The blurb for this story can be found here.
Chapter Forty Eight
Elizabeth had watched as Mr Darcy walked away from her to resume his search with his cousin and friend. Though her heart had willed her to run after him, she had allowed her head to prevail and made no movement until the door closed upon him. Her mind, however, fell quickly into disarray in his absence. A desperate hope for Lydia being found safe and well warred with her anxiety over what nefarious means had brought about such a situation and what possible chance there might be for any sort of future for her sister after all she had endured. And what of her father’s role in all of this – and Wickham’s?
She had attempted to put aside any consideration for the future she had begun to hope for with Mr Darcy. Such selfishness was not to be tolerated in the circumstances; yet she could not dismiss the fear so easily as she wished. What would her life be like without the prospect of Mr Darcy in it now? She could not bear to think of it and all it might mean. Yet how could he possibly overcome the further stain this would bring to the Bennet name?
Such thoughts tormented Elizabeth as she walked back to the house, and she hurried up the stairs, thankful not to have seen anyone. Barely had she reached her chamber, however, when the door to the dressing room opened, and to her relief, Jane entered.
‘There you are, Lizzy; how was your ride?’
Her ride? Elizabeth blinked. It seemed so long ago! To think all she had been concerned about on her return was how to speak of the locket to Jane – now she had this other more pressing news to relate! Jane had taken Lydia’s passing badly; it had lowered her spirits for some considerable time. For a fleeting second, she wished Mr Darcy were there to give her courage – or better yet, to be the one to speak the words.
The chiming of the clock on the mantel roused her from such futile wishes, and glancing at it, Elizabeth frowned. ‘Where have you been all this time, Jane?’
‘We saw Mr Wentworth before returning to the house earlier. He asked us if we could spare some clothing for some poor waif of the parish, a young woman he hoped to offer assistance to; said she was of similar build to Miss Darcy and much in need. We dropped it off at the rectory on our way to Mrs Thatcher’s.’
With a quickly stifled gasp, Elizabeth sank heavily onto the bed. ‘Oh, Jane! I think I know who this person might be.’
Darcy’s mind was racing as he accompanied Wentworth to the rear of the rectory, but as they approached the yard housing the barns, he stayed the reverend with his hand. This surely required a little thought as to how it ought to be managed!
‘Wentworth, I must speak to you before I see this young lady.’ Darcy glanced over at the barns. ‘Is the building secure? She cannot escape?’
‘No.’ The reverend smiled ruefully. ‘She does not seem to wish to at the moment, though she had made several failed bids for freedom before asking for you.’ He eyed the master of Pemberley thoughtfully for a moment, then nodded. ‘Come with me, sir.’
He led Darcy into the house, along a corridor and opened the door to his study.
‘Please, sir; take a seat.’ Wentworth waved a hand towards his desk and walked around to take the chair on the other side.
Darcy sat stiffly, his gaze drifting around the room as he tried to gather his thoughts. He could not see Lydia Bennet on his own, that much was certain, but how was he to ensure as few people as possible became aware of her presence here?
‘Forgive me.’ Darcy’s gaze snapped back to Wentworth. ‘I am going to make a request of you, Wentworth, with very little explanation to support it. I trust you are prepared to give me the benefit of the doubt. I also must insist on your absolute confidence.’
There was a perceptible hesitation, but then, the reverend nodded slowly. ‘It is clear you know who this young woman is.’
Darcy was unsure how much he ought to reveal. It would take too long to lay before Wentworth what he knew so far of the whole sorry tale; better that they both heard what Lydia Bennet had to say. He did, however, need the man’s assistance.
‘Indeed; though it is not what it might seem.’ Darcy drew in a slow breath. ‘I cannot speak to her without a chaperone present, but it would be unwise to enlist one of your servants. I hoped you might be prepared to fulfil the role. It is a singular entreaty, but I hope you believe me when I say I would not ask such a thing if it were not of the utmost importance to speak to the young lady without delay. Time is of the essence. She has proved elusive, and I am convinced she will find a way to disappear again if she can.’
