There was just so much blood. More blood than she would have thought a man could possibly possess. How was he still alive? And how was Lizzy so calm when each second saw the red stain on her gown growing larger like some sort of macabre mockery of a slowly opening flower? She was a frozen observer as she moved through the emotions of shock, disbelief, and then horror in turn. She felt her mind begin to shut down as it tried to shield her from the scene before her. She felt her stomach protest and then rebel, and she was forced to turn and run lest she disgrace herself in front of those present.
Coward. Child. Inadequate. Georgiana chastised herself, but her harsh admonishments did not slow her flight. She knew that she should turn around and offer assistance to her dear sister-by-law, but she also knew that she could not so do. Where Elizabeth Darcy was capable, calm, and well able to coordinate a household in a crisis, Georgiana Darcy was most emphatically not. Her whole existence up until that point had been almost completely sheltered; she had never had cause to cope. She had been cosseted, protected, especially since the incident…but no, she would not think of that now, she could not. Instead, she fixed her ambitions upon gaining the gardens, where she hoped that she would be able to breathe and dispel the panic that overtook her now, as it had so often before.
Concentrate only upon the sky, Mrs Reynolds had always told her when she had been gripped by these terrible attacks. Look up, all the way up to the clouds. Feel the air touching your face. Know that you can breathe it in. Do it slowly. Stand still and listen to your heart slow down. Take your breaths every five beats, then every four, then every three, as it slows.
Georgiana pushed open the door to the servants’ quarters and gained the sanctuary of the open air. Still, she did not slow her pace, but ran onwards until she had turned the corner of the kitchen garden and could no longer see that side of the house which contained the horror. She was not crying, she realised, she must be too deeply in shock for that. Crying would come only when she could breathe. She had to breathe. She slowed her pace. She stopped.
It took some minutes to get herself under control and, as she surfaced from the weight of her emotions, she became better aware of her surroundings. Across the park were two figures, their heads close together as they shared a moment of private conversation. They looked peaceful and happy. She fixed her gaze upon them, willing them to look up. She felt incapable of moving or speaking at present, but she needed them to see her. It seemed that her plea was answered when seconds (or was it hours?) later the woman raised her head and gestured towards the statue that Georgiana had become. Her movement broke the spell that Georgiana was under, and she found herself able to wave frantically at them.
The man was Colonel Fitzwilliam, she realised, as he drew closer to her. She drew a sigh of relief. The Colonel would fix everything. He was a hero. He could save the man in the kitchen. He was one of the only two men in the world that she truly trusted. Next to her brother, he was the best of men. She felt safety arrive along with her out of breath guardian, and found herself able to say, with relative calm, “Mrs Darcy needs help. She is in the kitchen.”
As she spoke the words, the panic returned. Colonel Fitzwilliam grasped both of her hands in his own and looked down at her worriedly. “Georgiana, dear child, are you ill?” She shook her head violently, “please, Colonel…the kitchen…Lizzy…” Looking back over his shoulder at the second figure approaching them at a steadier pace, the Colonel squeezed her hands in an effort to reassure, “Mrs Collins is moments behind me. She will help you Georgiana, just stay here until she reaches you.” With that, he took to his heels and made for the house.
The tears began now. Great wrenching sobs that came fast and threatened to overwhelm her. By the time Charlotte Collins had reached her, Georgiana could barely speak. Charlotte said something but, although Georgiana saw her lips move, she could make no sense of the words. All that she could manage in return was a stumbling, “Lizzy…the kitchen…so much blood…” and then regretted her words immediately as she saw the immediate desperate effect that they had upon her companion. Georgiana tried to summon the strength to say more, but before she could make herself coherent, they were joined by a much agitated third party. Charlotte spoke urgently to the new arrival, who nodded and put her arms gently around Georgiana, drawing her slowly down to sit on the grass while Charlotte departed in haste in the wake of the Colonel.
As time passed, Georgiana became aware of her companion gently singing a lilting air under her breath, and felt the responding waves of calm wash over her as they had done so often in the past. Within a few minutes, she was able to lift her head from the comforting shoulder on which it lay.
“Oh Alice, you always know how to bring me back.”
Georgiana received a fierce hug in response. “We look after each other, my dear friend. We always have and we always will. You tend to all my scrapes and wounds and hide the evidence when I undertake ridiculous escapades, and I aid you whenever you fall too. We help.”
To have a friend like Alice Peterson was one of the true joys of Georgiana’s life, and she acknowledged that without her patience and care, she would never have felt strong enough to re-emerge after the incident. She would never have been able to heal her fractured mind and spirits even to the extent that she had now achieved. Indeed, her progress was such that some days, she felt almost normal, almost like the girl that she had been before, like the woman she had hoped to become. She could laugh with Lizzy; she could even join in with a little of her impertinence to her brother or the Colonel; safe targets, both. But it was always there. In the background she was always afraid that the darkness would overtake her again and that the next crisis would plunge her back into the isolated well of despair from which it seemed so much harder to escape every time.
But this was not one of those times, she vowed. And Alice seemed determined to ensure that too. Georgiana felt her friend’s eyes sweeping across her as she appraised her condition, and she found herself suddenly and smoothly raised to her feet by a now brisk sounding Alice.
“Up, Georgie, and dry your eyes. We will talk about whatever has happened in a moment, but for now you must make yourself presentable as, unless I am very much mistaken, we are about to be joined by my father and by guests. Take my hand and we will greet them together.”
Doing as she was bid, Georgiana was grateful for the firm grasp in which her hand was held as she turned to face the arriving carriage. Visitors were always a trial to her, but visitors at this moment were the worst thing that she could imagine. However, her dread turned to relief when she saw the carriage window drop and from it emerge the head, shoulders, and upper body of her other, unlikely, but much loved friend, Kitty Bennet.
“Georgie! Allie!” cried the new arrival as she leapt from the carriage before its wheels had ceased turning. She landed smartly and rushed to embrace Georgiana and then Alice in turn. Kitty Bennet was of an age with Georgian but there ended the resemblance. Kitty was everything that Georgiana was not. She was loud, and sometimes brash; confident, almost to the point of fearlessness; and could be expected to be involved in every form of fun and mischief that was on offer at any moment. However, her character had improved so dramatically in the two years that she had been separated from the malign influence of her younger sister, Lydia, that her many good features now heavily outweighed any deficits in her personality. Kitty’s kindness and generosity were recognised as her most prominent traits, and she was widely admired, even if her exuberance sometimes made potential suitors hold back in some trepidation for their own safety in the face of a whirlwind.
As a friend to Georgiana, Kitty was the perfect foil, and Alice was happy to have a third in their group whenever Kitty made one of her frequent visits to Pemberley. On this morning, Kitty displayed some of her recently acquired virtues of sense and tact when she immediately took in her friend’s obvious distress and looked to Alice for some explanation. Alice shook her head, looking away meaningfully, and Kitty quickly took the hint, saying nothing of the matter, instead kissing Georgiana soundly on the cheek, and turning to smile broadly at her fellow travelling companions who were descending from the carriage now that it had safely stopped moving.
Mr and Mrs Bingley, were a welcome sight to Georgiana, even if she was still a little nervous in the former’s company. She had heard many times in the past that certain parties had fixed on her making a match with Mr Bingley and, while the man himself was everything that seemed good and gentle, Georgiana had balked at the idea every time it was raised in her hearing. That Mr Bingley himself was now happily (and safely) married to his beautiful wife, made it easier for Georgiana to interact with him, but she was still sometimes shyly uncomfortable in his presence. Now, however, Kitty was making great efforts to distract attention from Georgiana with some nonsense of her own making, while Alice, after receiving an affectionate greeting from the Bingleys, moved to stand some way off in conference with her father, the steward of the estate, and someone who evidently knew what had occurred to upset Georgiana to such an extent.
It was Mr Peterson who took charge, and who outlined events briefly to the party. A stranger, he told them, had somehow been grievously injured and had found his way to the Pemberley kitchens before collapsing. He had been accompanied by a heavily pregnant young woman, and both were now being cared for within. Mr Peterson did everything in his power to limit the length of the explanation and to skirt over the details. Georgiana, in turn, was glad to not have to speak of what she had seen, and was content to be shielded from questions by the watchful presence of her two friends. By the time the party repaired to the house, she felt calmer once more, and was able to smile tentatively at some of Kitty’s attempts to lighten the mood.
All would be well: her family were secure; her friends were with her. Nothing could harm her at Pemberley. She was safe.
While the Bingleys and Kitty made haste to find Lizzy and make their presence at Pemberley known, Georgiana took the opportunity to slip quietly away to her room to compose herself. After the initial panic had passed, she felt humiliated by the spectacle that she feared she had created of herself. It was always like this. The terror would leave her soon enough, but the shame at not being able to control it lasted much longer. She took a seat at her window and looked out over the grounds. Below her, two of the outdoor staff were tending the flowerbeds and she could hear their conversation drifting up to her as they worked.
“Aye, she was a powerful handsome young woman, to be sure. I canna think what someone the likes of her would be doing loitering around the gardens alone. Most visitors come up to the house first, don’t they?”
His companion merely grunted, but the more loquacious of the two was undeterred.
“Well dressed, and well shod. My missus would have been able to tell you how much those shoes would have cost. Fearful one for admiring ladies’ shoes she is.”
This elicited a response, at least, “Why are you looking at the lady’s ankles, then? Your Margaret will geld you if she catches you at that.”
“Could hardly avoid it, the way she was holding her skirts, could I? Anyway, I said nothing about her ankles. There ain’t nothing indecent about noticing things that are put right in front of you. Anyways, the master wanted us to be keeping watch for strange things on the estate, since the attempt on his carriage the other day.” Here the man paused, presumably deep in thought, as after a few moments he continued in a more serious tone, “now then, do you think she might have had something to do with that? Maybe I should tell Mr Peterson. Did she not look to be a bit furtive and creeping like to you Bill?”
“Give over! That’s some imagination you have on you Jack. She was a young lady taking a walk. Did she look like she was the sort to be in league with highwaymen? She’s likely just a visitor to the village getting herself some air. You go and tell Mr Peterson if you want. Like as not he’ll send you away with a flea in your ear and tell you to do some work for a change. Come on, you daft lad!”
The men moved on to another part of the garden and their voices drifted away leaving Georgiana in blessed silence. She had been scarcely half listening to their discourse, but it reminded her that she had also seen someone earlier that morning, close to the coach house. At the time she had absently thought that it was just one of the kitchen maids, but visualising the scene again, she was not now so sure. The lady had been wearing the type of ostentatiously large bonnet that covered most of the face, and her rather gaudy clothing had not been of the usual type or quality that the Pemberley servants were accustomed to wear. Probably just one of the girls trying out her best clothes. Off to impress one of the stable-lads, she told herself. You are as bad as that young man outside, making up fancies to distract yourself from real life troubles.
Her reverie was not long preserved. Within minutes it was rudely shattered by the pounding of feet outside her room. She scarce even had time to feel alarmed when a breathless Kitty exploded into her chamber, flushed from her evident race up the stairs, and smiling widely. Kitty was, Georgiana thought in the seconds after she burst through the door, a definite presence wherever she went. No one could ignore Kitty Bennet, even when she entered rooms in a slightly more respectful manner than she presently exhibited. Kitty was a very different young woman to the one who Georgiana had first met at her brother’s wedding two years previously. Her earlier peevishness and a youthful tendency to sulk had completely evaporated under the expert tutelage of a patient eldest sister, and she was now almost universally cheerful and confident. Georgiana envied her easy self-assurance greatly, and told Kitty as much as soon as the latter had stopped chattering at her.
“You, envy me? Georgie I think that you must jest! Look at you. You are the most beautiful, poised creature that a drawing room ever contained. You are gentle, and kind, and accomplished…and rich, which let us not forget is possibly the most admirable of the virtues of womankind.”
Kitty’s eyes sparkled, and she continued playfully,
“and what am I but a poor freckled creature with few skills, little beauty, and a small dowry. Do you know, I heard father once describe me as having more energy than sense or style, and though my vanity was somewhat dented by the description, I now try to take that as a compliment. I will simply have to claim an abundance of energy as being my chief virtue, even if it seems to terrify as many as it happens to please.”
Georgiana laughed at her,
“Oh Kitty, you are not so very alarming. If you do not scare a mouse like me, then I think that most people must feel relatively safe in your presence. And you are much prettier than you think. I’m so pale that I practically blend into the furnishings, and can only envy you your lovely dark curls and your striking green eyes. And, of course, your figure is so much more pleasing than mine. I have little indeed to show off, but your shape is…well…”
She tailed off shyly, growing deeply pink at the recognition of how close she was to departing from decorum with such personal comments upon her friend’s appearance. She was grateful to have been able to stop herself before making any further pronouncements on which in particular of Kitty’s curves might be most praiseworthy! This really was all most unlike her. Perhaps the forwardness of the Bennet sisters was truly leaving its mark upon her. She had found herself making a few uncharacteristically pointed, even almost satirical, comments recently, mostly in Lizzy’s company, which seemed to have delighted her sister-by-law, even if they had slightly shocked her brother.
Kitty hugged her, bringing her back to the present. Being held by Kitty made Georgiana feel warm, and valued, and special. She was such an intensely affectionate friend and, though it had taken Georgiana some time to become accustomed to the artless ease with which Kitty bestowed physical contact upon others, she now relied upon these displays to lift her spirits. She knew that Lizzy and Jane sometimes despaired at Kitty’s effervescence and often frowned at her tendency to approach everyone and everything like some sort of wildly enthusiastic overgrown puppy, but Georgiana had grown to love the contrast between her own shy quietude and Kitty’s rambunctious fun-filled zest for life.
Georgiana relaxed into her friend’s arms and related something of the conversation that she had overheard from her window, and also of her own observations that morning. Kitty frowned, and seemed lost in thought for a moment, but then apparently dismissed the matter as being unimportant.
