Love's Arrow Poisoned



Part 3

"What need of talking? Love and confidence know not the tongue. Come let us haste away" - Thomas Lovell Beddoes

Fitzwilliam Darcy was no coward. Though he was often uncomfortable among strangers and nervous when he found himself in large gatherings, when circumstances required him to conquer his reserve and act decisively and with resolution, he could ordinarily do so with the appearance of confidence and composure. There was but one area of his life where this ability seemed to desert him with regularity, and it would come as no real surprise to any of his more intimate friends -- of which he had only a small number -- that it was when the former Miss Elizabeth Bennet was concerned that his equanimity was often most sorely tested.

It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that as Darcy crossed the ground that separated the house from the grove he found himself with every step less confident in his ability to broach the subject which he had to discuss with Elizabeth. His legs seemed to slow of their own accord without any conscious thought on his part, and he was not less than fifty feet from her by the time that the effort of putting one foot in front of the other made him feel, in his mind at least, as though he were attempting to wade through treacle. Fortunately, assistance was at hand and its source was, quite appropriately, the lady aforementioned. She, seeing him approaching towards her, gathered her own wits quickly and greeted him with a smile which immediately made him feel more at ease, and he was able to navigate the last few yards a little more comfortably. He offered her his arm and she took it readily and, placing his other hand over hers, he led her towards the nearby seat which they had recently had placed overlooking the lake there. It was a secluded spot, where they often spent time together, and he felt the familiar surroundings would make what was to come easier for both of them.

They sat in silence for a few seconds, and he continued to hold her hand and stole a surreptitious glance at her in an attempt to determine her mood. She was gazing out over the lake and seemed to be marshalling her thoughts, so he determined to provide an opportunity for her to confide in him, should she wish it. He cleared his throat and started the conversation with a tentative, "Elizabeth?"

"Yes, dear."

"I have something of import which I must discuss with you; but I have the impression that you too have something preying on your mind. If this is so, then before I unburden myself, is there anything I can do to help?" He paused to await her reply, but she continued to gaze out over the lake, her face betraying some inner struggle. As she did not respond he suspected that he had disconcerted her, so he continued after a short pause with, "Forgive me if I seem to demand your confidence on a subject which is your own concern, I know you have always valued some independence in certain matters. If it is something that you are unable or unwilling to..."

She laughed a little nervously at that point, stopping him, and replied, "Sir, your definition of a demand is indeed a strange one, request would have been nearer the truth surely. First you offer your help, then apologize for the offer because it requires me to give you that information without which you could not do anything to help. Forgive me if my momentary silence caused you to believe that you had said anything to cause me distress. I do have something I would discuss with you, but was unsure how to begin."

He smiled at this confession of uncharacteristic reticence and said, "It is unusual in my experience for you to suffer any difficulty in expressing yourself. Indeed," he added in dry humour, "were it not one of the qualities that I find so enchanting about you, I may -- given some of my previous experiences -- have occasionally expressed a wish for you to learn to dissemble." She laughed again, without any nervousness this time, at this evidence of his ability to tease her, a technique he had developed since their marriage, but which he exercised infrequently enough to make it always unexpected -- and therefore more successful. Seeing that she had regained her composure, he suggested, "Why not just begin at the beginning?"

Elizabeth nodded and sighed expressively. "Very well. I have this morning received a letter which has surprized and perplexed me. From, er.., from my sister."

"Jane? I hope she is well? I thought..."

"No, it is not from Jane. It is from," she cleared her throat, "Lydia, er, Mrs Wickham."

"I see." He could not prevent the colour draining from his face at this information, but fortunately she had turned her eyes away when she had uttered that name she knew would pain him, and he was able to regain control of his features by the time she turned back. "And what does she say which has caused this uncharacteristic confusion?" He tried to keep his voice as steady and light as possible as he asked this but dreaded the reply.

Elizabeth pondered for a moment. "It is not quite so much what she says but what she does not say that is confusing. I have only received two letters from her in the last six months, one quite soon after we were married and one six weeks ago to inform me that she was with child." She paused, then continued in a small voice, "And I have here a confession to make, which I hope will not cause you to think ill of me."

He looked at her in surprise as she expressed this anxiety but refrained from retorting that he found that circumstance unlikely. "Go on," he prompted gently.

"Well, the first urged me to request of you that you do what you have already done time and again," she explained. "That you provide Wickham with monetary assistance. I believe she thought I only had to request it and you would find him a place at court and allow him a gentleman's income. In response, I informed her in the plainest terms that I would never make such a request of you and, without giving her details of your dealings with him, told her that his acquaintances had been far too generous towards him in the past and he had not proven himself worthy of such kindness."