Curiosity was writ plain upon Wentworth’s countenance, but he assented without hesitation this time. ‘I am at your service, Mr Darcy.’
‘Good; good.’ Darcy’s mind was already drifting towards what he wished to ascertain from Lydia, but how he was to aid her remained quite beyond him at present. Then, he looked up. ‘You have no need to say anything, and you will learn things – assuming the lady is prepared to talk, and if she has requested to see me, one must believe that she will – including hearing some names with which you have some familiarity. Again, I would ask for your confidence over all that you learn henceforth.’
‘Without question, sir.’
‘And what of your man – the one who discovered her and locked her in?’
Wentworth shrugged. ‘Cartwright is a good man when it comes to hard labour, strong as an ox, but he is not educated; nor is he high in intelligence. With the nature of my calling, he has seen all manner of waifs and strays come and go. He will have paid little enough mind, I assure you.’
Darcy got to his feet. ‘Then let us delay no longer.’
‘Should we not bring her into the house, to a more comfortable setting?’
Conscious of the other servants and uncertain how this meeting would play out, Darcy shook his head. ‘Much as I wish to remove her from the unsuitability of her present situation, Wentworth, I think it would be more circumspect to first speak to her where there is no chance of us being overheard.’
Wentworth unfastened the padlock on the barn door, and Darcy pushed it open cautiously. The interior was much like any other of its ilk, dimly lit by any natural light due to a scarcity of windows and smelling strongly of a combination of dry straw and animals.
As his gaze adjusted to the light, he was aware of the reverend closing the door and coming to stand beside him.
‘Over there, sir.’
Wentworth pointed to the far reaches of the barn, and as he walked towards it, his boots hitting the flagstones with a staccato beat, Darcy became aware of the figure of a young woman huddled on a couple of small hay bales against the wall.
She looked up as he approached, though the hood of her green cloak concealed much of her features, but he knew it was the same person he had seen in the woods.
Darcy glanced at Wentworth as he joined him and, though it seemed absurd in the circumstances, he then bowed formally in the lady’s direction.
A decidedly unladylike snort issued from within the cloak. ‘I no longer answer to that name!’
Darcy was conscious of Wentworth’s surprise, though he quickly concealed it, turning to seat himself on an old milking stool.
‘Then you do own to having once answered to it?’
There was silence for a moment; then, she straightened up, swinging her feet to the floor and throwing back her hood. Though Darcy had seen the detailed sketch done by Viola’s hand, it was still a shock to see how gaunt Lydia Bennet had become, her unattended hair hanging lankly around her pale and drawn face.
‘What gain would there be in denying it? You are certain you know who I am.’ With an exaggerated sigh, Lydia Bennet sank heavily back against the wall. ‘But I shall never answer to it again.’
Darcy looked around before dragging over a larger hay bale and settling upon it. Then, conscious of Lydia’s fixed stare, he cleared his throat. ‘What would you have me call you, then?’
For a moment, an assessing look crossed her face, and she summoned an ingratiating smile that was horribly reminiscent of Caroline Bingley’s. ‘You may call me whatever pleases you, sir.’
Darcy’s gaze narrowed. ‘You would do well not to try and play me, madam.’
The smile faded as quickly as it had come. ‘No indeed. Then perhaps ‘madam’ will have to suffice!’
Drawing in a steadying breath, Darcy held her gaze. His patience looked set to be sorely tried! ‘Whatever name you give yourself these days, you were once a Miss Lydia Bennet of Longbourn in Hertfordshire. You have four sisters and a father, and-’
At this, Lydia got to her feet, glaring at Darcy. ‘He has the gall to call himself a father?’
Darcy rose to his not inconsiderable height, and she took a step backwards, sitting down with a thump on the mound of hay. Then, it was as if the flash of anger drained from her, and she slumped back against the wall, shivering.
‘No father should cast a daughter off; yet he claimed he had no choice,’ Lydia whispered. She wrapped her arms around herself, staring into the distance for a moment, then turned eyes wet with unshed tears up to Darcy. ‘He never cared for me; he never cared for Mama. We were his biggest regret, even before… before it all happened.’