“It will just have been someone sneaking a look at Pemberley, Georgie, you know that Mrs Reynolds does her best to keep them all out of the house while the family are at home, but it is impossible to stop the sightseers invading your grounds at all hours.”
She raised her hand to her brow, saying with all the dramatic style of a veteran of the stage,
“You know ’tis simply the price one must pay, dearest, for coming from an unimaginably wealthy family with an unimaginably beautiful home. Your public must be allowed to stand and gaze in awe. This poor wretch included!”
This brought a giggle from her companion, who said, “You are silly, Kitty, you are neither poor nor wretched, and you well know it.”
Kitty looked seriously at her for a moment, before sighing heavily,
“I know, Georgie, and I largely have your brother and Mr Bingley to thank for that. And my sisters. I know that which I used to be, and how my conduct was influenced by others, and I am grateful not to be such a truly silly girl anymore. And I am thankful to have a dowry that might make me reasonably eligible, truly I am.”
Here Kitty paused, weighing whether to continue with her confidences. She eventually found the words to continue, but uncharacteristically kept her gaze lowered and met not her friend’s eyes.
“I feel I can safely tell you, dearest Georgie, that I am more than a little scared that they are trying to get me married off and I…well I look back on the young men that I used to follow around in Meryton, and I look at all the young men that Jane and Mr Bingley keep (subtly, as they think it) inviting to their home to meet me, and I despair at the thought of having to spending every day of the rest of my life with any one of them.”
Kitty made a sad shrugging gesture, and Georgiana was gratified to be able, for a change, to have the chance to offer solace to her friend. She gently took Kitty’s hands in her own and gave them a comforting squeeze. However, although she searched long for the right words, she came up wanting. Georgiana knew that her own brother and Lizzy were hoping to send her to London soon to meet the young men but she had not yet acknowledged the reality of what that could mean for her. And thinking of Kitty being married off to someone and possibly moving far away to become only a friend by correspondence? Well that was appalling. She felt quite shaken by the prospect.
Having unburdened herself of her secret fears, Kitty was the one to rally before Georgiana, and appeared to shake off her troubles brightly,
“But who could possibly put up with me anyway Georgie? Believe me, I have seen enough unhappy marriages in my own circle to wish not the same for me or for any poor man who unwittingly ended up shackled to me.”
Kitty’s eyes took on a mischievous gleam, as she said, “Perhaps I shall tell Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy to be more prudent and to take my dowry money back. Perhaps I would do better to spend my life trying to make my mother be sensible, my father be lively, and my dear sister, Mary, be amusing. Is that not a more fitting challenge for my talents than wifedom and motherhood?”
Georgiana tried to match her friend’s carefree ability to dismiss her melancholy, but found herself over the coming days returning to the conversation frequently, as she pondered whether there was any kind of alternative future for Kitty and for herself other than that which society demanded of them.
Time passed relatively peaceably over the coming days at Pemberley, which went a long way to helping Georgiana’s spirits to recover some of their former balance. Alice and Kitty spent much of their time with her, and the three young women initially heard little more of the circumstances that had brought on the crisis. It was true that Pemberley had two new ‘guests’ in the shape of the injured man and the pregnant woman (who, it transpired, was his sister), but both remained within their allotted rooms being attended to by the local doctor. None of the trio had, as yet, seen anything of them, and what little information they could glean on the matter was eagerly shared.
“My brother and guardian believe that the man, Samuel, may have been one of those who attempted to waylay the coach that Charlotte travelled here in.” Georgiana was able to tell her companions after overhearing some part of a conversation between those two gentlemen. “He has not awoken from his unconscious state yet, but your father, Alice, is making enquiries I believe.”
Alice nodded in reply, “Yes, Papa has been mostly from home these past few days, which I must own has had its advantages in some regards.” She smiled, coyly, as the others gathered round her with wide eyes and much interest in their expressions.
“You cannot stop there, teasing girl, tell us what you mean!” Kitty scolded her, playfully. “I am imagining that this has something to do with a certain young Mr Ramsay at whom you have been seen gazing across the aisle in church on several occasions?”
“I most certainly have not been gazing at anyone.” Alice said, in mock amazement. “I am sure that my attention must have been caught by that lovely carving on the end of the pew in which he sits. There is much to admire in it and my gaze could by no means be censured for being caught by its handsome elegance and the unmistakeable sense of kindly intelligence which it possesses.”
Georgiana laughed heartily at her friend, “Yes Allie, the carving is doubtless all that is fine and brilliant. But is it perhaps also possible that you may have become slightly acquainted with the occupant of the said pew in recent days?”
Alice gave in, gracefully, and acknowledged that the said Mr Ramsay, a student who was currently studying with the elderly Rector at Lambton, had indeed called twice and taken tea with her family over the previous two weeks, and that they had also twice been permitted to walk out, with her sisters, in recent days. In her father’s absence, the teatime visits had ceased, but daily walks had continued with slightly less emphasis on the strictest chaperoning. The result was that she felt confident of receiving an offer in a very few days.
“And you are happy, Allie?” asked Kitty, tentatively, “You think that Mr Ramsay would be a good husband and that you are ready to be a wife?”
Georgiana nodded at her friend’s question, “It will be such a change, Allie, is not this all happening so very quickly?”
Alice shook her head at them both in confusion,
“Listening to you both, one would think that marrying and having a home and family of one’s own is not to be expected as the normal course of events! Mr Ramsay is a steady man, he will, I believe, be kind to me and any children with which we are blessed.”
She blushed a little at this allusion, but continued,
“He is respectable, affectionate, and does seem to like and esteem me for who I am. He hopes to take the curacy at Lambton once his studies are completed, and to thus assist the Rector, and I will be comfortable to be settled here amongst my friends. Really, I do not see how I could hope for a more pleasing situation.”
Kitty moved to hug her impulsively, “Dear Allie, I am sorry, I am a strange creature am I not? What I should be saying is ‘congratulations, I wish you much joy’ not frowning and threatening rain on your sunshine!”
Georgiana joined them and took Alice’s hand in her own, “And I am only jealous of the fortunate Mr Ramsay who will be able to claim so much of your time when you are a married woman. However will we get along without you? Why Kitty will be driven to distraction by having to put up with my foolish fancies unaided.”
This earned her a playful shove from one, and a scolding from the other party. The three ladies now had a new topic to engage them, and spent the afternoon happily employed in selecting those of Georgiana’s dresses which they judged might do well if lent to Alice, and which would doubtless enhance her appeal leading, as Kitty declared, to a proposal coming much sooner than later. Alice left with a bundle of clothing filling her arms and the good wishes of her friends ringing in her ears.
That evening found the gentlemen of Pemberley somewhat agitated, and all present could see that something was afoot. Soon after the usual separation of the sexes after dinner, Mr Darcy interrupted the ladies’ seclusion in the Drawing Room to announce that he, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and Mr Peterson had matters of business to discuss and that they would repair to the Library, eschewing the customary post dinner port. Georgiana caught a glimpse of a meaningful look between Lizzy and Charlotte Collins, but was at something of a loss to gauge its meaning. Lizzy waved her husband away, and busied herself with some embroidery work, which puzzled Georgiana exceedingly as she was unaccustomed to seeing Lizzy willingly pick up a needle and thread if she could avoid it. Perhaps this was some side effect of her interesting condition, Georgiana thought, although she was unsure why expecting a child would make needlework any more attractive to Lizzy than it had ever been before.
Indeed Kitty also seemed happy to follow her sister’s lead, and act out of character. Collecting a small book of rather worthy poetry from a nearby table and proceeding to immerse herself in it. Charlotte reclined quietly in her chair, showing signs of her own condition making her weary, and drew a letter from her reticule, occupying herself intently in reading its contents. This seemed to satisfy Mr Darcy as to the contentment of the ladies, and he departed. After a pause of a few moments, Lizzy said, quietly, “I think that we should make our way upstairs now” and Charlotte and Kitty joined her in making for the door. Lizzy took Georgiana’s arm and whispered, “I am sorry that I could not find a moment before dinner to explain this to you, but just come along and you will soon see what we are about.” Georgiana followed them wordlessly, feeling no small degree of trepidation about whatever escapade she was to be involved in now.
A determined Lizzy led her three companions to meet with her lady’s maid and confidante Joan Evesham in the hallway, and they then ascended en masse to a small closet where they proceeded to eavesdrop deliberately upon the menfolk in the Library below. The conversation that they overheard was troubling. Much of it concerned the injured young man who rested in a room at the top of the house, and whose guilt as a would-be-highwayman (if a singularly unsuccessful and bloodless one) had apparently been established. However, the more upsetting discourse concerned his heavily pregnant sister, whose condition was, it was reported, likely to have been the result of the actions of a man to whose attentions the girl had not consented.
Georgiana heard the words and started to tremble, and was grateful when Kitty took hold of her hand in her own and gave it a firm squeeze, moving closer to her side so that she could feel the solid and comforting presence of her form next to her own. Lizzy sent a troubled glance Georgiana’s way, obviously distressed at having brought her into the vicinity of such a discussion. The rest of the words from downstairs washed over Georgiana, and she followed little of what happened next. Evidently some decision was been made to speak with the men directly and Georgiana followed Kitty passively into the library where Lizzy and Charlotte managed to exact some promise from the menfolk to treat the misdemeanor of the brother with clemency to spare his sister from further upset. However, none of this registered with Georgiana who was in the grip of another silent, icy terror, the result of what she had heard. Kitty drew her to sit upon a sofa in the Library and spoke quietly to her, but Georgiana heard not a word. Charlotte came over and tried to engage with her about all that would be done for the affected woman, but Georgiana could not take in what was being said. Lizzy looked increasingly concerned but tried to shield Georgiana from her brother’s gaze, guessing correctly that his noticing her distress would likely only make her vexation more grievous.
Finally, Charlotte whispered to Kitty, who gently pulled Georgiana to her feet and turned her smartly towards the door, half supporting her as discretely as she could whilst saying brightly over her shoulder, “Well, now that that is all settled, we two shall take our leave, I have that lace to show you Georgie, you remember...” and she carried on chattering until they were out of the room and halfway up the stairs.
“You have to walk, Georgie,” Kitty whispered, urgently, “You may weigh only about as much as a feather ordinarily, but I cannot carry you up the stairs. Please walk, just as far as your room.”
Her worried voice brought Georgiana back to herself a little and she concentrated upon putting one foot in front of the other until they finally made the sanctuary of her chamber. There Kitty helped her to lie down on the bed, and lay beside her, stroking her hair and murmuring quiet nonsense until she had calmed and fell into an uneasy doze.
At some point shortly after, Lizzy came into the room but, seeing that matters were in hand, had left quietly, with a grateful but worried nod to Kitty. “If she should wake still distressed, then call for me immediately,” she whispered, and Kitty inclined her head, careful not to move too abruptly. She looked down at her sleeping friend, and noted the gentle frown lines and the small worried twitches that told of an unsettled rest. She wrapped her arms protectively around Georgiana, and closed her own eyes, just for a moment, but soon felt sleep creeping upon her, and found herself unable to resist.
Kitty awoke to find the room almost completely in darkness, but focussed upon the one small area that was lit by a single candle illuminating Georgiana’s figure as she huddled in a seat by the open window. As she stirred, her friend turned to her,
“Oh Kitty, I am sorry, I did not mean to wake you. My head was busy with thoughts and I find that the night air is calming. Shall I close the window?”
Kitty sat up and formed her answer in the negative. She rose and went to sit beside Georgiana, asking how she fared now that the immediate crisis was over.
“Better, I think. But I have been pondering here for some time and I have made a decision. I feel quite calm, you see Kitty, and I think I am up to the task of explaining something to you. I think it may help you to understand me, and I think that saying it out loud may even help me to understand myself.”
“Anything that you have to say to me, dearest Georgie, I will hear with gratitude for your confidence.”
Georgiana smiled, sadly, “But you must promise…swear solemnly Kitty…that not a word of this will reach my brother. This means that not a word of it must reach your sister either, for I fear she would want him to know.”
Kitty began to feel a sickness building in her stomach, but breathed deeply and tried not to show her alarm, instead promising most sincerely to keep her friends’ secrets safe.
Georgiana composed herself and began in a remarkably steady and detached tone,
“It will not surprise you to hear that this is about the incident. You have been good enough never to allude to it, but I know that you are well aware of the facts of my intended elopement with the man who went on to marry your younger sister.”
Kitty noted that she used neither of their names, but only nodded, reassuringly, she hoped, and waited for more.
“There are, however, one or two slight amendments that should be made to the story as my brother believes it to have occurred. All happened as you have doubtless heard already. The gentleman came to me at Ramsgate, and I welcomed him first as a much loved lifelong friend, almost as family, and then as potentially more when he convinced me of his feelings in that direction.”
Here, she faltered slightly, colouring as she said,
“My vanity was flattered, you see Kitty. Who would have thought that such a handsome and charming young man could love me – just a shy awkward scrap of a thing – it never even occurred to me that he might have other motivations for his attentions.
“But that is not the central feature of my sorry story today. What I need to tell you is that which happened upon the morning that my brother arrived unexpectedly at Ramsgate and ended the affair irrevocably.”
Kitty, witnessed her friend’s evidently building distress with much feeling, and began to tell her that she need not go on if it was too difficult, but Georgiana proved unexpectedly strident in her opposition,
“No, Kitty, I will do this. I will tell you.” She carried on, “You see, I had begun to see that there was something amiss, some days before. I kept catching him and Mrs Younge having quiet, secretive, conversations that would cease when I entered the room. I caught him not remembering what I had said, as if he had not really been listening closely, as I would have expected a man so in love to do.