"Well, I cannot fault you on your actions in doing so," he stated. Then, seeing her discomfort and sensing more was to come he prompted, "But what else?"

This was the moment Elizabeth had been anticipating with dread. "I, er, sent her a small sum from my own allowance to ensure that she would not want for any essential comfort if Wickham did not allow her sufficient funds to run her household." It was said hurriedly in one breath and she looked down as she finished, afraid to meet his eye. When he remained immobile and silent, she feared the worst. Eventually she forced her eyes upwards to steal a glance at him and saw he was staring off into space with compressed lips and narrowed eyes. After a few moments of silence, which she found almost unbearable, he relaxed visibly and responded softly.

"I cannot blame you for wanting to ensure your sisters welfare, though I would have preferred it if you had consulted me. Then I could have provided any help that was necessary and you would not have been forced to use your own means. However, given my past dealings with Wickham, I believe I can understand why you took the course you did." He paused for a moment and then added hesitantly, "I am sorry that my previous history with him made it difficult for you to rely on my support in what must have been an unpleasant business."

The last of this speech was uttered in a hoarse voice which betrayed the strong emotion this disclosure had cost him and Elizabeth was at a loss how to react. That he had accepted her concealment without anger surprized and humbled her, that he should then attempt to take the blame for that concealment on himself made her ashamed for her lack of trust and she knew not what to say or do. Rather than debate inwardly, however, she allowed her instinct to guide her, and her response was all the more effective for it. She threw her arms around his neck and, pressing her cheek to his, said in a voice filled with emotion, "Oh my love. Please, do not believe that you have failed me in any way." She pulled back and, gazing directly into his eyes for the first time, continued. "I would not have you think less of yourself because I did not request your assistance. Truth be known I was acting selfishly, consulting my own feelings rather than yours. I did not wish to cause you pain; and Lydia's first letter came so soon after our wedding that I feared that the remembrance of your dealings with Wickham last year would be too fresh in your memory."

He gave a wry grimace. "Yes, I believe it may have been."

"I conveyed to her in no uncertain terms the extent of what I was prepared to do for her, which I believed lowered her expectations considerably, but I did not want her to go in want of any essential comfort. Then last month when she wrote and told me that she was with child and I realized the increase in expenditure that would entail, such as doctor's consultations, I did not want her to suffer should any emergency arise. I know she has made similar requests of Jane and that Jane made her a small gift on the first occasion, but when I heard of this I requested Jane to make no further contributions and to leave all future assistance to me."

Darcy shook his head in wonder at this further proof of both her intelligence and kind-heartedness. "You did well," said he in admiration, then adding more doubtfully, "and I can only hope that any assistance you gave did go for the purposes intended."

She looked at him in concern. "Do you have any reason to believe it did not?"

"I am afraid to say that I do," he replied bitterly, "I know Wickham."

"I did wonder if Lydia was acting alone when she sent the letters and almost determined at first to offer no help until she had assured me it was not otherwise. But I decided that as I had made quite clear the limit of what I was prepared to do that she, or they, would realize any excessive future demands would be pointless."

Darcy regarded her with admiration. "I wonder that you seek my approbation for your proceedings when you appear to have acted with intelligence and discretion, not to mention some tact as far as I am concerned," said he sincerely, his voice almost breaking. "You said you feared I would think ill of you and yet again you rise in my estimation. I am proud of you."

His arms were about her now and he drew her slowly to him and covered her lips with a tender kiss. She responded, putting her arms about his neck and pressing his lips more firmly, but after a few seconds, which seemed to stretch into infinity, he withdrew slowly and said in a voice of mock severity, "Before I forget myself, madam, I believe you were telling me about your letter."

She smiled, and trying to collect her wits, answered distractedly, "Yes, the letter."

"You said that something it did not contain surprized you," he prompted. "I gather that it did not contain any further request for you-.. er, our monetary assistance?"

