It is widely acknowledged by poets and philosophers alike that the beauties of nature are among the best cures for vexation and unhappiness. This is particularly the case if such beauties are enjoyed in agreeable company. It is therefore no wonder that, after nearly six weeks of admiring the delights of the Lakes with such pleasant companions as Mr and Mrs Gardiner, Elizabeth Bennet could scarcely recall the disappointments and mortifications of the past winter and spring, and was in fact feeling in great charity with the world.
There had, some weeks before their departure, been concerns that the duration of the trip might need to be curtailed due to certain business obligations of Mr Gardiner’s. Fortunately, however, these fears had proven to be unfounded, and aunt, uncle and niece had been able to see the Lakes with all the leisure and comfort they could desire. Indeed, when their carriage pulled up to the inn at Kendal, the only regret Elizabeth had about their tour was that it was now so close to its end: this town, in which they intended to stay for two or three days, was to be their last stop before beginning their journey back South in earnest.
On their arrival at the inn, Elizabeth had great hopes of finding letters from Jane awaiting her, as the distance between Westmorland and Hertfordshire, combined with some last-moment changes to their itinerary, had caused none to reach her in more than a week. She had left instructions at their previous inns that any letters arriving after their departure were to be redirected to Kendal, and was therefore quite disappointed to discover that none had reached the town before her. The next morning, however, her repining was over: she received, in fact, four letters at once, making her suspect that the innkeeper at their previous to last inn, to which all but one letter had been directed, had been rather less than diligent in forwarding them.
They had just been preparing to walk to the town museum as the letters came in. Elizabeth, however, decided that news from Longbourn held greater interest to her than local relics, and so her uncle and aunt, leaving her to enjoy her letters in quiet, set off by themselves. The oldest missive must first be attended to; it had been written all of ten days ago. The beginning contained an account of all the little parties and engagements of the family at Longbourn, with such news as the country afforded; but the latter half, which was dated a day later, and written in evident agitation, gave more important intelligence, and abruptly thrust back into Elizabeth’s mind everything she had assiduously endeavoured to put out of it during her travels.
An express from Colonel Forster had arrived at Longbourn, bearing shocking news: Lydia had escaped Brighton in the middle of the night ‒ had eloped to Scotland ‒ and, the worst blow of all, with none other than Mr Wickham. Jane, of course, was attempting to make the best of things; though she acknowledged the imprudence of the match, she was willing to hope that Wickham’s character had been misunderstood.
Elizabeth, as she read, scarcely knew what she felt, and on finishing this letter, instantly seized the next, which had been written a day later than the conclusion of the first. Within, she discovered intelligence that was, if possible, even more unwelcome. Wickham and Lydia, it was feared, had not gone to Scotland at all, and were believed to be in London; Mr Bennet and Colonel Forster had gone thither to try to discover them; and Jane was earnestly begging her uncle’s advice and assistance.
Heart in her throat, Elizabeth opened the last two letters with the utmost impatience, but the relief she had hoped to gain was not contained in them. Jane, in increasingly bleak tones, recounted that their father’s efforts in London were proving unsuccessful, and that Colonel Forster had been obliged to return to his regiment. Mrs Bennet was keeping to her room; Kitty was in great distress; and Jane once again entreated her uncle for help. The last letter, which had been written two days ago, contained the intelligence that Mr Bennet was yet in London but was running out of avenues to search. Mr Wickham, in the meantime, had been discovered to be in debt to every tradesman in Meryton, and rumours of improper flirtations and even seductions were rampant.
It was too dreadful to think of; it was in every way horrible. Elizabeth darted from her seat, intent on rushing after her aunt and uncle, but discovered that her knees were trembling so badly that she was obliged, instead, to summon a servant and give the errand to him. This being done, she at once turned to packing her belongings, gathering up bonnets and gowns with feverish haste, though several times the unsteadiness of her hands made her almost drop what she was holding.
Still, in all her frenzied activity, as she rushed about the room stumbling and fumbling, she could not banish the one agonising thought which was foremost in her mind: she could have prevented this ‒ but she had not.
Mr and Mrs Gardiner hurried back to the inn half an hour later to discover Elizabeth pacing their rooms in tearful agitation. They had supposed, by the servant’s account, that their niece was taken suddenly ill ‒ but satisfying them instantly on that head, she eagerly communicated the cause of their summons.
Though Lydia had never been a favourite with them, Mr and Mrs Gardiner could not but be deeply afflicted. Not Lydia only, but all were concerned in it; and after the first exclamations of surprise and horror, Mr Gardiner readily promised every assistance in his power. Elizabeth, though expecting no less, thanked him with tears of gratitude; and all three being actuated by one spirit, everything relating to their journey was speedily settled. They were to be off as soon as possible, in the hope that they might need to sleep only two nights on the road. As they had no acquaintances in the town, no leave-takings or notes of explanation were required; their belongings were hastily packed while Mr Gardiner settled his account at the inn; and in less than half an hour, Elizabeth found herself seated in the carriage, and on the road to Longbourn.