“There were a hundred little things that were not right. Even a foolish fifteen year old could see that they were not right. But I thought that it was the strain of the secrecy that was the problem. I thought that if only he could see that my brother would not forbid our love that all would be well. Foolish child!”
Kitty made to take her hand, but Georgiana rebuffed her,
“I finally, that morning, found the courage to write to my brother and tell him of our plans. I thought that, if I explained our love, he could be brought to accept it. That I could right whatever misunderstanding had caused the estrangement of which my beloved was so obviously grieved by, if evasive about the details. But I lacked the understanding to comprehend that my intended had no intention of letting my brother find out about us.
“He walked into my room unannounced before the letter was done. When I explained that I was writing a private missive, he took it from me forcibly. When he had read it, he called me an idiot and tore it up. Then he took me by the shoulders and he shook me. Then he pushed me against the wall and he told me that there was more than one way to force a marriage to happen.”
Kitty felt a sob building in her throat and was unable to stop it from emerging. Georgiana was now the strong one and she reached across to pat her friend’s hand reassuringly.
“It is not as grievous as you may fear, dear Kitty. However, I believe that this is only the case because at that moment Mrs Younge came into the room. I can see now that she had an unnatural jealousy of any time that he spent with me. It had proved an annoyance in the first days of our apparent courtship, but now I believe that it saved me.
He changed in an instant. He was all charm and affability. He joked about emotions running high when the heart was involved. He made me wonder if I had run mad and simply imagined that rage in his eyes that I had just seen.”
She shook her head, sadly,
“But I know that I had not. And now I have a secret that I cannot tell my brother for fear of what he might do, and I have the guilt of knowing that your youngest sister is married to a monster.”
At this, Georgiana finally gave in to her tears, and allowed a shocked and shaken Kitty to hold her gently and rock her in her arms.
The outburst of emotions following Georgiana’s confessions affected the two young women quite differently. Georgiana felt lighter in her spirits following the sharing of her troubles, and she recovered quickly, even being able to reassure a worried Lizzy the following day that she was well and that her reaction to the events of the day before had passed off easily. However, Kitty felt it all most grievously. Not only had she to contend with the vivid understanding of her friend’s terror during the attack that she had described, but she also had to face the horror of imagining all that her own sister might be facing in her life with Mr Wickham. In the following days, it was a more lively Georgiana and a more reserved and thoughtful Kitty that graced the halls of Pemberley.
The atmosphere in the house itself also seemed to feel lighter, mirroring Georgiana’s mood. It was as though a great burden had lifted from its residents with the delivery of a baby girl to young Sarah, and the decision made by the men (and women) of the household to assist her and her brother, rather than handing the unfortunate young man over to the magistrate. Work was found on the estate for both parties, and Georgiana took joy in playing with the new baby while marveling at the quick recovery that the new mother had made after the birth.
“But the pain must have been terrible,” she whispered to Kitty one morning, “is it so easy for her to put that instantly from her mind and take such joy in the cause of it?”
Kitty frowned, thoughtfully, “I honestly do not know Georgie. We both heard how the birth…affected her. None in the house in those hours could have avoided hearing it. And it went on so long,” she shuddered, vigorously, “but I overhead Lizzy telling Jane once that the pain is all forgotten when the baby is placed in your arms. I cannot imagine how that can be, but Lizzy is not one to romanticise such things usually.”
“Perhaps it is true then,” Georgiana said, after a moment’s thought, “but I cannot believe that I would ever be able to stand such an ordeal…even for the reward of a lovely bundle like baby Elizabeth or dear nephew Henry.”
Kitty looked at her friend, earnestly, “You are stronger than you know, Georgie, our conversation some nights ago proved that…”
Georgiana smiled, sadly, “And I think that that conversation has harmed you more than it has helped me, dearest Kitty. I have seen how keenly you have felt it, and I am so sorry to have burdened you. It is just that you are always so strong, I presumed too much by shifting my woes onto you – especially in view of your own connection to parties involved.”
“Nonsense, Georgie. I will own that my spirits have been low since then…how could I be as jolly as ever when I know what you have been through? I have had much to consider. Other concerns have arisen which I will confide in time, but not yet dear friend. For the moment we will concentrate on you, and Sarah, and her lovely baby. Let us enjoy the peace of these last summer days. It will be especially welcome as I have heard this morning that we are to suffer the dubious pleasure of a visit from half of Meryton in the next few days!”
Georgiana looked alarmed, and Kitty laughingly reassured her that it was not quite half of her home village who could be expected, but merely the Bennets and Lucases who were to come en masse to inspect the progress of their respective daughters’ increases.
“Oh dear,” Georgiana said with a wry, shy smile, “I fear that my brother may have to go into hiding. He always tries so very hard when your mother arrives. But he seems to develop a whole manner of nervous ticks and twitches that I never usually see him exhibit whenever she is here for more than a few days.”
She stumbled here, evidently remembered to whom she was speaking, and then concluded hurriedly, “Your mother is a dear woman, of course Kitty, but I think that he finds any extended visits…rather trying…”
Kitty laughed, delightedly at her friend’s attempts at diplomacy, “Georgie, you are kind, but my mother could put battalions of experienced fighting men to rout. Your dear brother should feel no shame at taking evasive action before she arrives. Perhaps he has urgent estate business to attend to…on the other side of the estate? For a few weeks?”
Georgiana nodded, sagely, “I think he actually has some holdings in a neighbouring county that may need attending to.”
Kitty pulled her to her feet, and the two headed out towards the gardens, arm in arm,
“That is an admirable plan, Georgie, we shall suggest it to him forthwith. But in all seriousness, one good that will come of the visit is that Maria Lucas is to come with her parents. It will be good to see her again, and you will enjoy her company too, I am sure. We see so little of Alice, with her being swept up with her Mr Ramsay. You must get tired of listening to my nonsense, and Maria will make an excellent third for our fun. I look forward to introducing you to her properly.”
The Lucases arrived some days before the Bennets, but once they were all in situ Pemberley felt much smaller than previously. Granted, Charlotte entertained her own family at the neighbouring property which she inhabited, but the Darcy residence was often the central assembly point for all parties of an evening. This made for a somewhat vexed Mr Darcy, a Mrs Darcy who was rather exhausted by the effort of censoring her mother and her sister, Mary, and a bewildered Georgiana who had never before been in residence with Mrs Bennet for any lengthy period.
“Your mother does certainly keep up her part of the conversation,” Georgiana said to Kitty one evening.
“Yes, Georgie, she does,” sighed Kitty, “and I believe that she likely says enough to keep up your part and my part too. This does at least mean that we do not have to attend greatly to what is being said, as any other participation in said conversation seems to be unnecessary to her.
“I shudder to think how I might have turned out, had I stayed at home. You knew me not well then, Georgie, but encouraged by Mama, I was as silly a creature as any that have walked this earth, with the possible exception of Lydia who seems to grow sillier by the week.”
“Have you heard from Lydia recently, then?” asked Georgiana, “Is she in health at least, after her last disappointment?”
“Oh, no…I had some news of her recently, but she likes not to write.” Kitty shrugged, sadly,
“I think that the loss of the latest baby has affected her more than she would probably admit, but in all honesty what could they offer a child at this time? They move constantly in search of more affordable lodgings: they cannot come to Pemberley; Mr Bingley can tolerate them only seldom; and Lydia is still such a child herself that motherhood seems an outlandish situation for her to be in. It sounds awful of me, I know, but Lydia’s situation would surely not be improved by a child any time soon.”
Georgiana shook her head, “It is not awful, Kitty. Your consideration of your sister does you credit, and it is probably better than the consideration that she takes of herself. But you cannot live her life for her or save her from her own follies.”
“Perhaps…” Kitty’s thoughts trailed away, and she made an effort to change the topic.
“But Maria is fun, is she not? With Alice now formally engaged, us old maids must stick together and keep each other company on the shelf. Granted, Maria is younger and possibly not to be considered quite beyond marriageable ambitions yet, but she makes a fine companion in the meantime, does she not?”
Georgiana laughed at her, “Kitty, you and I are not even twenty yet, I think there is still plenty of time to think about all of that in the years to come, is there not?”
Kitty viewed her friend seriously,
“It is all I ever used to think of when I was a foolish young thing. But now I am not so sure. And time is running away from me. Mother and Lizzy raised the prospect of a London season with me again last night. You are, of course, to be the main attraction when we go to town, but it seems that Maria and I are also to be permitted a chance to exhibit ourselves.
“You might be allowed to take your time and enjoy (if that is the correct word) a few seasons, Georgie, but this will no doubt be my only one. And I will be expected to come back with some sort of match arranged. Honestly Georgie, I dread it. Not the parties or the dancing (which I know you think you will hate). I am still just about vain and silly enough to enjoy them. But having to choose a life partner based on an acquaintance built over a few meetings in busy ballrooms? I cannot think that this is a sensible way to choose a husband. If indeed any would offer for me.
“My youngest sister married for what she imagined was love, to a man whose mind and character she imagined she knew, and look what life she has created? A miserable existence where debtors chase them around the country and her husband is away from home so frequently that it is the usual state of affairs? This could not be my life. I could not bear it.”
Georgiana said, softly, “No one would force you to wed against your will, Kitty. And you know that you will always have a home wherever I am, whatever may happen.”
Kitty shook her head, “I deserve you not Georgie. That my former wild behaviour should be rewarded by the devoted friendship of one like you seems all wrong. But I am not gallant enough to eschew your affection,” she brushed an escaped curl of hair back behind her friend’s ear gently, “I am more grateful than I can ever say for your friendship Georgie. It means the world to me. You mean the world to me.”
Her eyes held Georgiana’s and she seemed ready to say more, but at that moment a door banged in the distance and the moment was broken. The room was swiftly invaded by two small Lucas boys and an embarrassed pink glow threatened to overwhelm Kitty’s normally unblushing complexion. She turned away and changed the topic of conversation to more neutral matters.
In the days that followed, Georgiana came to appreciate Maria Lucas’s gentle quiet good sense and good humour, especially as it seemed that Kitty was inexplicably trying to avoid her. Kitty was as pleasant and fun as ever whenever they found themselves in company together, and she still regularly made a three with Georgiana and Maria, or sometimes a four when Alice was persuaded to leave her affianced for a time, but Georgiana knew that something was wrong. Kitty was absent from the house for long spells during the day, setting off early on lengthy walks for which she did not seem to require any companionship. Georgiana was aware that something had changed since Kitty’s last confession about her own fears for a happy, married, future, but she was not certain how this had changed their relationship or why. In confusion and some desperation, she decided that she would surprise Kitty on one of her regular walks, and find a way to set their relationship to rights again.
Thus the next clear morning found Georgiana determined to catch up with her friend as she made her way across the grounds of Pemberley. However, Georgiana had not quite accounted for the differences in their constitutions, and soon found that any hopes of making inroads into Kitty’s head start were to be in vain. Undeterred, she followed at a leisurely pace, keeping her friend in sight as she made her way steadily towards Lambton. As she entered the village, Georgiana lost sight of her quarry for a moment or two and found, upon turning a corner, that she was nowhere in sight.
She stopped and took stock of her options. Nearby was the inn, which was indeed open as usual, but into which she could not think that Kitty would have ventured alone. There was also a very small general store which sold all manner of sundry goods and which she knew Kitty favoured, but it was closed. She knew that Kitty was scarcely well enough acquainted with any in Lambton to be making a call, and it was over early in the day for such society anyway. She was mystified, and could only surmise that Kitty had somehow passed through the street and back out into the fields whilst out of Georgiana’s sight.
Sighing in her defeat, Georgiana turned to retrace her steps and was passing the last building at the edge of the village when she thought she heard something. She stopped again, and the sound came clearer this time. Someone was crying piteously within the ramshackle structure. She bowed her head and made to move on, unwilling to disturb the privacy that the sad individual had obviously sought, when she made out some fragments of conversation along with the muffled wails of the afflicted person. There were at least two people in the hut. Two women. And Georgiana was certain that one of them was Kitty. The thought of her friend in possible distress was enough to send her caution to the winds and she pushed back the door, striding into the dim interior ready to confront her friend’s tormentor.
Within, she was met by the wholly unexpected sight of a clearly exasperated Kitty Bennet standing over the pitiful figure of a young woman who was weeping extravagantly at her feet. Georgiana recognised the second individual immediately, despite having only met her once before. The young woman was undoubtedly one of the last people she would have expected to see within ten miles of Pemberley. It was Mrs Lydia Wickham.
It took Kitty some precious seconds to disentangle herself from her younger sister’s grip on her skirts, by which time a shocked Georgiana had quitted the building.
“Stop, Georgie, please!” Kitty cried as she caught up to her, taking her friend’s arm to try to spin her towards her. “You must let me explain, please dearest.”
Georgiana made to pull away, but recognised the futility of the attempt, and the spectacle that she would present were she to engage in a tussle with Kitty in the street. Sighing, she allowed herself to be drawn under the welcoming shelter of the large oak tree on the green, and schooled her expression to disguise her shock. Attempting a degree of levity that she did not feel she leapt in to start the conversation,
“What a surprise Kitty. I do not know where I thought you were going every day, but I did not expect the result that I uncovered. We seem to be only one person shy of a full house of Bennet sisters now! Pray, when may we expect Jane to arrive to complete the hand?”
Kitty frowned, more worried by this uncharacteristic and brittle sharpness than she had been by Lydia’s tears and tantrums. She took in the tight lines around Georgiana’s mouth and the way that her hands were clenching and unclenching rhythmically by her sides and ventured to address the main issue as she saw it.
“He is not here Georgie.”
Georgiana’s composure slipped along with her posture and she closed her eyes, finding herself in need of the support of the tree at her back.
“He does not know that Lydia is here. No one does. And I have been trying to keep it thus, although Lydia herself is scarcely helping matters by refusing to stay indoors and creating scenes like the one you just witnessed.”