"No, and given that she wrote only last month I could think of no other reason for her to write, unless she was unwell, but that does not appear to be the case. It contains her usual accounts of her daily life, acquaintances, gossip and all but reading between the lines she does not appear to be content. She states that Wickham is busy with his duties and she sees less of him than she would like, so I fear he has grown bored of her already and neglects her, though she says that she is a favourite with many of the other officers." Darcy flinched involuntarily at this, given the contents of the Colonel's letter. "Also, it appears Lydia has extended an invitation for my sister Kitty to visit her in Newcastle, a request you will not be surprized to hear that my father has firmly rejected. She entreats me to use my influence with him to change his mind and allow Kitty to go, though she must know I am disinclined to do any such thing. Most surprisingly she expresses the wish that, should Kitty be unable to do so, Jane or I could find time to visit her so she could have more congenial company, though I can scarcely believe that she can expect me to do so and I can not believe that the reason she gives for the request is the real one."

This was a better opening than he had dared to hope for before, but he tried to control his features and replied as nonchalantly as possible, "Really, and do you think a visit would be a good idea?"

Her eyes flickered in surprise at his willingness to even consider such a proposal, and she said hesitantly, "Well, I had not, er, that is I did not seriously consider it. You could not want me to leave you here to visit surely. And I have no desire to be away from Pemberley and you."

"I do not recall any mention of you leaving me here."

This was a shock indeed. She contemplated Darcy for several seconds, her head tilted to one side, before saying simply, "I did not believe that you would ever willingly place yourself in Wickham's society again."

"If it were up to me you know that I would not," he replied definitely, "but if circumstances required it then surely you do not believe that I would leave you to face the consequences alone?"

"No," she admitted, lifting her hand to touch his cheek tenderly. She considered a moment. "But if she is in need of company or a change of scene then I could have more easily understood a request for an invitation to Pemberley."

Darcy considered this thoughtfully. "Perhaps her circumstances make it impossible for her to leave Newcastle at the present time," he suggested. "There is the expense of travel to consider and we do not know if she has a reliable person to escort her."

"Then why does she not ask that I provide her with the cost of travelling and send someone to meet her where appropriate?" she persisted.

He shrugged his shoulders. "Well, only she can provide the answers to your questions."

Elizabeth studied him closely for several seconds. "Fitzwilliam, you would appear to know something which relates to this, you did not seem as surprized or disturbed as I would expect at these disclosures. When you joined me you said that you had something to discuss with me. Tell me, does it have anything to do with this?"

Darcy took a deep breath, aware that it was now his turn to unburden his mind. He had expected it to be extremely difficult to broach the subject, however Elizabeth's revelations had not only made its introduction easier but also given him some confidence that she would excuse the concealment of his suspicions.

"Yes, I'm afraid it does," he told her, taking both her hands in his, "and I am sorry to say that some of what I am about to disclose will pain you, but I believe it is better that you should know all and I would very much appreciate your opinion on what I have learned." He paused to gather his thoughts and then went on, "Ten days ago I received a letter from Colonel Fitzwilliam in which, among his usual jocular and facetious expressions, he mentioned that he had come into contact with a fellow officer who had recently been in company with some others stationed in Newcastle, and that this man had mentioned George Wickham in terms which gave Fitzwilliam cause for concern. He wrote to me asking what steps, if any, I recommended he take and I urged him to find out what he could from a reliable source still in the area. His reply came today."

The impact that this speech had as it progressed was evident from Elizabeth's countenance but she bore it as well as he could have dared expect. She managed -- though with some difficulty he observed -- to maintain her composure, looking at him with an expression that combined apprehension and devouring curiosity for the rest of the details, and he decided that the simplest and most direct method of revealing the rest would be appropriate. He handed her the letter from Fitzwilliam, saying, "Here, you may read it."

The effect that the perusal of Colonel Fitzwilliam's letter had on Elizabeth was approximately what he had anticipated. Indeed, Darcy could not but feel he could discern precisely which sentence she was reading from her reactions as she perused it. Shock, horror, mortification - and when -- as he guessed -- she reached that part pertaining to her sister - anger; an anger he had seen in her eyes once before and of which he could not think without feeling extremely uncomfortable. She got up and paced back and forth before him, reading it again and again, her lips compressed tightly together, except when an unconscious exclamation broke forth. Darcy, in other circumstances might have been amused at her reaction most exactly mirroring his own, but he could hear not her barely audible cries of "Insufferable man!", "Poor, stupid girl!" and what he was almost sure was a most unladylike curse, without anguish.

