Elizabeth could not sleep. She sat on the window ledge of her bedroom at Longbourn staring out across the lawn towards the long, irregular drive. It had been eight months since her sister, Lydia, had run away from Brighton, and they had no word of her since. Elizabeth was growing accustomed to a lack of sleep, and the long nights passed between painful contemplation and futile attempts to avoid such thoughts altogether –
thoughts of what might have happened to her sister.
It was nearly a full moon, and by its determined light, she suddenly perceived movement by the drive’s end, where the palings marked the entrance to the small estate. Staring determinedly in their direction, she was shocked to perceive a scantily clad figure running towards the house. She started, and quickly confirming the truth of what her senses perceived, secured her shawl about her shoulders and raced out her bedroom, down the stairs, through the hall, and unlocked the front door.
“Lydia!” she cried at the familiar face before all similarity to her youngest sibling disappeared beneath the spectacle of a disheveled creature, thrusting itself into her arms and sobbing violently.
The house began to rouse at the noise as Elizabeth half carried, half dragged the woman she was certain must be Lydia (though she still wished to look at her face again for confirmation of that distressing notion) into the nearest parlor, where she flopped upon the couch, a spectacle for the first servants to arrive on scene, and wrapped herself more tightly into Elizabeth’s arms, weeping yet harder.
It was impossible to get her to raise her head, but Elizabeth knew it was she. She wrapped an arm around the mound of tattered fabric in her lap and began to make a shushing noise, as to a baby.
“Lizzy! What is this?” Her mother’s voice demanded.
“Shhh!” she said louder, and then in quiet but shocked tones, “Tis Lydia, I think!”
“Lydia?” her mother repeated, blinking absently while her husband, at her side, clutched the door for support and grew remarkably pale.
“My God!” he exclaimed, his wife still agape and unmoving.
“What is it, Mama?” Elizabeth heard Kitty say, though she could no longer watch the tableau her family presented, all her attention being demanded by the person in her arms. “Why is Lizzy cradling a beggar?”
“Quiet, child!” her mother replied, suddenly stirred into action. She approached her youngest, dearest child. She knelt beside the sofa and reached for the crying creature's face with both hands, holding it up for inspection. The incessant weeping stopped, and Mrs. Bennet stared into her favorite’s face, dirty and tear-streaked. Tears welled in her own eyes as she said, “Oh, my darling,” and wrapped her arms around her, taking Elizabeth's burden beside her on the couch. The two women wept together in each other’s arms for several moments before Lydia suddenly, and with great violence, pushed her mother away and dove back to Lizzy, holding her far too tightly. The weeping was replaced by a strange whimpering noise, rather squeaky and frantic.
Mr. Bennet helped his wife to rise from the floor, where she had very unceremoniously landed. The lady rose while holding a hand to her cheek, which revealed a smear of blood when she examined it. “She scratched me!” Mrs. Bennet said in astonishment. “What does this mean, Mr. Bennet?”
The gentleman walked cautiously towards his daughter, whose face was now easier to see where it perched over Elizabeth's shoulder. “My God!” he said again. “She is mad!”
“It is as Mr. Collins said,” Mary interjected, thinking of everything she had ever read of womanly virtue. “It would have been better if she were dead.”
No one made any reply.
The fire split the sky, illuminating the people running about everywhere, doing everything possible to staunch the flames. Reports confirmed that old Mr. Sellers, in whose cottage the fire began, was dead, and the lives of three more of the small community of villagers who comprised Kympton parish were feared lost as well. There were fainter murmurings, and the words “arson” and “Wickham” could be perceived.
Fitzwilliam Darcy worked alongside everyone else, coatless and sweating in the heat, in which he had been laboring relentlessly for the past three hours. He was a known recluse, and the people were surprised to see him in their midst, but as he worked tirelessly through the night, they were thankful for his presence and help, and some recalled how well they used to think of him.
Those striving to quench the blaze could perceive the effects of their labors. While still unbearably hot and threatening, the fire was much diminished from what it was. Mr. Darcy tried to calculate how much longer it might take to reach their goal, a useful manner in which to avoid far darker thoughts, which insisted on intruding upon his speculation.
Two decades had passed since he last saw George Wickham, and at least half that since anyone had even mentioned the name is his presence. Yet now he heard it whispered beneath the roar of crackling wood. He might be mistaken; it could be some other name. Back, specter! Back to the past. Do not haunt me now. His heart cried out as old wounds burst open, coursing with fresh blood.
He heard a bustle coming from behind. Like many others, he paused his labor to see what new was astir. A crowd of men hustled along and abused a middle-aged man, of tall stature but sloping in form, poorly dressed, and clearly terrified. “Here’s the cause of all the trouble,” one of the men yelled above the crowd and roaring flames. “He’s your arsonist, Mr. Darcy.”