Kitty watched as some of the colour returned to her friend’s face and began to breathe more easily herself as she recognised the signs of panic passing from Georgiana’s countenance. She continued, hoping that more information would distract her further,
“She has been in Lambton for some weeks Georgie. She has left him. His behaviour finally became too much even for Lydia to forgive. She has not been well treated, and she is additionally in some fear of debtors pursuing her as he seems to have gone to ground leaving her to face his creditors.”
Georgiana looked horrified, and Kitty began to wonder if she had made a mistake in sharing so much. She was committed now though, so stumbled on hurriedly,
“The first I knew of it all was when she wrote me from the inn here asking for help. Then she started sneaking around at Pemberley trying to get my attention. The gardeners saw her that day, remember, you heard them talking about her? I have given her what money I can to see her able to take room and board, but we have run through my allowance now, and she will have to go somewhere else. That is the reason for the current round of hysterics that you just witnessed.”
Georgiana opened her eyes and Kitty was relieved to see that her composure was restored.
“She is in need of money?” Georgiana asked. “But that is simple. I have more pin money each month that I can possibly spend. Lizzy is always telling me abandon my prudent ways and to be more extravagant as suits a lady of my position, but I can never think of what to buy. If you do not think that it would harm Lydia’s pride to take it from me, then I can easily make her financial situation more manageable.”
Kitty looked at her, astounded,
“No Georgie, it would not hurt Lydia’s pride, but it would make my blood boil. We can scarcely be more indebted to your family than we already are. Your brother thinks that none of us know who really paid that man off when he first took up with poor Lydia, but we all know that it was Mr Darcy. I could never sanction you throwing any more money in the direction of that couple, even were it for Lydia rather than him. I forbid you to think of it Georgie!”
“Oh Kitty, do be careful,” Georgiana rejoined with spirit, “I have enough of the Darcy pride to rail against being forbidden to do that which I have set my mind upon.”
Kitty made to further protest, but Georgiana stood firm, “No, Miss Catherine Bennet, you will let me have my way in this matter. We will go back and speak with Lydia forthwith and this can all be arranged with ease,” she softened her tone slightly and took Kitty gently by the shoulders, giving her a gentle shake, “let me do this Kitty, please. Allow me to right the wrong that I did by not telling the world what that man really is. Let me save your sister. Please.”
Kitty’s eyes filled with tears which she blinked away quickly, amazed at how her and Georgiana’s roles were becoming increasingly intermingled and reversed these days.
“I do not quite know where this determined, forceful, and sometimes quite terrifying new Georgiana Darcy came from,” Kitty said, once she had swallowed back her hot tears, “but I do not imagine that I would be able to stand in her way about anything.”
Georgiana leaned forward impulsively and kissed her quickly on the cheek, saying, “You, Kitty, are probably the only one to whom I might give way on such matters, but I am glad that on this occasion we do not have to test the supposition.”
She smiled gaily and turned away, snatching up Kitty’s hand as she pulled her back towards where a still snuffling Lydia Wickham could be heard bemoaning her fate. She did not see the flush that crept up Kitty’s neck and covered her face, or pay heed to the way that her friend’s hand shook in her grasp. Kitty, for once, was silenced.
The plan to extricate Lydia Wickham from her current situation was not laid with the firmest foundations of good sense or logic, but was well intentioned and genuine in the aims of its authors. It had three major flaws. The first was that Georgiana and Kitty had failed to allow for the recipient’s sense of being entitled to any assistance offered as a right rather than a privilege. This led to much mortification on Kitty’s part as Lydia’s demands became ever more excessive. The second, and more serious issue, was the lack of any real strategy on their part to deal with the matter in anything other than the short term. This was linked to the third problem, which was that Kitty was determined to ‘handle’ her sister without recourse to the rest of her family, especially not her heavily pregnant elder sister Lizzy, or her very foolish mother whose influence would do no good in the current situation. This was made more trying by Lydia’s repeatedly mentioning her intention of eventually going to live with Jane or Lizzy when the immediate fuss over her abandoning her husband had died down. Kitty’s attempts to show how this was not possible did not meet with a favourable response.
“Well, perhaps you may be right. Although propriety seems to me to be all on the man’s side in cases like these,” opined a sulky Lydia, “but anyway, Mama would be delighted to have me back at home, so I will go there even if my sisters are too grand to take pity upon me.”
Kitty despaired quietly, but her attempts to convince Lydia that she would be better aiming to set up home quietly under the false name that she had adopted in Lambton initially failed. Lydia was keen to cast off the persona of the heavily veiled and widowed ‘Mrs Williams’ that she had concocted and to return to being the bright young Lydia Bennet that had left Meryton just two years previously. Kitty and Georgiana’s repeated warnings that such an ambition was not realistic were ignored. Indeed it was only the threat of the removal of Georgiana’s monetary assistance that eventually exacted a promise from Lydia that she would take a modest monthly allowance and settle quietly somewhere for half a year until they saw how the situation was developing, and most importantly, whether her husband would pursue her.
Lydia was petulant, Kitty was ashamed, and Georgiana was largely confused by the lack of awareness exhibited by Lydia of the social realities that she faced as a woman living apart from her husband.
“Does not she understand, Kitty, that she is not as she was before? Does not it occur to her that she cannot act as a widow or a maiden whilst she has a husband living. Does not she see that my brother or Mr Bingley or even Mr Bennet could not openly entertain her in their houses, however much they may pity her circumstances?”
Kitty had attempted in the past to explain and justify Lydia to various people, but her own maturity had removed much of the sympathy and all of the admiration that she had previously felt for her sister. Her only answer to Georgiana’s questions could be ‘No, dearest, she simply does not.”
Despite the myriad objections and last minute obstacles that Lydia threw up in their way, Kitty and Georgiana eventually managed to extricate their troublesome charge from the neighbourhood and send her on to be established quietly in a neighbouring county – all without any of the principal occupants of Pemberley ever having seen her. Both young women breathed a sigh of relief when they were finally watching the mail coach bearing Lydia Wickham leave Lambton, believing that this would herald the beginning of more peaceful times. And, for a time, they were right.
Two months of glorious quiet followed. For eight weeks Georgiana, Kitty and Maria Lucas enjoyed the turning of summer to autumn as they helped Alice Peterson prepare for her winter wedding to her young Mr Ramsay. Georgiana’s confidence continued to grow, which occasionally alarmed her brother, but which continually delighted her sister-by-law and her closest friends. Mrs Reynolds, the faithful housekeeper at Pemberley, forgot herself so much on one occasion that she impulsively hugged Kitty after witnessing a particularly fine piece of wit that Georgiana directed at her brother, saying proudly, “I know not what you Bennet ladies did to make our girl shine, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart for doing it.” Kitty was uncertain who was more surprised or embarrassed by this spontaneous and unorthodox breaking of the usual boundaries, but she was so touched by the sentiment that she had returned the embrace with glee.
Pemberley became a happier place, and was brightened by the addition of a delightful daughter to Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy, and twin babies to Charlotte Collins. Georgiana’s joy was made complete when her cousin and guardian, Colonel Fitzwilliam, returned to take the property which neighboured Pemberley and made his match with Charlotte. The dark cloud of Georgiana’s ‘season’ still sat on the horizon. However, it was lightened somewhat by the knowledge that she would be accompanied not just by Lady Russell, an esteemed and kindly former friend of her mother’s who was to sponsor and chaperone her in town, but more importantly that she would have Maria and Kitty with her. Georgiana still occupied some of her leisure hours with inventing elaborate schemes which would see her excused from the need to ever go to London, but she accepted that she could now probably bear it, if it had to be done. All things considered, Christmas of that year was one of the happiest that Georgiana had ever known. By the turn of the year, however, matters were beginning to come to a head.
It all started with a letter. It was a letter from Lydia, who had foolishly sent it addressed to ‘Miss Darcy’ but written in such a wretched hand that it had been mistakenly given to Mrs Darcy to open. Its contents were sufficient (being as they comprised a demand for an increased allowance and a catalogue of her woes) to expose Kitty and Georgiana’s scheme and to bring the disapproval of the head of the household upon them both.
“I cannot begin to imagine why you would take this upon yourself, Georgiana,” her outraged brother proclaimed. “To secretly scheme in this manner with a woman whose actions have been and continue to be beyond the realms of taste and dignity. I am disappointed, Georgiana, disappointed and grieved that you would not come to me or even to Elizabeth.”
Georgiana felt the weight of her brother’s displeasure keenly, but it was perhaps Lizzy’s sad comment that, “I fear that your actions, while well intended, have only served to make matters for Lydia much worse, dear sisters” that truly affected her. Kitty tried to rationalise their actions and justify their scheme, but Lizzy easily overrode her arguments, citing the damage that Lydia had done to her cause by essentially abandoning her marriage.
“There are ways and means to manage such things Kitty, Georgiana. A wife may in extreme circumstances live apart from her husband. There are things that can be done to make the arrangement practical, to make the parties involved accept it, and to make it appear not unnatural to those who may enquire. But running away and hiding for months, whilst being aided and abetted by family members, is not the way to do it. Her reputation was saved once before. I do not know if we may be able to do so again.”
Lizzy tried to console them that what was done was done, and that all that could now be done would now be done to mend matters, but it was clear that she was not confident of success. Kitty overheard her telling Charlotte that she thought that the best they could hope for would be that Wickham would accept another ‘substantial bribe’ and that Lydia’s actions might be somehow covered up by some elaborate story…no doubt involving more expense. It was a much subdued Kitty and Georgiana who later reviewed their actions in the light of their experience and who vowed never to interfere in such matters again.
“Poor, poor Lydia, though,” Georgiana said, “do you think that they will have to live together again?”
Kitty shook her head,
“I do not think that your brother and my sister would expect that. Not if Lydia has been truthful about his treatment of her – and we have our own reasons to believe her accounts of him. It seems more likely that they would buy him another commission, perhaps to serve overseas, and then there is an excuse for them to live apart. None would think twice if Lydia refused to become a camp follower without the home comforts that an English based battalion can provide – it would be a believable separation.”
“Do you think he would agree though?” asked Georgiana, “Surely there is danger involved in serving overseas. Might he refuse to go?”
Kitty thought for a moment before replying,
“I think that the level of danger depends on the rank and the bravery of the individual officer. Your Colonel Fitzwilliam was no doubt often in the midst of the action in his engagements, but I am sure that many other Colonels and Majors are not so ready to stand in front of, or alongside, their men. I imagine that someone like Mr Wickham would think that the risks were manageable when compared to the rewards.
“Besides Georgie, with Bonaparte gone to Elba we do not seem to have so many wars to send him to at the moment. Perhaps he will go to America and get captured by the natives. That would be a blessing for us all!”
Georgiana tutted at her friend’s irreverent candour, but they both knew that her own wishes for Mr Wickham were not much more charitable. However, as it would turn out, both ladies were wishing him a fate more forgiving than that which was about to befall him.
“Mrs Wick…Williams to see Mrs Darcy”, announced the veiled woman at Pemberley’s door. “Or to see Miss Bennet, or Miss Darcy…or anyone really. Not Mr Darcy though…not unless there is no one else.”
The somewhat baffled young footman took in the expensive shoes and the fashionable, if somewhat daring, mourning apparel and was unable to decide exactly where in Mrs Darcy’s acquaintance this particular individual might fit. However, it was raining and the hired horse and trap that had brought her hence was already disappearing from view, so he bowed politely and bade her to wait in the smallest of the day rooms. He had considered asking her to wait in the hallway, but erred on the side of caution; sometimes the quality did dress in an outlandish manner, and it was safest not to offer a snub when one was uncertain of the status of a visitor. The small sitting room to the side of the house was a useful location to leave those guests who were difficult to classify.
The lady seemed unaware of her surroundings anyway, as it turned out, and before the servant could bid her to make herself comfortable, she had already pulled off her heavy veil and dropped it to the floor, collapsing inelegantly into the largest of the available chairs saying, “Lord, I am so parched. I will take tea here I think, while I wait for Lizzy. And food, I mind not what. Cake would be acceptable.”
Taken aback, her temporary host muttered something indistinct about fetching Mrs Darcy and withdrew, trying to work out from where he recognised this Mrs Williams.
Mrs Darcy was fetched from the nursery and her countenance when she passed the young footman on her way to interview her visitor did not exhibit her usual happy cheer. From his customary station in the hallway he was also excellently placed to hear much of what was being said behind the door which she closed firmly behind her. He was an excellent servant, however, and all he would say later to others in the kitchen was that any cross words that he may have overheard had been indistinct and that Mrs Darcy would appear to have arranged everything regarding their unexpected visitor with her usual efficiency. To her husband Mrs Darcy would later give a more candid report,
“I could not believe my eyes! There she was, reclining on our chaise, unveiled, unrepentant, and obviously completely unaware or uncaring of the impropriety of turning up on our doorstep! I keep telling myself that there is nothing further that my family can do to shock me, but they seem to delight in proving me wrong every time. I do not know what to do with her or where to put her. She keeps talking of taking our coach and going to Longbourn, and my mother would doubtless be foolish enough to welcome her home and flaunt her around the neighbourhood. I despair. I really do. What say you to the idea of our moving to the new world and telling none of my family?”
“An efficient, if perhaps impractical solution, Elizabeth,” he replied and opened his arms to envelop her. “You know that whatever either of our families may deliver up to us we will always face it together, my love, and this is no exception.”
She sighed heavily, and leaned into him briefly, gathering some strength before straightening and pulling back, fixing him with a determined gaze. “Yes, you are right, of course we will. Now, I think there are a number of things to organise, but I suppose the first would be the question of where we are to put her to keep her out of mischief and away from everyone who might matter.”
