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Chapter 26

“Wickham!” he cried.

She nodded.

“I thought he and your sister sailed to America,” he said.

“No, I do not know where Mr. Wickham is, but Lydia did not sail to America.”

“Then where is she?”

“In an unmarked grave in Cheapside,” she quietly said as tears flowed down her cheeks.

He sat down next to her and pulled her into his embrace, “I am so sorry, Elizabeth.  I did not know.”

She choked out, “No one knows except my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, of course, myself, and now you.”

Clearing her throat, she continued, “When I first left home for my visit to Hunsford, everything was as it always was.  My sisters, Lydia and Kitty, were still in raptures over the officers but no more so than they had been for the past months. If you recall that time, you will undoubtedly remember that I was called home from Kent on a family emergency.”

Darcy knew most of what was to come but wanted to hear the rest of the story from her mouth.

“When I returned to Longbourn, I found that my youngest sister, Lydia, had eloped with Mr. Wickham.  You know that much as I have spoken of it before. After discovering that they had not gone to Scotland as she had written in her farewell note, my father went to London believing that was their destination all along.  He engaged my Uncle Gardiner’s help in a search for her, though I am not sure what they would have done if they had found her.  I do not believe my father or uncle could have come up with enough money to bribe Mr. Wickham into marrying her.”

Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, Elizabeth went on with her story, “After several months of searching, it became evident that they were too well hidden if, in fact, they were still in London.  The stress on my father took a toll on his health and my uncle sent him home assuring him that he would continue the search.  I have never seen my father so haggard as the day he arrived back at Longbourn.  He had lost weight and was very pale.  We immediately sent for the apothecary and it was determined that he had weakened his heart in his exhaustive search for my sister.  He was immediately ordered to bed rest.  My sisters and I had to tend to both our parents as my mother was in hysterics because Lydia was still lost and that my father was now ill, as well.  Since the estate was entailed to Mr. Collins, the thought of being cast out into the hedgerows was her constant complaint.

“By late October, word finally came from my uncle that Lydia had been found.  Since my father could no longer travel and Jane was the only one that could keep my mother calm, I was elected to go and do whatever was needed to ease the stigma of Lydia’s folly.  Though when I left, I did not know what could be done.  Lydia was ruined and so were we all.  When I reached my uncle’s house, I was not prepared for what I found.” 

Stopping a moment to gather her courage, she could not help the tears that continued to flow from her eyes.  Lydia was with child, nearly seven months along, but the child was stillborn.  I sat by her side day and night waiting for nature to expel the poor child and during that time she told me what had happened to her since she left Longbourn.”

Elizabeth dropped her gaze and wiped her tears. “Lydia and Wickham did come to London and resided with a lady that Wickham had known previously.  I believe her name was Mrs. Younge.”

Darcy growled, “Damn that woman!”

Looking at him questioningly, she asked, “Do you know the woman, Mrs. Younge?”

“Yes,” he spewed.  “She was Georgiana’s companion at Ramsgate who allowed George to insinuate himself into my sister’s emotions.  In fact, she encouraged Georgiana in her feelings for Wickham.  Leaving them alone together, I knew then that she and George were in concert together.  They were after my sister’s dowry.”

“Yes, damn her. Although, Lydia thought she was so in love with George Wickham, so much so that she did anything he asked of her.  I will not go into the descriptions she gave of their ‘intimate’ moments but suffice it to say that they seldom left their room.  After a while, George would go out at night leaving Lydia behind.  Later he would come home and pass out, smelling of liquor.  Lydia was not happy with his behavior and requested that she go with him on his nightly excursions.  Evidently George was tiring of Lydia and wanted to move on but she would throw a fit and prevent him from leaving her alone.  She still believed that he would marry her and was not going to let him go that easily.

“After a few months, they must have run out of money as it seems that George found a way to make money off of Lydia.  As I said, Lydia thought herself to be in love with him and he used that knowledge to get her to do what he wanted.  As best as I can piece together since Lydia did not remember much of that time, George kept her drunk on cheap wine and ale most of the time.  He would take her to a pub and after getting her drunk would hire her out to the other patrons of the establishment.”

Darcy’s anger was evident.

“It seems that Lydia had gotten with child almost immediately after her flight with Mr. Wickham. After five months with George she began to get ‘fat’.  George chided her and withheld food telling her that if she got fat that she was of no use to him anymore. He must have realized the reason for her increased girth was because she was carrying his child though he was not about to admit it. He told her that she had been with so many men that the father would never be known.  I am not sure why he did what he did next; whether the militia was catching up with him or his debts, but he decided he needed to leave London.  Needing money to get away, he ‘sold’ Lydia to a pub owner so that she could entertain his customers for a small fee.  When she realized that George was not coming back for her, she ran away and lived on the streets until she could find her way to my Uncle Gardiner’s.”