“Darcy!” George Wickham exclaimed, throwing himself on his knees in supplication. “You have to believe me! I was only visiting Sellers! We were talking and drinking, and I left him with a pipe in hand. He must have fallen asleep with it – there was a newspaper on his lap! He was a friend of my father’s! I would never harm the man!”
“A likely story,” snarled another burly fellow.
“Please, Darcy, my old friend! You have to believe me …”
“Enough!” the master of Pemberley bellowed, glaring down on the man who had been the cause of so much trouble to his life. He did not consider his options. He did not stop to think. True madness drove him as he lifted up George Wickham, hoisting him with strength no man his age should possess, and threw him, screaming, into the hungry flames.
The villagers rushed to the rescue, as bucket after bucket of water was directed towards the screaming mass of flames rolling on the ground instead of the cottages that still smoldered. The men who retained Wickham now moved menacingly around Mr. Darcy, who looked on, as if frozen, as the smell of his childhood friend’s flesh filled the air. He made no motion in recognition of the circle forming about him. He made no sign of protest, and as no one was inclined to manhandle the master unnecessarily, he was allowed to solemnly watch as the man stopped writhing, the flames fully doused, and something unrecognizable as human moaned on the ground.
“He lives!” someone shouted, and it was this that seemed to break Mr. Darcy from his reverie. He stepped towards where Wickham lay, but the men about him purposefully blocked his path. “Bring him to Pemberley!” he shouted. “Send Mr. Scott to the house to see to his wounds. Hurry! We might still save his life. We cannot let him die!”
The people looked at each other in question. Mr. Darcy had nearly murdered the stranger; could they trust him to see to his care?
“Hurry!” he cried, now pushing against a faltering wall of men. “There is a carriage over by the rectory. Get him to it at once! I shall lead the way on my horse.”
Unaccustomed as they were to disobeying orders from the gentry, Mr. Darcy was permitted to retrieve his mount, direct Wickham’s transfer to the carriage, and ride off at breakneck speed towards Pemberley.
“Should we report him to the magistrate?” a man asked.
“He is the magistrate!” another responded.
“Well, what do we do then?”
“Send over to Lambton for Squire Worthing. He handles such matters there.”
At Pemberley, the entire staff was dedicated to the emergency care Mr. Wickham received. Soon rumors began to spread of how the man got to be in the state he was in. These were confirmed some three hours later, in the early morning light, when a few men arrived in the accompaniment of Squire Worthing, once a frequent guest at Pemberley in the days before its master withdrew from society. The house was all chaos: the staff both providing relief to villagers in need and attending Mr. Wickham, by whose side Mr. Darcy had remained throughout, the still-burning fire in Kympton totally beyond his thoughts.
“Hello, Reynolds!” the squire greeted the butler. “I see you are already in some uproar, but I will need to speak with Mr. Darcy, if you please.”
“The master has not left the patient’s bedside since he came here, sir,” Reynolds anxiously replied, asking in an undertone, breath bated, “Is it true – how they are saying the man got that way?”
“I do not know what you heard,” the squire grimly replied, “but this is bad business. So the man still lives?”
“Yes. Mr. Scott says he thinks he will survive, if we can avoid infection.”
“Well, that will help some, if he lives and does not press charges. If he dies, I do not think I have any choice other than to take Mr. Darcy into custody.” The butler blanched, and the squire tried to explain himself better. “If the man were really the arsonist, maybe we could overlook it a bit, but reports are he was in Lambton at the time the fire started, though he was seen leaving Mr. Sellers’ cottage earlier. Probably, there was no mischief in the case at all, but Mr. Sellers merely fell asleep with his pipe, as I am told he was wont to do.”
Though these words were intended to sooth Reynolds, they merely increased his alarm. The squire left a representative at Pemberley, orders to alert him of any change in the patient’s condition, and departed, while the butler hurried to impart to the other servants the urgency with which they must attend the patient upstairs. He then went to his office, sat at his desk, and composed a letter to Lord Matlock, informing him of his cousin’s circumstances. He sent if off by rider, and though the boy chosen for the task was reluctant to leave the excitement of a fire, attempted murder, and arrest of a swell, he found motivation in a large tip from Reynolds’ own purse.