Mr Darcy had scarce begun to outline his thoughts on the matter when a rap at the door announced the hurried entrance of a visibly flustered Mr Peterson, who had recently returned from overseeing some business as factor on the far side of the Darcy estates. He was made even more uncomfortable by his evident interruption of the couple’s tête-à-tête, but they could both see his underlying disquiet and quickly reassured him that the haste of his arrival was excusable in view of the obvious seriousness of his news. He was quick to assure them that this was indeed the case,
“I do not wish to upset you, Mrs Darcy, but I would wager that this news cannot be kept from anyone for long. The fact is that I have today had word that one we hoped not to see here again has taken up residence in Lambton. Mr Wickham has apparently taken lodgings in the village. But what is worse is he is spreading word, to any who will listen, that his wife, having been turned against him and having stolen his money, has been hidden away from him by her sister and brother-by-law…that is by you Mr and Mrs Darcy!”
“How much did you take, Lydia?” Jane asked, gently but firmly. No reply was immediately forthcoming, so Kitty, who was seated immediately to the left of her younger sister at this family conference, reached over and shook her by the shoulders. “This is important Lydia, you little fool, answer Jane now and tell her the truth.” Lydia, who had veered between sulky sullenness and tearful tantrums throughout the length of this conference now turned on her sisters with real venom in her voice.
“Oh it is all so very easy and pleasant for you, is it not? Sitting here in your grand house with your grand husbands. Looking down at me. ‘Poor, stupid Lydia’, is that not what you would call me Lizzy? And you, Kitty, you who were my greatest friend, even you have no sympathy for me now when I need it the most.”
Her voice broke and the male members of the group averted their eyes as the tears began to fall again,
“Why is it always me who is in the wrong? Why does no one ever take my side? I have been much maligned and sore wronged, and still I am treated like a criminal. It was my money anyway. Lizzy and Jane and mama sent it for me. He had no right to spend any of it. I want my mother!”
At this last plaintive cry, Lydia’s composure disintegrated altogether and the majority of the occupants of the room looked to each other in some discomfort. A silent agreement was made to leave the scene and to leave Lydia to cry out her frustrations in peace while a plan was made.
“How much could it have been, do you think?” Jane asked the party in general.
“I have sent her a considerable amount over the years,” Lizzy replied, blatantly avoiding her husband’s eyes, “and I know that mama sends her money every month. You have helped her regularly too I am sure, Jane?”
“Yes, but I assumed that they always spent the money as soon as they received it” Jane replied in confusion, “I do not understand them having a significant enough sum on hand for Lydia to be able to make off with anything that would trouble him.”
Kitty coughed and looked at the floor, she knew that she had to speak, but she did not know which words were going to cause least upset. Finally, she realised that there were no words that would minimise the shock, and so she looked up and addressed the room, “I think that I can explain.”
Her audience listened in surprise and then horror as Kitty outlined what she and Georgiana had gleaned from Lydia about how her finances had been obtained. Even attempting to edit the tale to shield the worst of Lydia’s follies, Kitty was unable to do much to minimise the shameful facts that Lydia had borrowed considerable sums by forging her husband’s signature on various occasions, and that she had also borrowed in similar fashion on notes of promise that had purported to have come from the Darcy and Bingley households. Kitty knew not the total sum, and she confessed that she thought it unlikely that Lydia knew either, but she did know that when Lydia had left her husband, she had also left his name in the debt books of a number of unsavoury characters, and she had implicated her sisters’ spouses in her deceits too.
Kitty’s rendition of Lydia’s crimes finally ceased and she felt drained. She was glad to sit down beside Georgiana, who had appeared at her side and taken her hand halfway through her tale. Now she took some comfort from her friend’s whispered “you had to tell them, it is the only way to truly help Lydia now,” but she still felt that she had betrayed her closest childhood friend and confidante.
Lizzy and Jane’s gazes met and they felt equal pain for each other in the mortification that this would cause to their respective husbands who, to their credit, were both striving to appear unruffled. Mr Darcy collected himself first and, seeing Alice Peterson and Maria Lucas walking the gardens, encouraged Kitty and Georgiana to go outside and take some air with their friends, and to try to put Lydia’s troubles from their minds. Kitty made to protest that she should not be excluded from the discussion of her sister’s future, but Georgiana gently pulled her towards the door saying, “you have done your part now Kitty, my brother and your sisters will speak more frankly and plan more easily without us as an audience.” Reluctantly, she was persuaded from the room and the remaining four occupants turned their minds to solving the ever increasing problems that seemed to follow in Lydia’s wake. It was a long and sombre interview.
Lydia was informed that her stay at Pemberley was to be of an extremely short duration. Plans were being put in place to see her securely installed once more in a household in a neighbouring county, and this time her adherence to the plan would be assured by a ‘companion’ whose good sense and strength of will was without doubt. Mrs Reynolds, the long established power behind the domestic success of Pemberley, was not anxious to leave its halls, but was more than willing to do something unpalatable to herself in order to better serve the Darcys. As such she had volunteered willingly to accompany Lydia back into ‘exile’ while Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley took on the unpleasant role of negotiating with Mr Wickham and his creditors. It was lost on nobody but Lydia that this role was becoming a regular one for Mr Darcy.
Still Lydia sulked impressively and generally made Kitty’s life miserable. Georgiana watched worriedly as Kitty attempted to build bridges with a sister whose fears and disappointments had, Georgiana feared, turned her from a mischievous and silly girl into a vengeful and calculating young woman. At every opportunity, Lydia would poke and prod at any weakness in others – an unattractive habit from which she seemed unable to refrain. Her first victim had been Maria Lucas who, although of an age with Lydia, had none of her energy or confidence. Maria’s excitement at her forthcoming trip to London was continually being undermined by Lydia who never missed an opportunity to speak of how the London gentlemen wanted to mix with women of spirit and wit, not dull and dutiful little wallflowers. Georgiana found Maria in tears several times over the coming days and found herself counting the hours until Lydia’s departure with some fervour.
Lydia also managed to sew discontent in the happiness of Alice Peterson. Having befriended an unknowing Mr Ramsay on his first visit to Pemberley after his arrival, Lydia lost no time in hinting that his affianced was perhaps not so happy in her choice of partner that she had forsaken all other men. She even had the temerity to hint that she had seen Alice talking with her own ‘poor weak husband, who was so often led astray by the guiles of a pretty girl.’ Lizzy happened to overhear this particular conversation and came as close to boxing her sister’s ears as she had ever done in the past. Explanations and apologies to Mr Ramsay seemed to smooth over the situation, but it all left a very nasty taste in the mouths of everyone concerned.
Kitty was badly shaken by Lydia’s actions, and spent much time reflecting on what her own behaviour had been in the past. Georgiana fretted as conversations with her friend invariably seemed to lead back to a preoccupation with her supposed former sins and faults of character. Eventually Georgiana asked Lizzy to step in and speak to Kitty. Lizzy thought seriously about how to address the issue, but eventually decided that honesty was the only policy in this case.
“Catherine Bennet,” she declared in a tone that could not but indicate that anything other than Kitty’s absolute attention was required,
“when we were growing up you were, for about 4 or 5 years, a very silly, unthinking, frivolous, easily led, and quite frankly embarrassing girl. But you were never malicious, selfish, or a liar. The one who is causing all of this trouble was always all of those things under the surface of her charm, and now that she has learned that her more attractive qualities are not having the results that she desires, she is letting those aspects of her character take the fore. You have never had those characteristics, and I do not believe that you ever could.”
Kitty felt tears pricking behind her eyes and she let one fall when Lizzy leant over and hugged her closely, saying, “I am proud to call you my little sister now Kitty. You are a credit to yourself, your friends, and your family, and you are much loved and respected. Well done on becoming you.”
Peeking at the pair from behind the door, Georgiana had felt close to tears too, and had left the sisters to their conversation. The conversation prompted her to study the aspects of her own character that perhaps needed some improvement or alteration, and she shook herself visibly as she came to some obvious decision in her mind. Leaving the house, she cut across the lawns and took one of the paths towards Lambton, pausing every so often to read over a crushed and torn note that she drew periodically from her pocket. At some points she stopped and turned back towards Pemberley, but each time she managed only a few steps before her resolve returned and she resumed her original course. Anyone watching her would have seen her various thoughts flashing across her face as her mood swung from fearful to determined and back again many times. Finally she reached Lambton and her mind was made up. She would confront her fears.
The Darcys and Kitty were almost frantic by the time they found Georgiana. She had been last seen at breakfast, and then had missed lunch and tea. Enquiries in the village and with neighbours had yielded no results. Dinner was about to be served and it was cold and dark by the time Kitty spied her from the drawing room window. Calling to Lizzy to get word to the men searching the estate, Kitty raced towards her, calling to her as she drew nearer,
“Georgie, good God, where have you been? Why did you go off like that without a word? We have had men scouring the estate. Your brother is demented…” Kitty’s admonishments tailed off as her eyes adjusted to the dim evening light and she made out more of Georgiana’s appearance. She stopped a half dozen paces from her friend and put out her hands towards her, saying gently, as if speaking to a startled animal, “Dearest, what is that all over your dress? Where did it come from?”
Georgiana looked down at her skirts as if seeing the red stains for the first time. She looked up at Kitty and said quite lucidly,
“It was just like when Lizzy was holding that nice boy Samuel, when he was hurt that day. There was so much blood Kitty. I didn’t know that people had so much blood. But it will be alright now. He has gone and he cannot hurt anyone anymore. I just wish there wasn’t so much blood. Lizzy will be angry. This is my new dress and it is ruined.”
Kitty had hold of both of Georgiana’s shoulders now and gave her a gentle shake, “Who is gone, Georgie? What has happened?”
Georgiana fixed her with a firm gaze and said clearly, “Why Mr Wickham, of course. He is quite dead so you need not send for help, although someone should really clean up the mess.” At which her eyes seemed to roll backwards and her legs gave way beneath her and Kitty found herself left holding her friend’s limp body and screaming for help as the blood transferred itself from Georgiana’s skirts to her own.
Mr Darcy reached them first. Taking in the scene at a glance, he swept up Georgiana in his arms and made for the house, calling first for the servants to fetch the physician before turning to ask over his shoulder, “what happened to her?”
“Mr Wickham…she must have gone to Mr Wickham…she said he is dead…” Kitty followed him, barely managing to gasp out the words; still not actually having processed their meaning. Other figures approached the group and Darcy swept past them issuing orders as he went,
“Peterson, Fitzwilliam, Mr Wickham was staying at the Inn at Lambton, in one of the back rooms. I suggest you go there with all haste. We can judge whether to call in the parish constable once you have assessed matters there. Alice, Maria, attend to Catherine, she has had a shock. Elizabeth, please, help me with Georgiana.”
This last was unnecessary as Lizzy was already at his side, holding Georgiana’s hand and speaking gently to her as they rushed towards the house. She looked back to see that Kitty was in safe hands, and paused briefly to give instructions upon passing Mrs Reynolds, before hurrying again after her husband.
Kitty was leaning heavily on Alice, while Maria stumbled along beside them weeping quietly. “Is she hurt Kitty?” Alice whispered, “I saw the blood…there is blood on you too now.”
Kitty looked down and grimaced, feeling ill at the sight of it and at the knowledge of what it meant. “It is not her blood Allie, but I do not know what has happened…or what it might mean for Georgie and the rest of us.” She gnawed her lip, worriedly, and glanced at Maria, who seemed too lost in her own upset to be attending to their words. “She said that Wickham was dead, Allie. And the blood suggests that it was not a gentle death. I am afraid…afraid for Georgie and for all of us. What can possibly have happened to him…and to Georgie?” Alice tried to soothe her, and gently steered them towards the house. “Come inside Kitty. Maria, open the doors and we will go into the music room, it will be quiet there. We can rest there for a moment.”
Maria composed herself sufficiently to be useful and guided them into the room, making a comfortable seat for Kitty on the chaise, and dropping a blanket over her shoulders. It was indeed quiet and calm there, and Kitty’s heart had begun to return to close to its normal tempo when the peace was shattered by a piercing scream from somewhere within the house. As the initial sound tailed off, it was followed by piteous sobs and incoherent shouts which grew in volume by the second as the one emitting them became more obviously agitated. Kitty leapt to her feet again and made for the door at a run, saying, “Good God, it’s Lydia! Someone must have told Lydia!”
Lydia’s hysterics were lengthy and exhausting, and by the time Kitty had managed to quiet her and put her to bed, Lizzy had returned to report that Georgiana had been seen by the doctor and had been given something to help her sleep. “She should not be alone though, Kitty. I have left Alice with her for now, but I will stay with her tonight in case she should awaken afraid.”
“That will not be necessary Lizzy,” Kitty replied, “I have no plans to leave Georgie alone for more than a moment until this is all resolved. I will stay with her tonight and every night until she feels safe to sleep alone.”
Lizzy shook her head sadly at Kitty, “Oh dearest sister. I want more than anything to say that this will all soon be resolved, but I fear that something truly terrible has happened and I do not know how we are to mend it.”
Kitty looked at her in horror as she gleaned her meaning. “Did Georgie say anything more? All I know is that Mr Wickham is dead. Has she told you what happened? Lizzy, for God’s sake! It cannot be possible that Georgie had any part in this?”
Lizzy took Kitty’s hands and squeezed them firmly. “No, Kitty, I have heard nothing further from Georgiana, and of course I do not think that she can have intentionally harmed anyone.” She sighed deeply,
“But I will not lie to you Kitty, nor attempt to shield you from the possibilities here. We do not yet know anything of what has happened. All we know is that Georgiana seems to have been absent all day, that she reports that Mr Wickham is dead, and that she is covered in what is presumably his blood. These facts tell us little, but suggest much.”
Kitty jumped up angrily, pulling away from Lizzy’s grasp. “I refuse to listen to what such facts may ‘suggest’ to you! It is Georgie who is the victim here. If you only knew what she had already suffered at that beast’s hands…” she stopped, abruptly, realising what she had said in her agitation.
