wicked appetite, as Lydia had.
She knew – partly because his attentions toward her had waned ‘round about the time the first worry lines had appeared between her brows and had disappeared entirely by the time the first streaks of grey had touched her hair – George Wickham was not satisfied with having just any woman to fill his bed. Her husband preferred young women, in particular. It was lucky for that sorry gentleman that his regiments were never long in one place; by the time most farmers’ daughters found themselves in trouble, Mr. Wickham was far enough away to escape responsibility.
To claim ignorance of these matters would have been impossible for Mrs. Wickham, no matter how she might wish to – but what could she do? Call her own husband out? Reveal him to be the vile creature she knew him for? To what end? The ruination of Mr. George Wickham must also be the ruination of Mrs. Lydia Wickham, and so she held her tongue.
Until the night, when acting upon a nagging suspicion, Lydia left the bedroom they had been assigned, in search of her absent husband. It was, upon seeing a light under the library door, that Lydia eased it open and slipped in the room, only to find him bent over a heavy wooden table in the centre of the room. It seemed a very odd sort of position for one to be in – until Lydia realized that her husband wasn’t alone.
“Please,” a trembling voice said, “please stop. Mother-”
“Will never need to know,” Mr. Wickham said in the low, husky voice he used to get what he wanted.
Or, more accurately, the voice he had used to get what he wanted. Mrs. Wickham decided, at that moment, that he would never be allowed to use that tone of voice again. At any time, on any person.
Clearing her throat loudly, Lydia made her presence known.
George leapt backward, putting distance between himself and his niece, who hurried toward her aunt and threw her arms around the older woman. After many assurances that she was, indeed, alright, Jane begged her Aunt Lydia for a promise not to mention the incident to her parents and made hast to her room upon receiving it. Mrs. and Mr. Wickham, left alone, stared at one another, each wondering what step must next be taken.
It was Mr. Wickham who spoke first.
“Well,” he said, adjusting his trousers, “I believe I am long past for bed.”
Mrs. Wickham made no reply, but for a small nod of her head. Her husband, upon exiting the room, made the very wise decision to avoid any contact with his wife. The door shut with a soft snickt, leaving Mrs. Wickham alone with her thoughts.
If previous behaviour was aught to go by, her husband would make straight to their bedchambers, where he would avail himself of the bottle of port he had liberated from his brother-in-law’s study the day before. That suited Mrs. Wickham very well. Let him do as ever, and drown his conscious with alcohol.
The man was as predictable as he was odious, which was how Lydia Wickham knew that he would be sprawled, half-clothed, across the bed when she eventually re-entered their chambers, some hours later. A glass lay near his lax fingers, spilling crimson liquid across the rumpled linen. Mrs. Wickham studied her husband’s sleeping form for several long moments before acting on the impulse that had been burning in her since the moment she saw her husband’s filthy hand on her niece’s innocent breast.
Slowly, and with great deliberation, Lydia Wickham eased her now considerable weight onto the bed, waiting to see if her husband was roused before continuing. When the man only snorted in his sleep, she climbed atop him and reached for a down-filled pillow near his head.
In a small way, it saddened Lydia Wickham that her husband was too inebriated to wake as she pressed the pillow to his face and held it there until his thrashing body stilled. She would must content herself, therefore, with imagining how great his shock would have been – something she did many times in the years that followed.
The death of Mr. George Wickham took some time to spread through Derbyshire, and beyond. He was, after all, no one of any real consequence, as these things go. There were many, however, who greeted the news with relief, satisfaction, and – though none would own to it – great pleasure. Those who shared the news often did so by ending simply with, “Poor Mrs. Wickham, such a difficult life she’s had.”
That poor lady had not a tear in her eye the morning following her husband’s death, when she alerted the household to his condition. Her air was sombre, her countenance grim, and yet… she seemed almost at peace.
It was the mark of good breeding, the doctor remarked to Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, that Mrs. Wickham should maintain her composure at such a time. Behind him, with her arms around her sister, Jane met Lydia’s eye – a gaze they held until the doctor turned away, at which time Jane offered her aunt a smile that was, at once, both knowing and grateful.