Darcy took out his handkerchief and stepped forward to offer it to her, and after a momentary hesitation she took it, blowing her nose noisily into the starched white cotton.
‘I wish to help you, Miss Be…’ Her look stopped him. ‘If you will not give me a name, I shall continue to address you by the one I know you for. The choice is yours.’
Lydia drew in a breath, then nodded. ‘Very well; it is Sarah. I go by the name of Sarah Hawes.’ She hesitated. ‘Mrs Sarah Hawes.’
Darcy frowned, and she huffed. ‘I can hardly pass myself off as a ‘miss’. Thus I have been obliged to play the role of a young widow, though I was never so much as wed.’ She sighed. ‘How Mama wished for me to marry.’
Ignoring this, Darcy flexed his shoulders slightly to try and ease the tension in them. Then he said in a gentler tone: ‘I was sorry to hear of your mother’s passing.’
Lydia’s brow rose. ‘Truly? I would have thought it troubled you little.’
‘Whatever you may think of me, Miss – Mrs Hawes, I do not have a heart of stone. I lost my own mother when I was of similar age to you. You have my deepest sympathy.’
For a moment, Lydia had the grace to look a little abashed. ‘I suppose I should thank you.’ She frowned, turning to look over at the reverend. ‘And what is he doing here? Do you fear for your reputation, Mr Darcy?’
‘No; it is your reputation I seek to protect as best I can.’
‘Hah!’ Lydia laughed but without humour. ‘It is a little too late for that. You would do better to save your breath.’
Darcy studied her thoughtfully as he sat down again. What was he to do with this girl? He could not take her back to Pemberley, and certainly not with the Latimers still in residence, but something must be done.
‘Why did you ask to see me?’
Lydia shrugged. ‘There is something I require, and I believe you will get it for me.’
‘And what might that be?’
‘I am in need of funds.’
Darcy cursed himself for not anticipating this. ‘You ask on Wickham’s behalf?’
Lydia frowned. ‘Wickham? What of him?’
‘Where is he?’
‘I neither know nor care.’ Lydia threw Darcy a curious look. ‘What is it to you?’
‘I have my reasons for wishing to establish his present whereabouts.’
With a further shrug, she leaned back against the wall. ‘I have not seen him in a twelve-month and hope never to do so again. He played me for a fool, and I fell for it willingly.’
Once more, Darcy felt his culpability. He had opened Elizabeth’s eyes to Wickham’s perfidious nature, yet had given her no leave to do the same service for those around her, hence the local populace of Meryton, Lydia Bennet and even her parents continuing to be taken in by him. This was, ultimately, as much his fault as any other’s, and he had a moral obligation – nay, a duty – to do all in his limited power to improve things.
Restless, Darcy got to his feet again, running a hand through his hair. Damn his moral duty! He would leave no avenue unexplored in striving to make things as right as he could, and for one reason alone: his abiding love for Elizabeth Bennet. That she might be comforted by anything he could do to improve her sister’s plight was his only true consideration.
He turned to address the girl. ‘Miss Bennet…’ She glared at him again. ‘I beg your pardon. Mrs Hawes. Will you place your trust in me? I wish to aid you.’
Lydia eyed him warily. ‘I have found little to trust in the men of my acquaintance in the past. They have done me no favour.’
‘I appreciate that.’ Darcy hesitated. He could give no real assurances at this moment. ‘If it will help you in coming to a decision on such a commitment, then I must tell you, Miss Elizabeth Bennet has lately placed her trust in me.’
Lydia smirked, and despite her wasted features, Darcy was reminded sharply of the young lady she used to be. ‘It is no surprise to me that you asked it of her.’
Darcy frowned. ‘How so?’
‘I saw you; outside the church at Kympton but a few weeks ago. If there is one thing I do comprehend, sir, it is how to interpret the look in a man’s eye when he has it transfixed upon a lady in admiration.’
A little discomfited, Darcy cast a quick glance in Wentworth’s direction, but he had assumed a noncommittal expression.
Clearing his throat again, Darcy pressed on. ‘Though you have eschewed the name of Bennet, I hope you still wish to acknowledge your own kin, however discreetly it must be done?’