“What exactly is it that we do not know, Catherine?” Mr Darcy’s voice came from the doorway and Kitty and Lizzy both started with varying degrees of surprise and alarm. He was standing half in the shadows and his voice was calm but his demeanour left little doubt that he expected a full and frank answer. Kitty cast around wildly for a way to cover her mistake, but could find no quick explanation and ruefully recognised that Lizzy had been correct earlier when she had said that Kitty was no natural liar. Reluctantly and haltingly she related the tale of Mr Wickham’s words and actions during the short-lived and ill-fated elopement.
Lizzy’s face was pale and her fists were curled into balls on her lap by the time that Kitty had finished. She looked to her husband, but seemed unable to find words to give vent to her feelings. Kitty, in turn, was almost afraid to look at Mr Darcy for fear of his reaction, but when she finally raised her courage and her head she found his expression unreadable. That he was angry, she had no doubt, but he looked perhaps not so shocked by the tale as his wife did. Could he have known…or suspected? Kitty asked herself. There was no way of being certain, as he was not a man who allowed his emotions to run riot across his face for the most part, but his reaction was certainly not the outspoken outrage that she would have expected.
“I will speak with my wife now Catherine,” Mr Darcy announced, firmly. “Perhaps you could sit with my sister for a time.” It was not a suggestion, but it was an order that Kitty was only too pleased to obey, and she departed the room with haste and ran all the way to Georgiana’s bedchamber.
Kitty arranged herself in a chair by Georgiana’s bedside and vowed to stay awake through the night but, as often happens when one is determined to do the opposite, she fell asleep almost immediately. She awoke to find herself sprawled inelegantly half seated and half lying across the foot of Georgiana’s bed. Gathering her jumbled thoughts together, she looked to her friend who thankfully seemed to still be sleeping quietly, her breathing steady and her face calm. Kitty looked with some disgust at her clothes, which were still those she had been wearing the night before, she having done little but to open a few buttons and loosen her stays. Casting around her, she saw one of Georgiana’s nightdresses draped on the back of a chair and determined to exchange her uncomfortable and bloodstained dress before the sleeper awoke to the reminders it would provide. Changing silently was extremely difficult, and she was certain that she heard Georgiana stir on at least two occasions, but finally Kitty managed to get herself out of her dress and undergarments and into the clean white gown. She relaxed slightly as she felt her muscles uncurl after their night in such restrictive clothing, and enjoyed stretching to pick up the discarded clothing that she had dropped around herself.
Amongst the jumble of clothes, she found Georgiana’s lilac (and now largely red) dress from the night before. It lay half under a chair and had obviously been missed in the chaos of events. As Kitty picked it up to place it with the pile of her clothes, she noticed a scrap of paper poking through one of the folds. Pulling gently on it, she was able to extract it from the makeshift pocket that Georgiana had fashioned in the sash of her gown. It was the remains of a crumpled and torn note addressed to Georgiana. Not wishing to invade her friend’s privacy, Kitty folded the letter in half and was about to place it on the mantlepiece when she saw the name of the sender. It was signed George Wickham.
Before Kitty could even think what this could mean, the bedroom door began to open slowly, and Georgiana simultaneously began to stir. Kitty thrust the note back amongst the pile of clothing and turned to welcome Lizzy who had just peered around the door. She smiled and make a gesture for her to stay quiet, but Georgiana was already awakening properly and Lizzy motioned for Kitty to give them a moment together. Crossing the room to kiss Georgiana’s cheek gently, Kitty whispered to her, “I will be back very soon,” and then she gestured to the pile of clothing, saying to Lizzy, “I will just take these to the washroom.” Gathering up her burden, she slipped from the room.
Kitty struggled briefly with her conscience, but decided quickly that the note could not go unread. Breathing a silent apology to Georgiana, she extracted it from its hiding place and then passed the bundle of clothing to a passing maid. Looking over her shoulder somewhat guiltily, she retreated to her own room to study its contents. It had evidently been poorly treated, and gave the impression of having been balled up and thrown away on more than one occasion before being rescued and smoothed out. It was also heavily bloodstained and torn in places, making parts illegible, but Kitty could make out enough to get much of the sense of it.
My dear Miss Darcy,
One who was once as close to you as a brother, now begs your indulgence. Although we have not, perhaps, been as good friends in recent years as once we were, I hope that the affections of your youth have not been wholly dimmed by those who would traduce my name. I have always held you, of all your family, in the highest esteem, reminiscent as you are so much of the gentle spirit of your dear departed mother, of whom I was always so fond.
The middle portion of the note was almost entirely unreadable, but Kitty made out the words wife, deception, scandal, sister, Bennets, and Lydia in a number of places and she made the assumption that her sister and her family were being blamed for Mr Wickham’s misfortunes. The final sentences were clearer.
It falls to me now, my dear Miss Darcy, to be in the unhappy situation of having to ask others for assistance in reuniting me with my wife and my money, which are both, after all, my lawful property. I hope that you will understand my predicament and the delicacy of the situation. It reminds me much of the delicacy that has always prevailed regarding all of the time that we two spent alone when we were at Ramsgate those years ago. It is always interesting how different a construction people can put upon innocent occurrences if they are ill-informed, or receive only partial accounts of events. I am sure that you will agree that it is indeed fortunate that no whisper of impropriety has ever been heard about our time in Ramsgate.
However, I digress with reminiscences. I am certain that it is within your power to make some assistance available to me in my time of need, and I believe that we two could come to an arrangement regarding the particulars. I will be at home to visitors any morning this week.
Yours, with most sincere affection,
The letter was dated three days previously.
Georgiana’s tale came out slowly over the course of that morning with much support from Kitty and encouragement from her brother and Lizzy. It transpired that Kitty’s lapse in having told Lizzy and Mr Darcy about what had occurred at Ramsgate was a blessing to Georgiana in the end, as it meant that she did not have to go into detail about the events there. The thinly veiled blackmail threat made in Mr Wickham’s note was, as Georgiana barely needed to explain, the reason that she had decided to visit him secretly in Lambton. This much was easy for Georgiana to describe, but telling of that which had occurred at the Inn at Lambton was much more difficult and her tale was both halting and fragmentary.
Georgiana had almost wholly decided not to respond to Mr Wickham’s letter. However, after listening to Lizzy and Kitty talking about character flaws, she had realised that her own weakness was her propensity to hide from unpleasant situations, pretending often that they simply were not happening. She had thus convinced herself that allowing Mr Wickham to think he could bully her and hold a threat over her was only adding to his power and diminishing her own strength, and so she had decided to confront him.
Her plan had not commenced well as, when she reached the inn at Lambton, Mr Wickham already had a guest in his room. She had approached the innkeeper and asked him to call Mr Wickham to the public room, but had been told that two gentlemen were already upstairs with Mr Wickham. Not wishing her visit to be known by any further parties, she had told the innkeeper that it was simply a trifling message and that she would write a note to Mr Wickham instead. Then she left the inn and bided her time. After waiting for as long as she felt necessary, she had returned to the inn and had this time made straight for the stairs at a moment when the innkeeper’s back was turned. Gathering all of her resolve, she had knocked on Mr Wickham’s door.
“But Georgiana. Why?” asked Lizzy, “you already knew that he was threatening to use your time alone together previously against you, why would you put yourself in the same situation again?”
“It sounds so foolish now, does it not?” Georgiana replied, sadly, “but I really thought that if I could just let him see that I was not afraid of him, then he would see that his threats were useless. It was not rational, I see that now, but I was so tired of being ‘poor delicate Georgiana’ that I just wanted to act independently for once. It was a flawed idea, as I soon discovered.”
Mr Darcy shifted uncomfortably, much troubled, “Georgiana…I must ask this now. Did he harm you? In any way.”
Georgiana smiled sadly at him, a rather tragic and fleeting expression obviously designed to offer some comfort to him, but in reality having the opposite effect, “No brother. You may rest easy. He laid no living hand upon me. He merely laughed at me.”
She grimaced, “I was quite the source of amusement to him. I never knew that his opinion of me was so very low. After he finished ridiculing me, he made it abundantly clear that, if I did not help him to locate Lydia, allow him the opportunity to reclaim all of his ‘property’, and assist with further ‘monetary compensations’ then my reputation and that of my family would be ruined by his colourful version of the events at Ramsgate.”
Kitty looked to her in horror, “But Georgie, surely his reputation would be equally ruined. Why would he risk losing everything? Surely it was an empty threat.”
Mr Darcy shook his head, and answered before his sister could speak, “I will be entirely open with you, Catherine. It is my belief that Mr Wickham’s affairs had reached such a state that ruin was inevitable. Unless he could secure money in short order to cover his and Lydia’s debts, and unless he could cover up the fact that his wife had deserted him, he would have had no reputation left anyway. Georgiana was wrong to go anywhere near him, but her judgement that his threat was in earnest was likely correct.”
Kitty looked to her feet, thinking not just of Georgie, but of the further ruin that would have tainted Lydia and the rest of her family had Wickham carried out his threats. “Poor, poor Lydia,” she murmured under her breath, “at least her life will be simpler now.”
Georgiana was now coming close to the most trying part of her account, and Kitty put all thoughts of Lydia to one side, moving to take her friend’s hand and encourage her to continue.
“I ran away.” Georgiana looked shamefaced.
“I could listen to him no longer. I started to cry and I fled his room. I did not even take care to hide my presence. I bumped into at least two people who were coming up the stairs, and goodness only knows how many people saw me running through the inn’s main room. Then I walked…and walked…and walked…until I was exhausted.”
She shifted uncomfortably, breathing more quickly as she reached the climax of her tale.
“I realised that all of my efforts of the day would be in vain if I left matters as they were, so I determined to go back and tell him that I was going to lay all of his threats before my guardians and that he would be dealt with by them. I was more sensible by now, and slipped back into the inn quietly, just as I had entered the previous time. I got to his room but I could hear someone there with him again. I hid in the empty room across the hall and sat down to wait, but I must have drifted off, as when I awoke some time had passed and it was almost dark.”
She looked at her audience for reassurance, and Lizzy put her arm around her shoulders, saying, “Go on Georgiana, you are doing so well.”
She took a deep breath and continued, “I waited, as there seemed to be a lot of movement on the stairs. I could see through the keyhole that there were two men at Wickham’s door, they slipped something underneath it and then went back downstairs. Finally I had my chance. I went to his door, opened it without knocking, and saw him sitting at the desk. His back was towards the door and I told him everything that I wanted to say.”
Georgiana laughed suddenly, and Kitty and Lizzy exchanged a worried glance as there was more than a touch of hysteria to her voice.
“Imagine how pleased I was! I had silenced him! He had not interrupted me or made any riposte. I had won! But I had not…I realised that when I approached him, meaning to throw his note back in his face. Oh, I felt triumphant at that moment…until I saw the blood pooling around his feet.”
She looked down at her hands, and gestured with one of them, as if reaching out before her.
“I must have known that he was dead. So I do not really understand why I reached for him. I barely touched his shoulder, but that was all it took to unsteady him, and he fell from the chair on top of me. I screamed, but no one can have heard me. He was so heavy. I struggled but my legs were caught underneath him and I could not get away.”
Kitty felt physically sick, and she looked to Mr Darcy and Lizzy who were both tight lipped and pale. Georgiana seemed oblivious to her audience now, lost back inside the memory of her horror.
“I had to drag myself from under him by inches. The chair had half imprisoned me under the desk, and I had so little room to move. I think I had to kick him out of the way. I feel bad for that. It does not seem like a dignified thing to do, does it? Do you think he will have minded?”
She looked up at Lizzy and at her brother with tears in her eyes, “and his blood is all over my dress Lizzy. The beautiful dress that you both gave to me. I think I have ruined it. I think I have ruined everything.”
Georgiana slept for some time after exhausting herself with tears, and Kitty left her to Mrs Reynolds’ care only when she was sure that she was soundly asleep again. Descending the stairs, she could hear voices from the study and entered to find that Mr Darcy and Lizzy were not alone.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam, have you been to the inn? What news?” Kitty rushed to his side and placed her hand in his sleeve. “Is he really dead? Did someone kill him?”
“It is just Mr Fitzwilliam now Kitty. And yes, Mr Wickham is no longer with us, and I cannot see how his death could be described as natural.”
Lizzy did not even attempt to evict her younger sister from the room, seemingly having accepted that Kitty deserved to be there. Besides, she had her own question to ask Fitzwilliam.
“There is no chance, I presume, that he…that it was…” she faltered here, unable to put the thought into words. Her husband stepped in to complete her sentence, “I believe that what my wife is trying to ask is whether, unpalatable as the thought may be, Mr Wickham may have taken his own life?”
Lizzy nodded silently, and Kitty looked with shock at Mr Fitzwilliam. Suicide was something that was simply not spoken of. She could not remember ever hearing of anyone of their acquaintance whose death had been suspected as being such.
Fitzwilliam was quick to disabuse them of this notion, however, saying, “I very sincerely doubt that a man such as Mr Wickham would have ever considered his own life expendable. And in any event…” he looked to the ladies, but Mr Darcy indicated that he should continue, “in any event, his injuries are such that they could not have been self-inflicted. He was stabbed several times, and at least twice in the back.”
Here Kitty, who had been rather proud of her composure thus far, remembered that she had been recently covered in the blood from these wounds and felt it necessary to remove herself from the room lest her stomach void its contents before an audience.
The peace of the gardens did much to settle Kitty’s nerves and her digestion. She was enjoying the air when she spied a figure across the gardens, sitting alone in the small summer house, and for a moment she thought that somehow Georgiana had dressed and found her way outside. It was only when the sound of her running feet prompted the figure to turn around that Kitty realised that it was Alice Peterson. With her back turned, her fair hair piled high on her head, and wearing one of Georgiana’s dresses, the pair had astonishingly similar profiles. Kitty remarked upon it and Alice smiled. “I am amazed myself, actually. I never usually wear my hair like this, but putting on one of Georgie’s dresses made me feel quite grand, so I decided to dress my hair appropriately.” She sobered, suddenly, “how is she, Kitty?”