Elizabeth, amongst the myriad of distressing thoughts and recollections the letter produced, found her mind in turmoil. She experienced, seriatim; surprise, disbelief, pain and wrath. She could not be insensible to the Colonel's praise of her, but this could not alloy what went before. As she considered it, the wider implications began to assail her. The shock and grief to her family in Hertfordshire, should things reach their logical conclusion. And there was not just her family at Longbourn to consider. There was her aunt and uncle Gardiner, Jane and Mr. Bingley and, she reflected with pain, her husband. What must he be feeling? To be reminded again of her sister's folly by the actions of the man he had every reason to despise. All the wounds which they had suffered the previous year re-opened! At the time she had believed those events would cost her the happiness she now enjoyed. Now she feared that happiness was under threat again. It was not possible, was it, that he would now regret the single-mindedness with which he had pursued her? As she reached this point, she experienced that odd sensation when, from among the multitude of reflections and remembrances passing through the mind, one unbidden thought enters without invitation, and it succeeded in breaking down all the barriers she attempted to raise against it.

Suddenly she was back at Longbourn six months earlier. Almost as though that lady now stood before her she could hear the strident voice and condescending tones; "I have another objection. Your sisters infamous elopement! I know it all; that the mans marrying her was a patched up business... Is such a girl to be my nephew's sister? Is her husband, the son of his late father's steward, to be his brother? Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?" She gasped for air involuntarily.

Darcy, seeing the distress on her face this recollection effected, was by her side immediately and gathered her in his arms, holding her as tightly as possible without making her attempts to breathe more difficult. This action, coupled with that previous thought, caused Elizabeth's final remnant of composure to crumble and she cried into his lapel - not noisily, to the accompaniment of wails or lamentations, but quietly and with some degree of dignity. That some part at least of her tears were on his account did not enter his head.

After a short time she recovered her composure a little and her practical nature began to reassert itself. She drew back slightly, took hold of his arms and asked as composedly as she was able, "What is to be done about this?"

"That is what we must decide. As you can see from Colonel Fitzwilliam's note, things are likely to come to a head soon if these...activities continue. But we must not be precipitate. In a few days, no doubt, we will hear from Captain Perry, and as his information will come direct and not via Fitzwilliam, it will be more up to date. Hopefully, he has been able to take some steps himself which may prevent disaster."

"Will not any action on his part exacerbate the problem?" asked she, recommencing her pacing. "It may cause Wickham to do something rash."

"Yes," agreed Darcy, scratching his head in perplexity, "that is a danger. But I find it hard to believe he will take any drastic step unless things are very bad. He has his commission and the regular income our arrangements last year provide him. He knows his best interest and will act on it and I can not conceive how things could have got into such a state -- and so quickly -- as to make him endanger that."

"And we are in the same position," she reflected bitterly, "we can not take any action as it may make matters worse. But to do nothing is intolerable!"

"Yes, but we have an advantage compared to last year. That is, we have some indication of how things are before the crisis has reached a head. We must use that advantage if we can."

"How?" Elizabeth asked.

"By being prepared," he replied, leading her back to the seat and sitting beside her. "Our most valuable tool will be information. You said Mrs. Wickham kept up a correspondence with Jane?"

"Yes, and I believe my aunt as well, though she is a poor letter writer at the best of times. I don't think we will learn much from that quarter." She thought a moment and then ventured, "I think Kitty may be the one person she confides in, indeed she had some inkling of the way events were shaping in Brighton before anyone else."

"Then I suggest you write to her and try to gain any knowledge you can about Mrs. Wickham's situation. Wickham will always act in his own best interests and I do not believe that even his marriage will alter that, so it is her and her child we must consider. He can go to the devil as far as I am concerned were it not for his connection to us."

That last sentence, indicating his willingness to acknowledge that connection without distaste or recrimination, sent a wave of pleasure through Elizabeth which almost completely succeeded in obliterating her previous suspicion - that he may be regretting that connection. But then the thought that once again he was acting on her behalf despite his own feelings came to her. I believe I thought only of you. Those words from last autumn came back to her. But was it love and concern for her peace of mind or a sense of duty that motivated him this time? The Mistress and future mother of the heir of Pemberley could not be disgraced by a degenerate, rakehell brother or an immoral sister. She realized he was speaking again.

"...I will contact my attorney so we are ready to face any legal difficulties."

She started. "You will not have to go to London, will you?" The thought of being left alone, especially at such a time, was distressing to her and she had spoken before realizing it. She was being selfish, she knew, but he was like a rock in a tempest and she wanted to cling to him. If it was necessary for him to go for Lydia's benefit, then she should support and encourage him, not let her own feelings interfere.

"No," he answered decidedly. "I am sure that if any negotiations have to be conducted in person then Mr. Gardiner will act on my behalf. He is a most trustworthy man and has a fine business sense. It will be much better if I am here, I think."