For a moment, she looked away, and Darcy thought she was going to rail against her father again, but then she turned back. There was a wetness to her lashes once more, and her voice trembled as she spoke.
‘Do you know what it is to have a sister, Mr Darcy?’
‘Then perhaps you will understand what drew me here. It was a compelling need to look upon the faces of my sisters once more, to hopefully hear their voices.’ She sighed. ‘Though I do not know where Mary and Kitty are right now, seeing Jane and Lizzy has been sufficient to keep me here, despite the appalling conditions under which I am living. It is far preferable to being cut off from them in its entirety, many miles distant, with not even correspondence to lighten my heart, to feed my memories. I had thought it would be sufficient to see them; to know they are well and happy. But it was not so. I felt unable to leave; even yesterday, after I had been seen.’ Then, she lowered her head, almost talking to herself. ‘Not that it would signify; without funds, how can I travel?’
Compassion rose in Darcy’s breast, taking him by surprise, and he turned away. He could not imagine the pain of being kept away from his sister, his cousin, every single person of familiarity to him, and his home too. To anticipate never hearing word of them ever again, or a sight of them, was beyond his comprehension, and he began to understand how it might make one desperate.
Turning around, Darcy took a step closer to where Lydia sat huddled into her cloak. ‘Then I ask again, Mrs Hawes. Will you put your trust in me?’
She peered up at him. ‘I have nothing to lose, have I? What is it you wish from me?
‘If I am to be of any assistance to you, I need you tell me all you can of what has happened to you’
Lydia glanced towards Wentworth and bit her lip.
‘Mr Wentworth is entirely to be trusted. Your tale will be safe in his hands.’
She looked from the reverend back to Darcy, then nodded.
‘Wickham soon tired of me once we reached Town. He found us lodgings with an old friend, a Mrs Younge, at first, but even she would not tolerate his failure to pay a fair rent. We ended up in this inn located in a very poor part of Town, and within a few weeks, Wickham grew impatient with his circumstances, blaming me for our situation. His eye had begun to wonder, settling on a serving wench; we argued – not for the first time – and he threw me out with only the clothes I stood up in. Everything I owned was left behind.’
The thought of such a fate befalling his own sister was sufficient for Darcy to feel sympathy for the girl in her plight, despite her own failings placing her in such a situation in the first place.
‘Did you know there was a fire – at the inn?’
Lydia shook her head. ‘Not at first. I had thrown myself on the mercy of Mrs Younge, and she did take pity on me. I suspect I was not the first of Wickham’s cast-offs to come across her path.’ Lydia stirred restlessly on her seat of hay bales, her air and countenance indicative of her discomfort in recalling such a time. ‘She was not of a charitable disposition, however, and insisted the next day I return to claim my possessions in order to repay her in kind.’ She drew in an unsteady breath. ‘When I got there, the inn was destroyed, lying in smoking ruins all about. I know nothing of what happened to Wickham, but I hope he is dead.’
Knowing he was not, Darcy turned away and walked a few paces across the barn. That was something he would have to deal with later. For now, he needed to do all he could to salvage this situation.
Turning back, he walked slowly over to where Lydia remained. She had begun to shiver again.
‘Do you wish to continue?’
Lydia looked up at Darcy, then tilted her head to one side. ‘You are not what I anticipated.’ Then, she shrugged. ‘I have little choice, but my throat is dry. May I have something to drink?’
Darcy looked to Wentworth, who rose and walked over to where a tray bearing an empty bowl and a metal cup lay. ‘I will fill this from the water trough and return directly.’
Lydia’s eyes followed Wentworth as he left the barn; then, she peered up at Darcy. ‘Would you do something for me, sir?’
Unsure what her demand might be, Darcy spoke cautiously. ‘If it is within my power.’
For the first time, Lydia smiled properly. ‘All I wish for is that you resume your seat. I am gaining quite the crick in my neck from looking up at you.’
Feeling a little foolish, Darcy walked back over to the bale of hay and sat down.
‘That is better. Thank you.’ Lydia turned to accept the filled cup from Wentworth, who also retook his seat as she drank thirstily.