Darcy was speechless at the horrors that poor girl had suffered.

“Once she reached my uncle’s house, she could hardly stand. They immediately put her to bed and called for a doctor.  She was only sixteen.  Her young body could not handle what George had done to her as well as having to carry a dead child.  Three days after I arrived, she succumbed.  My uncle secretly arranged for her and the child’s burial.  I know where the grave is and have felt guilty for not going to visit it, but I did not want to chance it lest our family secret be revealed.”

Darcy asked, “Then why the story about them going to America?”

“When I returned to Longbourn, I went immediately to my father and told him all.  I know it pained him and probably caused his death but he demanded to be told the whole story.  He made the story up about them going to America and that is what he told the family.  He knew that Lydia was lost, and he did not want the rest of us to suffer because of her foolish mistake.  If the world thought that Lydia and Wickham had married and immigrated to America, then no one would be the wiser and Lydia’s scandal would be lessened.  Even Jane does not know what actually happened to Lydia.  Only my aunt and uncle, and now you know the truth; I would appreciate it that you keep my confidence.  This is why I cannot marry you.  If Wickham should be found or return to London on his own, then how would we explain Lydia?  He does not know what happened to her.  This type of scandal could ruin you if I became your wife.”

Darcy rose from the settee and knelt in front of her, taking her hands in his, he whispered, “Elizabeth, I want to assure you that this changes nothing between us.  I love you and there is nothing you can do or say that will change my feelings for you or the fact I want you for my wife.”

Through grateful tears, she replied in a whisper, “William, thank you.  I am not sure what I would have done if you had deserted me because I have come to love and cherish you so much.  The thought of not having you in my life was more than I could bear; hence the reason for offering myself as your mistress.”

Darcy reached up and pulled her into his arms as a tear slid down his cheek.  His Elizabeth loved him.  Everything was going to work itself out.

Darcy held her tight as she sobbed out her grief, releasing the anxiety of holding such a secret for so long.  When her crying abated, he picked her up and then sat down on the settee with her in his lap.

Holding her head against his shoulder, he tried to assuage her fears. “Elizabeth, even if Wickham did reappear, we would be the least of his problems.  He is still wanted by the militia for desertion of his duties, and, if found, he would be hauled off to the military stockade to await hanging.  I do not think he would be in any position to harm us.”

Raising her head to look at him, she said, “But if that came to pass, do you not think that he would try everything in his power to prevent that from happening?  He is a cowardly man and not beneath trying to harm others to save himself.”

“Wickham would know better than to approach me to help him.  He knows that I would prefer to see him hang for his transgressions against my family.”

“Do you not fear him disparaging Georgiana?” she asked.

Astonished, he asked, “Georgiana told you about that?”

“Yes, she told me about it a month or more ago after she found out that Lydia had eloped with him.  I think it did her good to talk about it, to realize that she was not alone in experiencing Wickham’s treachery.”

He nodded.  “I am surprised she told you.  But you are probably correct about her needing to talk about it.  She has never wanted to talk about it with Fitzwilliam or myself.  It was good that you able to get her to speak of it.”

“But if I were married to you, he would have the leverage of his elopement with Lydia as well as with Georgiana, to blackmail you.  He left Lydia to her own devices and does not know what happened to her.  For all he knows she could still be prostituting herself to stay alive.  That information could harm your good name if it became known you had married the sister of a common prostitute.”

Elizabeth, the key is he does not know what happened to Lydia, we have some leverage over him if he tries to blackmail us.  As far as Georgiana is concerned, Fitzwilliam and I made it quite clear to him what would happen to him if he said a word of what he tried to do to her.  Wickham may not fear me, but he has a healthy regard for Fitzwilliam. He knows that Fitzwilliam would not think twice about running a sword through him.”

“General Fitzwilliam would do that?” she asked, astonished.

“In a trice!  Fitzwilliam despises Wickham as much as I do and would think nothing of preventing other innocent victims of Wickham’s perfidy from being injured once again by that man.”

Drawing his finger down the side of her face, he rested his hand at the juncture of her neck and shoulder.  Looking into her eyes, he said, “If I allow Wickham to stand in the way of my happiness then I have given him a victory over me, and I will not…cannot condone it.  Elizabeth Bennet, will you make me the happiest man in the world and consent to be my wife?”

Smiling, she replied, “It will be my honor to be your wife, Fitzwilliam Darcy.  Yes, I will marry you.”

A big grin appeared on Darcy’s face as he leaned over and pressed his lips to hers.  Elizabeth’s wrapped her arms around his neck which only heightened his desire as he poured all his passion into the kiss. 

Her yearning for him only increased as she felt his desire rub against her thigh.

When their lips broke apart, Elizabeth asked as she looked down between them, “Do you need to retire to my bed chamber again?”