Lord and Lady Matlock’s estate was only thirty miles distant, and the earl and countess were on the scene by the very next day. They rode through the night with four horses and an entourage of outliers. When called to act, his lordship moved with military efficiency.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh had been dead for many years, and it was well before her reluctant parting with this world that she gave up on the notion of Darcy ever marrying her daughter, Anne. His increasing eccentricity and isolation lowered his eligibility for Miss de Bourgh’s hand, and when the eldest Fitzwilliam boy was foolish enough to break his neck in a carriage accident, Lady Catherine recalled how the late countess always wished for a marriage between Richard and Anne. The colonel, always more attentive to his aunt than either his brother or Darcy, suddenly presented a very pretty prospect. The two, being compliant by nature and not averse to each other, were soon convinced of their affection. The union proved a useful partnership, if not a marriage of true minds.
Anne, freed from her mother’s dominance, became a political force in society, taking a great deal more interest in both the pressing and petty issues of the day than her husband, who came into his title not long after their marriage. Lady Catherine lived long enough to see her daughter bear her grandmother’s title and hold an heir to one of the noblest fortunes in the country in her arms. Though she died against her will, which was rather intolerable, she was nonetheless pleased with herself and sorry for the world’s loss in her passing. However would the tenants at Rosings mix their whitewash correctly without her inestimable advice? Fortunate for them, the great lady had a daughter cast much in the same mold.
Darcy’s noble connections were not to learn the identity of the injured man until they arrived at Pemberley and his lordship questioned his stunned cousin. In stolid tones, he pointed at the mutilated body and named it George Wickham before beginning to weep: a dry and heaving noise. Richard was uncertain how to respond to this unprecedented spectacle. He had been deeply concerned for Darcy for many years, but never more so than when he left the sickroom that day.
He found his wife in the hall, busy telling the servants that they were going about their tasks the wrong way. She stopped her admonitions when she saw him, and a mutually exchanged tilt of the heads was all they required to retire to a nearby parlor for quiet conference.
“Well?” she asked when the door was shut behind them.
He sighed in response and sank into a nearby chair. “This is very bad, Anne.”
“I already know that!” she snapped. “I have questioned Reynolds at length. It is imperative that man not die, Richard, and I find nothing but incompetence in this house! It is badly in need of female management.”
“The man is George Wickham, Anne.”
“George Wickham,” she searched her memory. “Ah, yes. That steward’s son for whom Uncle Darcy had such a fondness. I do not see why that should matter. In fact, it might work in our favor. As long as he lives, we should be able to hush this up, but if Darcy is charged with murder, it will be everywhere!”
“It matters, Anne, because of the history they share,” he sighed, knowing there was no dredging up old scandals from the past, for she would not listen to them. “If it were anyone else, Darcy would not have behaved as he did.”
A gleam lit her eyes. “What are you suggesting, Richard? That he went mad?”
“Would a man not have to be, to commit such an act?”
“It seems to me men do terrible things to each other every day without anyone much questioning it. Perhaps we should consult a doctor. If there is a trial, an insanity plea might save us from the humiliation of seeing him hanged.”
“Anne! What of Darcy? You speak as if you care for nothing but the scandal and how it will affect you.”
“That is not true. I care a great deal for my cousin and have only his best interests in mind, but we must address the practical realities of the case. What is good for him is what is good for all the family.”
Richard shook his head. “This incidence of violence might be isolated, but you cannot continue to deny that there is something very wrong with our cousin! He is not in his right mind, and he has not been for years!”
“I will not have a lunatic in the family, Richard,” Lady Matlock affirmed shrilly, appending in softer tones, “unless it is absolutely necessary!”
“I do not think this is the kind of thing in which we have any choice, my dear,” he sighed wearily. “I shall write to Sir Frederick Wilson about him.”
“As long as Wickham lives, that should not be necessary! We must send for the best doctors we can find at once!”
A physician from Derby was called in, a more prestigious one from London sent for, and Mr. Wickham’s needs were attended to with the utmost care and consideration modern medicine could produce. That not being very much, it was somewhat miraculous that his wounds escaped serious infection. It was clear he would never walk again, his feet being horribly mutilated, but the medical experts soon came to the consensus that he would live. As soon as the patient was deemed fit for conversation, Squire Worthing reappeared to question him. The injured party refused to press any charges, much to the good man’s relief. Soon the matter seemed largely resolved, but for the gossip and conjecture of the villagers nearby.
Towards quelling that issue, Lady Matlock spoke privately with the squire, asking him to use what influence he might to confine talk of the incident to the immediate environs. In return for his hushing up the matter, she promised to assist his granddaughter, embarking on her first season the next year, when she made her presentation to society. In a few months, the only other people to express any lingering concern over the matter was Mr. Wickham himself, Lord Matlock, and Mr. Darcy, who struggled to understand what he had done, guilt working upon already weary emotions to turn eccentricity into something more. He began to drink heavily, eat less, and suffer from incessant insomnia.