‘May I ask what happened to you after the fire; where you have been this past year?’
Lydia cradled the empty cup in her lap, then nodded. ‘I stayed with Mrs Younge for a while. I assured her my family would reimburse her for any costs. My father…’ she pulled a face, but said nothing more about the gentleman. ‘He would not let me come home when I wrote to ask him. I had damaged my sisters’ reputations, they were tainted by my actions and so were their prospects. I felt he must exaggerate, that surely he was just punishing me and would relent, but to my dismay, he insisted. I was placed with a lady – a Mrs Wood – in a village quite northwards. She had set up an establishment to provide a home for… widowed young ladies.’
‘And you have been there all this time?’
‘In exile, Mr Darcy. Dead to anyone who ever knew me.’
‘And how did you come to be in Derbyshire?’
‘Relatively easily. I had a little money. Papa sends funds regularly, and as I had little use for them, I saved them. I knew not for what purpose, but then I stumbled upon a letter from him to Mrs Wood.’ She looked at Darcy, then to Wentworth. ‘I knew they had left Longbourn, but Papa never told me their destination. Finally, I had an address, and the temptation took hold, became too much. I was able to travel as far as the coach would take me for the money I had saved. I walked the last few miles, but without funds, I had no way to fend for myself.’
‘What did you do then?’
‘I hid in the woodland around The Grange, sometimes venturing as far as the church at Kympton. I realised I could watch Jane and Lizzy with perfect ease from my hiding places.’ She almost smiled. ‘I saw Lizzy in the garden one day. I know she knew someone hid there, but I could not reveal myself or speak to her. I had already damaged my sisters’ reputations beyond repair. How could I come to life again when it would risk destroying those I have come to realise I truly love?’
It was a strangely noble sentiment in the circumstances, and once again, Darcy found his compassion roused.
‘And what of Pemberley? I know you have been in the grounds.’
‘There was a storm one night. I needed shelter, so I forced my way into a tower in the woods. It served its purpose, and once I realised Jane and Lizzy were no longer at The Grange but guests at Pemberley, it felt the most fitting place to be.’
‘How long have you been here in Derbyshire?’
Lydia shrugged. ‘I have lost track of the days. Perhaps ten?’ She frowned. ‘What day is it?’
‘I have tarried too long. ’ She sighed wearily. ‘There is no future for me here. I am cold and tired, yet I do not see that anything can be done other than a return whence I came, if you will aid me by supplying the funds to get me there.’
‘It is not quite as simple as that.’
For a moment, fear filled Lydia’s countenance. ‘You will not have me locked up! Do you intend to inform the local magistrate of my stealing from the estate?’
‘I have just asked you to place your trust in me, Miss Be-, Mrs Hawes! How could you think so?’
‘Forgive me; I am being nonsensical.’ She lowered her head, and Darcy felt guilty for his impatience.
‘Not at all. Surely you do not wish to leave here without at least speaking to your sisters?’
‘They must hate me.’ Lydia hung her head even lower, her tone despondent. ‘You spoke of my acknowledging my kin, as you called them.’ She raised anguished eyes to Darcy. ‘My fear is that my sisters will not wish to own an acquaintance with me. When one is left in such circumstances, one has too much time for reflection, for regret. Hindsight is a bitter pill, is it nor, sir?’ She drew in a shaking breath, but whatever she was about to add was never uttered.
The door to the barn was suddenly pulled open, and as they all turned to look towards it, Darcy caught his breath. Standing on the threshold was Jane Bennet, Elizabeth by her side.
A gasp came from Lydia’s corner, but Darcy’s gaze was fixed upon her sisters. Jane had raised a hand to her mouth, her eyes wide with disbelief, but Elizabeth stepped forward quickly, a tremulous smile touching her lips.
‘Oh, Lydia,’ she said softly, her voice breaking as she held out her arms, and Darcy could detect wetness on her lashes. With a muffled sob, there was a rush of air as Lydia flew past him straight into her sister’s embrace.
Chapter Forty Nine will be posted on Tuesday!
Copyright © Cassandra Grafton 2017