Darcy chuckled though slightly embarrassed that his control had slipped.  “It would seem so.  Would you be amenable to marrying me today?  Otherwise, I fear I will be spending most of our engagement in the other room.”

“Mr. Darcy!” she exclaimed.  “Yesterday you were engaged to another woman.  I believe that if we married today then we would never be able to live that scandal down.”

“Perhaps you are correct, Miss Bennet.” He smiled.  “How soon do you think we should wait?”

“Do you think a year would be sufficient?” She grinned.

“Oh, no! I would say the wedding should take place within the next month,” he countered.

Sobering, she said, “That is too soon; think of the scandal.  I cannot let you expose yourself to another scandal.”

“Well, I am afraid that I have waited too long to secure your hand, and I do not want to wait any further than is absolutely necessary.  However, if you will consent to a small, quiet wedding, I believe I have a solution.”

She nodded. “I do not require a large wedding.  As long as you await me at the end of the church aisle that is all I care about.”

“Do you not want your family present?” he asked.

“I would like to have my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner.  Also, Jane, but I fear with her expecting a child, it would be difficult for her to travel.  As for Mary and Kitty, I would like them there, but they cannot come without involving my mother.  I confess that I am not sure I am willing to face her just yet.”

“I propose that at the end of the season, which is in a few weeks, we go to Pemberley and be married in the chapel there.  It will give me enough time to secure a special license and get the settlement papers in order.  We can remain at Pemberley after we are married and later in the year we will send an advertisement to the papers that Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet were lately married.  That way no one will know when we married nor, by that time, will they care.  Do you think your Aunt and Uncle can travel on such short notice?”

She looked at him in awe that he had worked everything out so quickly.  Responding to his question, she said, “My aunt and uncle have four small children who they must make arrangements for and my uncle may not be able to get away from his business.”

“Well, all you can do is to ask them.  If we need to adjust the schedule to accommodate them, we will do so.”

Placing her arms around his neck again, she thanked him. “Yes, William, that is fine with me.  Thank you.”

He pulled her tightly against him as he engaged her in another passionate kiss.  When he felt his control slipping, he parted from the kiss.  She was too available to him and the reality of her nearness was too close to his fantasies; he knew he needed some distance lest he take her virtue right then and there. 

Lifting her up with him as he rose, he turned and placed her back on the settee. 

Elizabeth,” he said somewhat contritely.

“You need to excuse yourself for a few minutes?” she asked mischievously.

“Not quite yet, though I do need some distance from the temptation you present to me,” he answered.

“Now that we are to be married, will you not tell me what you were doing earlier?” she nodded towards her bed chamber.

While Darcy felt he should explain himself, he was not yet ready to have her know the power she had over him so he did the next best thing and delegated the task to his aunt.  “I think not.  Lady Suzan might be the best to tell you about the intimacies between a man and a woman.”

Elizabeth smiled at his ruse but was grateful as she was not sure she was ready to talk to him about such matters even though both of them had exhibited themselves way beyond the bounds of propriety in the past when they were not yet engaged.

Darcy went to sit in a chair across from her and said, “Elizabeth, there is one more item that we need to discuss.  I will need to break your confidence and tell Fitzwilliam about Lydia’s story.  I will need to procure his help in removing Wickham if he should appear as a threat to us.  Also, I believe you should tell Lady Suzan.  Knowing that you were carrying such a burden, she has been worried for you.  Besides, Fitzwilliam and Aunt Suzan are too close, and it will not be long after I tell the general that Lady Suzan will know.  It is best that it come from you.”

She nodded.  He was correct; she did owe Lady Suzan the whole truth of her story.  Now, if she could just gather the strength to tell it again.

“I must leave soon as I am expecting Bingley at Darcy House this afternoon to complete the settlement papers for Georgiana.  Their wedding is in just over a fortnight, and it needs attention so they can wed,” he said with a laugh.

“They are almost inseparable.  Indeed, I am happy for them; they seem well matched,” she stated.

“Yes, I believe they are.  Georgiana is very blissful about it.” He paused to ponder something and then continued, “Come to think on it, Bingley has been in quite good spirits these past few weeks; more so than I have seen in him for some time.”

“Will you tell them about our engagement?” she asked.

“Unless you see a problem, I will.  As much as I would like to shout it from the rooftops that you will be my wife, I believe our best course is to keep it quiet.  Though I believe we, at least, need to tell our families and ask for their discretion,” he said.

“Yes, I agree.  This would be a difficult secret to keep from Lady Suzan.”

He laughed and agreed, “Yes!  She practically forced us into this; she should know her efforts were not wasted.”

He stood and went to pull her up from the settee and into his arms for one more kiss. 

Releasing her from the kiss, he turned her around and patted her bum. “Now, let us go and tell her our news together.”





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