They spoke briefly for a time, and Kitty told her all that she could without betraying any of Georgiana’s secrets. It made for only the bare bones of an explanation, but Alice seemed to understand. “Do not say too much, Kitty, I am content just to know that she is not physically injured. We can all work on the rest of her recovery as time goes on.”
She turned back to what she had been doing, making a complicated arrangement of flowers on the table before her. “I am working on a few ideas for my wedding flowers, you see. I think that something like this may be good for Georgie when she begins to feel better. I always find it soothing to make little arrangements like these.”
Looking up at Kitty, she asked worriedly, “You will both be there, won’t you? For my wedding I mean. I know it will not be a grand affair, but I would wish all of my friends to see me wed.”
Kitty looked at her in confusion. “Of course we will be there! Silly creature that you are! Why on earth wouldn’t we be? Georgie, Maria, and I have spoken of little else…well, until the recent excitements of Lydia, and this current upset.” She stopped here, noticing that Alice had flinched at Lydia’s name. Putting two and two together, she came to the correct conclusion.
“Lydia has been spreading her poison has she not? What did she say about your wedding? I can only begin to imagine – she really is beyond the limits of decency.”
Alice looked relieved to have been found out. “I will own that she did upset me. She made some comments about how the ‘lesser folk’ manage to put together ‘barely suitable’ arrangements that the ‘quality’ are hard-pressed not to openly sneer at. Then in the next breath she asked how my father hoped to afford my wedding breakfast.”
“Good God! I will gag her.” Kitty exclaimed. “Or better yet, sew her mouth shut. Allie, Lydia’s wedding was attended by less people than I have fingers. She has nothing to boast about on that score. She is a bitter and disappointed person and the fewer of her words that are listened to the better. We love you, we are delighted that you have found someone to be happy with, and Georgie, Maria and I will be proud to be at your wedding. We will cry noisily and generally make spectacles of ourselves, you can rest assured on that front!”
Alice embraced her warmly and the two made busy with the flowers for a few minutes until Kitty made to return to Georgiana’s side. “I will give her your love” she said, as she left, “and I will tell her to hurry up and feel well enough to venture outside, or we will have used all the best flowers before she gets up!” Alice waved and laughed before returning to her endeavours.
Kitty spent much of the afternoon between the bedsides of Georgiana and Lydia. One patient was quiet and compliant, the other was troublesome and petulant. Finally tiring of her sister, Kitty suggested that Lydia should get up and take some air, as there was nothing physically ailing her, “and Mama always said that a bracing breeze was second only to Sal volatile as a restorative.” Lydia insisted on Kitty helping her to dress, but then seemed contented enough to be sent out of doors for a solitary walk. Her sister breathed a sigh of relief as the door closed behind her.
It was almost an hour later that Lizzy enquired after Lydia’s whereabouts. Kitty was surprised that she had not come back indoors yet, as excessive physical exercise was not one of her favourite pastimes, but she told Lizzy that she presumed that their sister was still in the gardens. Neither one of them thought further on the matter until afternoon tea was about to be served and there was still no sign of Lydia.
Kitty offered, rather grudgingly, to fetch her, saying, “It is certainly not like Lydia to miss a meal! I suppose I shall have to extricate her from whatever mischief she has gotten into now,” before heading out into the gardens, calling for Lydia as she went.
It was not until she turned the corner of the east wing of the building that she realised that all was not well. The summer house was clearly visible from her vantage point, and she could see that the table at which Alice had earlier been sitting was upturned. Kitty began to run. As she drew closer, she could see what at first looked like a bundle of clothing on the ground. To her horror, each step closer made its metamorphosis into a human figure more complete. It was Lydia. A still and unmoving Lydia.
She dropped to her knees beside her sister and felt for her pulse. At first she felt nothing, and panic rose from her stomach. But then she felt a faint throb, and realised that she was still alive, but was certainly deeply unconscious. She looked around wildly for help, and was about to rise to rush back to the house when she became aware that something was moving at the very corner of her vision. She turned and saw a strange, shiny, thick, dark liquid seeping slowly around the corner of the upturned table. She was on her feet before her brain had had a chance to warn her what this could possibly mean, and she was thus unprepared for the sight that awaited her.
On the floor, to the rear of the summer house, Alice Peterson lay with a knife protruding from her back. She was quite obviously dead.
The household was in uproar. Georgiana roused herself from her uneasy slumber and made her way gingerly to the door of her bedchamber. Aware that she was not suitably attired to descend the stairs, she leaned as far over the bannister as she could without endangering her safety or exposing herself to those passing below. The scene before her was confusing and frenetic.
Several of the housemaids were crying. All of the footmen were making for the front doors and hurrying down the stone steps. Georgiana could not see where they were going from her vantage point and so moved to the ballroom whose windows overlooked Pemberley’s frontage. Once there, she was granted a vista which allowed a greater understanding of the chaos. Mr Fitzwilliam was directing the male house and garden staff to move out in pairs, Georgiana could see them fanning out across the gardens, beating at hedges and shrubs, evidently searching for something or someone with great urgency. From behind the house appeared two men on horseback who stopped briefly by her guardian for instructions before heading off at breakneck speed in two separate directions – one towards Lambton, and one heading eastwards, to where Georgiana knew not.
She opened one of the windows and began to catch snippets of the conversations below. Mr Fitzwilliam was the loudest voice, stationed as he was directly in front of the house,
“Cover all the ground quickly. He has probably fled already, but there may be a trail….No, not that way, he will not be lingering near the summer house, go towards the lake.”
The summer house? Georgiana thought. She took stock of her surroundings and moved through to the ballroom’s smaller ante-room which was usually set up for cards during any of Pemberley’s events. The room had only two windows, but one of these overlooked the east wing and would afford her a view of the structure in question. She quickly opened the drapes and focussed in upon her target. Her eyes took in the scene more quickly than her brain could process it, but the horror was immediately apparent.
The summer house was only a short distance from the main house, and her view was only partially obstructed by the large number of people who were rushing around before her. Georgiana could see that the table which usually sat within the structure had been moved outside. Her eyes skipped over to the floor which seemed to have had something dark spilt upon it. It looked so familiar to her. It looked just like what she had seen in Mr Wickham’s room. She recoiled, but not before her eyes had taken in the prone form lying on the floor next to the dark puddle. She looked away, refusing to accept what she was seeing.
Hurried movement from within distracted her, and she recognised her brother emerging, burdened by something large in his arms. It took a moment for Georgiana to realise that it was a person. A woman. A woman wearing Lydia’s flamboyant clothes. It was Lydia. Furthermore, it was a Lydia whose head was lolling limply over her bearer’s arm.
Georgiana took a step back, but then checked herself and looked again. She could see Mr Peterson, not standing in his usual commanding manner, but leaning heavily upon the edge of the table and being supported on his other side by one of the gardeners. Movement from across the lawn caught her eye and she turned slightly to see young Mr Ramsay racing across the grass. He came to a halt beside Mr Peterson, who seemed to be finding speech difficult. However, he evidently said something intelligible as the next thing that Georgiana saw was Mr Ramsay staggering and then dropping to his knees in obvious distress and anguish.
Oh God, it’s Allie. The epiphany came to Georgiana in a flash, and she felt the early signs of panic rush towards her. She heard a mewling sound and only dimly realised that it was coming from her own throat. Her knees began to buckle, and her vision began to darken, the blackness advancing from the outer edges of her eyes towards the centre. She was on the verge of giving way to it when her limited gaze was caught by two figures on the grass beside the summer house. It was Lizzy, half lying on the ground, in tears and with grass stains on her pretty dress, holding in her arms a figure who had collapsed across her lap. The prostrate figure was Kitty. Georgiana’s vision cleared and she turned and ran for the door.
Kitty was gulping breaths so fast that she thought her heart would explode. She could feel the damp ground beneath her, and Lizzy’s tears falling on her own face, but the physical world barely registered. Allie was gone. And she knew not whether Lydia was alive or dead. The earth seemed to be tilting beneath her and Kitty wondered if she would simply lose her grip and slide away. Nothing that had happened over the past few days made sense to her. None of this should be happening to them. Why were they being punished like this? She felt that she might run mad. Yes, run, that was what she wanted to do. She did not want to be held and cried over by Lizzy, she did not need her sister’s grief as well as her own. She needed something else. She needed to be somewhere else.
Kitty tore herself from Lizzy’s grasp and ignored her sister’s cries for her to stop. Hitching up her skirts, she ran as fast as she could away from the throng of people behind her and did not stop until her lungs screamed their protest. By this time she had managed to reach the edge of the woodland which surrounded Pemberley, and she could no longer see the summer house. She allowed her shaking legs some respite by leaning her weight upon a nearby tree trunk and then she allowed her tears to turn to loud shaking sobs that were neither dignified nor dainty, but which were more than necessary. It was like this that Georgiana found her.
Usually she would have been uncertain how to approach someone in the throes of such emotion, but Georgiana did not even have to think twice in this instance. She walked calmly forwards and enveloped Kitty in her arms, rocking her gently and soothing her hiccoughing sobs. Kitty, who minutes before had felt oppressed by her sister’s embrace, sank willingly into her friend’s arms and allowed herself to absorb her warmth. Finally pulling back, she placed her hands on Georgiana’s shoulders and tried to tell her the terrible news. She managed no more than a few stumbling words before Georgiana cut in gently.
“Shhhhh. I already know, Kitty. I know about Allie. I know about Lydia. I saw the summer house. I guess what you must have seen. I know that she is gone. I need to know that you are alright. That is what is important now.”
Kitty shook her head, helplessly, “What is happening to us all Georgie? Why are these horrors following you and me around? Who is doing this? Why are people dying everywhere we turn?” Her voice rose with every sentence and she was almost incoherent by the time she got her final words out.
Georgiana took stock of the situation quickly, and recognised the signs of potential hysteria standing before her. She did not hesitate. She placed one finger under Kitty’s chin and tilted her face up towards her own, then she cupped her face with her other hand, leaned in, and kissed her gently but firmly upon the lips.
Later Kitty would realise that she probably should have been shocked, but in that instant she felt nothing more than a sense of peace and a growing warmth all over her body. When Georgiana did not pull back immediately, it became clear to Kitty that this was a different type of kiss to that which a sister or a friend might have bestowed. Georgiana’s lips clung to Kitty’s own, and Kitty had the almost irresistible urge to move her own to better accommodate them. There was something more here, she felt, something so different to anything that she had felt before. Her fingertips tingled, and without even thinking, she reached out to lace them through Georgiana’s silken hair. She swayed towards her, and felt the heat radiating from Georgiana’s own nightgown clad body where the two nearly touched. Her free hand hovered uncertainly in midair before finally settling on Georgiana’s waist. Slowly Georgiana pulled back. Her cheeks were flushed and she was breathing quickly, but she sported a soft smile; shy, and tinged with the sadness of the day’s events, but reassuring to Kitty’s confused mind and emotions. When she could form words, Kitty struggled to find the right ones,
“You certainly seem to know how to surprise me, Georgie!” was her initial foray, but as soon as she said it, she realised that this was neither what she really wanted to say, nor what Georgiana needed to hear. She reached out and took both of Georgiana’s hands in her own.
“What I really mean Georgie…is thank you. Thank you for knowing how much I wanted and needed that. And thank you for being the one brave enough and strong enough to do it.”
Georgiana bent forward and placed a gentle kiss on Kitty’s forehead. “I do not know what this all means Kitty, and I don’t know what happens to us now. But I know how I feel about you, and I know that nothing about that…kiss,” she struggled slightly saying the word, but carried on steadfastly, “nothing about that kiss felt to me as if it could be something wrong.”
Kitty shook her head vehemently. “It is not wrong Georgie! It cannot be wrong!” she squeezed Georgiana’s hands almost to the point of pain. Georgiana released herself from her grasp and pulled Kitty into an embrace and whispered softly to her,
“My dearest friend. With everything that has happened in the past two days, I couldn’t let another moment pass without letting you see how I feel. I think that I only truly realised it myself today but I should have seen it before. I am certain that you knew.”
Kitty held her tightly. “Allie’s joy and her life has been snatched away from her. Lydia may be dying. It seems wrong that I should be feeling even the slightest happiness, Georgie. But I am.”
Georgiana shook her head,
“Kitty, if I have learned anything in my short life so far, it is that love must be encouraged if we are ever to counter hate and fear. We have had a moment of it now, and we can go back to the world a little stronger. Nothing there will be easy or pleasant, but we have this moment to sustain us. Take strength from it, dearest Kitty.”
“I will, but Georgie, we can let no one know. They would not understand.”
“And no one will know. Kitty, I know as little as you about what happens now, but I promise that no one will find out how we feel. We are safe.”
Georgiana wiped the remaining traces of Kitty’s tears from her face gently with her handkerchief and took her hand, leading her back towards the house. She marveled that, when in so many other circumstances she was weak, she somehow seemed able to find strength whenever Kitty most needed her to have it. They gave each other’s hands one last quick squeeze as they emerged from the treeline, before dropping their hands and walking briskly side by side back into the turmoil.
They did not look back, and neither of them heard the snap of a branch as the furtive witness to their interlude stood up and abandoned their hiding place, brushing dirt from their clothing and taking a moment to secrete a heavily stained pair of gloves in the thickest part of a nearby hedge. The figure stood silently to watch the young ladies cross the lawn, before turning and retreating further back into the darkness and shelter of the trees.
A distracted Lizzy rushed to meet Georgiana and Kitty as they reached the house.
“Good God girls, where have you been? We have been beside ourselves. You cannot just rush off in the midst of all of this. There could be a murderer wandering the grounds!” She took hold of Kitty, who was nearest to her, and shook her shoulders with some violence, before bending her head in despair and whispering softly, “I cannot understand what is happening to us. Who could wish poor Alice ill? I cannot believe it.”
Kitty wrapped her arms around her elder sister and held her while she collected herself. Lizzy finally lifted her head and aimed a travesty of a smile at the two young women beside her, “Stay indoors and stay together. We are all to remain confined within until the search of the grounds has been completed.” Regaining some of her usual poise, she motioned for them to follow her and spoke to them over her shoulder,
“Lydia is still not fully awake, although she regained consciousness for a time when we first brought her inside, she seems to be slipping in and out of rational thought for the moment. The physician should be here soon. I think that it must be a good sign that she has spoken, at least…”
Lizzy’s progress tailed off and she stopped abruptly before them. “Someone will have to send for Mama, and our father. And Jane too. Jane should be here. And we can expect the magistrate tonight, I would think…will he bring others with him? I do not know how these matters usually proceed…”
Georgiana touched her arm lightly, “I will tell Mrs Reynolds. She will arrange everything Lizzy, please do not fret. Go to Lydia with Kitty.” With a backward glance at Kitty, Georgiana slipped form the room and left the two sisters to speed their way to their youngest sibling’s bedside.
Lydia was indeed in a pitiful state. She had been positioned carefully on her bed so as not to put pressure on the large and growing swelling that was visible towards the base of her skull. She also looked to have injured her arm as she fell and Lizzy’s quick assessment was that it was likely broken and would be causing some pain in any moments of consciousness. Occasionally Lydia would mumble odd words and phrases, but there was little that made any sense, and Lizzy and Kitty could do little other than to gently bathe her poor swollen head with cool water and wait for what seemed like an interminable period (although it was likely less than half of an hour) until the physician arrived.
A sensible man, he took in the faces of the two attending females and dismissed any thought of commenting on how often he called to Pemberley these days. He made a brief but professional assessment of his patient and asked for their help whilst he reset Lydia’s arm. “Better done now than when she wakes. Easier for her and for me this way.” he pronounced. Kitty held her sister’s shoulders steady and looked the other way, but could not avoid hearing the sounds as the bone was manipulated. Thankfully the experience was brief and, although Lydia did cry out in her sleep, she did not awaken fully during the procedure. Feeling somewhat nauseous, Kitty was glad when Georgina quietly entered the room and sat close beside her, leaning gently against her shoulder and offering her own strength to Kitty whilst asking the doctor how his patient fared.
“She will do,” he said, firmly, “if the blow had fallen much higher then I do not fancy that I would be so complacent, but there seems little danger. She was struck, or she fell upon, something that knocked her quite senseless, but she is now only lightly unconscious and I expect that she will awaken fully in short order. The rest will help her to heal. She will be in pain, and I will speak with the housekeeper about what to prepare for her, but there is little else to do.”
He looked to the ladies with a questioning gaze, “Can you take me now to my other patient?”
They returned his stare blankly, and Lizzy glanced at the other two before replying quietly, “Lydia is your only patient.”
He looked at her in confusion, “but the messenger informed me that two young ladies were injured – your young sister and the factor’s daughter.”
Georgiana choked back a sob. Kitty felt a tear well up and escape from the confines of her eye. Lizzy was the only one of the three who was able to say the words, “Alice is beyond your help doctor. She is dead.”
Mr Fitzwilliam’s former military training stood him in good stead over the coming hours as he directed affairs in a household that was largely paralysed by the events of the previous four and twenty hours. He managed the searchers, spoke with staff and tenants, sent out messengers, consulted with Mr Darcy, and saw to it that Mr Wickham’s room at the Inn and the scene at the Summer House were left largely undisturbed and were properly guarded.
“It is only until the magistrate or one of the constables arrive,” he told his wife, when he took a few moments late in the evening to rest in his own parlour. “Once they are here, I can hand everything on. But we must try to disturb things as little as possible.” His face, usually so placid and easy in expression, darkened ominously. “We must catch whoever perpetrated this horrible crime…these crimes, I should say. However I may feel about the first victim, we must remember that he was murdered too.”
Charlotte Fitzwilliam rose from her seat and crossed the room, stooping to wrap her arms around her husband where he sat. “You are undoubtedly the best qualified man to direct these endeavours, my dearest, but pray do not take too much upon yourself. I for one cannot wait for the officials to arrive, not least so that we can take time to mourn for Alice ourselves, and offer some support to her poor family.”
Charlotte’s sentiments were, unknown to her, being dashed in the Library at Pemberley. Here a flustered Lizzy was attempting to calm her agitated husband whose temper, having been pushed to its limits by the events of the day, now threatened to explode dramatically.
“I knew that Sir F--- was an imbecile and a shirker, but I did not think that he would so obviously and brazenly neglect to do his sworn duty,” he railed, angrily, “and to have appointed two such utter incompetents to the role of constable is unforgivable. Who can sleep easily in the county knowing that this is the standard of man on whom we are supposed to depend!”
Lizzy soothed and rationalised with him about the futility of his rage, but was herself more than a little shaken by the news that the local magistrate, when advised of the events, had expressed himself unwilling to attend as he was about to leave for a fortnight’s shooting in the north country. The situation was made worse by the fact that, of the two local constables, one had been eventually found in a hostelry, utterly insensible due to the effects of drink, and the other had apparently fled the county some weeks previously after being accused of theft. It seemed evident that there would be no one coming to investigate the deaths of Alice and Mr Wickham.
“Could not we send to a neighbouring county?” Lizzy suggested, but was rebuffed quickly.
“We may eventually find someone willing to come, but God alone knows how long that would take. The murderer will be long gone by then…if he has not fled already.”
Her husband made a conciliatory gesture towards her, “I am sorry Elizabeth, I mean not to take out my frustrations upon you, but you must see that it seems likely that there is little that will be done here lest we do it ourselves. And that likely means that Mr Fitzwilliam and myself will have to undertake some sort of investigation. An investigation which is by no means assured of having any success, which will likely involve prying into all sorts of affairs that no gentleman would wish to enter into discussion of, and which may indeed do more harm than good overall.”
Having outlined his worries, he threw himself heavily into a nearby chair, saying half mockingly, “allow me my five minutes alone to rage and rail against the situation, dearest Elizabeth, and then I shall set my temper to one side and endeavour to act in a manner appropriate to my station.”
Lizzy allowed herself a rather grim half smile and dropped a quick kiss on to the top of his head before leaving the room. As she closed the door gently, she was certain she heard the sound of a heavy book connecting with some force against one of the walls. She hurriedly vacated the scene.
It was the following morning before the Pemberley household experienced the first stages of the investigation which Mr Darcy and Mr Fitzwilliam seemed to have agreed to conduct jointly. After being sequestered together in the Library for much of the night, the two men assembled the family and the staff in Pemberley’s entrance hall to outline their plans. Mr Fitzwilliam took the lead in asking for assistance.
“Anyone who has any information, no matter how insignificant, which may have any bearing on the recent tragic events, is to make themselves known to myself or Mr Darcy. We are looking for anyone who may have seen or heard anything relating to the death of Alice Peterson, or to the death of a man staying at the Inn in the village who was of the name of Mr Wickham.”
It proved to be a very long morning.
Mr Darcy’s patience was stretched to the limit by a number of ‘witnesses’ from among his own staff who had evidently seen nothing, but who wanted to attempt to make themselves useful or important. Eventually, he handed over the role of witness interrogator to Mr Fitzwilliam, who seemed more able to separate the wheat from the chaff with an easier temper. By the time that luncheon was served, Mr Fitzwilliam had managed to establish that there were a small number of people holding pertinent information, and he arranged for these people to repeat their tales to Mr Darcy.
Kitty was the first to appear. She explained, haltingly, how she had seen and spoken with Alice in the Summer House.
“I left her there, and am sure she was quite alone. It was sometime in the early hours of the afternoon. I know not really what time it was, but I think that she likely planned to stay there for some time judging by the amount of flowers that she had gathered to arrange.”
Here Kitty tailed off, lost in her memories, “It was the strangest thing. When I first saw her on approaching the Summer House, I thought that she was Georgiana…she was wearing one of Georgie’s dresses, you see.” The two men exchanged glances and Mr Darcy made a quick note on the papers before him.
“Other than this, I do not know what to say. I returned to the house and spent some time with Georgie and with Lydia, although I was very angry with her because she had upset Alice at some point.”
Here again, the men looked up with interest and Kitty explained her youngest sister’s uncharitable comments about Alice’s forthcoming wedding arrangements.
“Then I persuaded poor Lydia to go outdoors. I knew nothing more until I went out to find her possibly an hour or so later – just before tea. I…well, you know well what I found.”
“And you saw no one close to the Summer House – you were alone in the gardens as far as you could tell?” asked Mr Fitzwilliam.
“I know not…I am sorry. I was simply concentrating upon looking for Lydia and was not really paying much attention to anyone else. I think that some of the outdoor staff were working in more distant parts of the garden, but I paid them little heed. I cannot even be sure if I saw them then or on my earlier visit outside,” she hung her head miserably, “I am sorry…I am a terrible witness…I just saw that the table had fallen over in the Summer House and I didn’t look away from it until I reached the building…there could have been a person nearby, but I would not have seen them…I am sorry,” she repeated.
Mr Darcy and Mr Fitzwilliam thanked her and sent her away.
“Some suggestive comments there perhaps, Darcy?”
“Perhaps…but she is not certain of anything…particularly the times,” sighed Darcy. “Who have we next?”
The following statements came mostly from ground staff who had seen Alice alone in the Summer House at various points in the afternoon. The most interesting account came from one of the under-gardeners who had a different tale to tell.
“Well sirs, I was working on the shrubbery not far off from that there Summer House for most of the afternoon. I did see the young Miss Catherine Bennett go in and the two lasses did chatter and laugh away for a while. Then one of the housemaids went in with some string or something, and came away without it.”
“Yes, that was Edith,” said Mr Darcy, consulting his notes, “we have spoken with her.”
“Well, then there was a man went in too,” their informant continued, “I never saw him, but I heard his voice – much louder than her voice. Not so much angry like, but he was…strident…yes, that’s the word.”
“And what was being said, Jack?” Mr Fitzwilliam, asked, urgently.
“Oh well sirs, that I cannot tell you. I could hear the sounds of voices, but I am not one to listen where it is not my place to hear, and I moved off away when I first heard them talk. He did call her by her given name though, so he must have been familiar to her. That I will say.”
“Very commendable discretion I am sure,” said Mr Darcy. “Well, we thank you for your information.”
“Well, but sirs, if you do not mind my going on, there is one more thing. You see, someone else went in after the man must have left, and what a to-do there was then. I was quite far off by then, almost up by the fountain, but both ladies were shouting – I suppose at each other – in a most worrying fashion. Then out comes the other one in a dreadful rush, looking all to pieces. I didn’t know who she was, but she hurried off across the lawn and then stamped about for a bit. I went off to the stables to collect some more manure for the flowerbeds near the kitchen, and when I came back I was still in sight of the Summer House.”
Here Mr Fitzwilliam interrupted, “How long were you gone for, do you think?”
“Well sir, I do not know that I can be certain. See it takes maybe ten minutes to walk round to the stables. Then I spoke with young Andrews for a moment or two, and I loaded the barrow, and then I came back…a bit slower maybe – it was heavy, you see.”
Mr Darcy nodded, “perhaps half of an hour then?”
“No more than that, I would reckon. And when I came back, the young lady was coming around the other way, from the opposite corner of the house – looking for all the world like she had been on a walk all around it while I had been away. She looked to make a decision and then she did set out for the Summer House again. Resolute looking, she was. She went in, and I confess I did watch for a moment or two to see if she would get sent out by Miss Alice or if there would be another row. But I saw and heard nothing. And almost right away I got called into the kitchen as cook wanted another pair of hands to move some sacks. Next I knew, not ten minutes later, there was all the rumpus when the terrible thing was discovered.”
Mr Darcy and Mr Fitzwilliam were both furiously writing notes. The latter muttered a commentary as he wrote,
“So, according to your tale, Alice Peterson was still alive some three quarters of an hour before her body was found. She had an argument with an unknown woman then, and this woman came back perhaps half an hour later. Did she kill Alice? Did Lydia stumble upon them and get attacked for her troubles? Or was Alice still alive and well when this unknown woman came back? Or did she stumble upon the aftermath of the horrible scene and run off? And in any of these cases, who is she? You hadn’t seen her before, you say?”
This last was directed back to the witness who was looking somewhat confused.
“Well sirs, no. To be strict truthful about it I had not seen the lady ever before so I did not know who she was then. But I did see her afterwards. When you were carrying her back to the house. See it was the young sister of the master’s wife that I saw, the lady that I am told is called Mrs Wickham. She is the one that I saw going into the Summer House, arguing with Miss Alice, and then going back in later.”
Mr Darcy had stopped writing and was looking with some apprehension at his fellow interrogator. Mr Fitzwilliam thanked their witness and dismissed him before turning a grim face to his cousin.
“Well Darcy, if this man is to be believed then we have limited possibilities here. There is that half hour or thereby when our man was away from the Summer House, but I must say that it is looking like the key to this is held by your poor sister-by-law. She either saw and was attacked by whoever did this or…”
“Yes, and it is the ‘or’ that is concerning me deeply here Fitzwilliam. Firstly her inconvenient wastrel of a husband is found violently stabbed to death, and then she has a row with a young woman who is found shortly afterwards, violently stabbed to death.”
Mr Darcy looked his cousin directly in the eye. “I have never thought myself a coward, you know, but I must own that I do not look forward to having to tell my wife that I am entertaining the thought that her sister is involved in multiple murders.”