"Yes," was all she could reply as relief and gratitude for his words assailed her.

"I believe I will also write to your father, to tell him we have received some information and are taking steps to verify it and respond should the need arise," he continued. "I would not like him to think that I am taking an officious interest in what he may believe is chiefly his concern."

"I can not believe he would do so," replied Elizabeth with some feeling. "Not after all that you have done for my family before now."

"Our family," he corrected, and suddenly found himself being passionately kissed.

Two days later, Elizabeth was seated at the piano in the music room practising some of her favourite pieces, though in a rather distracted manner, when she was disturbed by the door opening softly and Mrs Reynolds entering. Looking around, she seemed to fail to find whom or what she sought and was about to retreat when Elizabeth stopped her playing and asked curiously,

"Yes, Mrs Reynolds, what is it?"

"I am sorry to disturb you so ma'am," answered the housekeeper, "but I was looking for the master. He is not in his study and I thought he might be in here with you."

"Can I help?"

"Well, ma'am, we have just received an express for the Master and..."

"An express?" cried Elizabeth, jumping up and coming toward her. "Is there any indication of its sender?"

"I do not know the name of the sender, ma'am, but the messenger informed me that it is from Newcastle." Mrs Reynolds said this gently, as she had some regard for the feelings of the Mistress, knowing who was now resident in that quarter, and that he was married to the Mistresses sister, though she knew no other particulars.

"Thank you Mrs Reynolds. I will take it and find Mr Darcy at once."

"Of course ma'am," she said, handing the letter to Elizabeth. "The messenger is awaiting any reply that may be required." She turned to go but, pausing at the door, turned back and said affectionately, "I do hope its not bad news ma'am."

"Thank you," Elizabeth replied with a small smile of gratitude for the housekeeper's concern, though I very much fear...

Elizabeth found Darcy soon enough, out in the stable yard, where he was at that moment engaged in looking over a recently purchased horse with his head stable lad. They were discussing whether it was of congenial enough temperament to be used as a mount for Elizabeth, who was not an accomplished rider - being somewhat afraid of the animals - or Georgiana, who was.

"I do not know, Hobbs," Darcy was saying, "he has a rather restless look in his eyes, though he seems calm enough in manner."

"Tha's just 'cause ee's been coop'd up these last few days, sir." Hobbs opined. "Only been for a couple of trots 'round the small park. Give 'im some reg'lar exercise 'e'll be right as rain. Needs a good long gallop. Mebbe 'e'll be more suited to Miss Georgiana."

"Very well," Darcy replied. "I am sure you are right - you usually are. See he gets some proper exercise and I'll have another look at him in a few days."

At this moment he observed Elizabeth coming towards him and immediately saw she had a purpose. Dismissing the stable lad with, "Thank you, Hobbs," he went to meet her and asked without ceremony, "Is everything all right, my dear?"

"That is what I do not know," she replied. "This has just come for you from Newcastle," she added handing him the express.

He closed his eyes and sighed expressively before taking it, as though steeling himself for what might be to come. Ripping it open with practised deliberation he scanned it in silence. The only response she could observe was a compression of his lips and another, more extended exhalation. Having reached the end he returned to the top and read it again. By now Elizabeth was losing all patience and was about to barrage him with questions when he turned and shouted for the head coachman.

"Parker!" The man came running from out the nearby tackle store and was by his side in seconds.

"Have the carriage and best horses readied. I am travelling North tomorrow on urgent business." He paused a moment and then added, "And Parker, I shall want Farrow to accompany me, see that he is informed." Without another word he turned again and was off towards the house at an alarming rate. Elizabeth, despite being an excellent walker, found it impossible to keep pace with him and after a few seconds he had outstripped her by several yards. Suddenly he stopped, looked about as though he expected to see her right beside him and, when he realized she was not, turned around and returned the way he had come.

"I am sorry," said he apologetically, when he rejoined her. "I must write a reply to this before the messenger leaves. How long ago was it delivered?"

"Mrs Reynolds told me he was waiting for a reply. I am sure she will not let him depart until you have given him leave." He relaxed at this reply.

"Good, good."

"And now will you tell me the contents?"

For reply he simply handed it to her, "It is from Captain Perry. Read it."

She took it and, with no little trepidation, read;

Dear Sir,

As you are no doubt aware Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam of the --shire has requested of me that I keep you informed as to the activities and situation of Mr George Wickham, of my regiment. I am sure by now you have received from him the particulars I sent on his first requesting me to make some discreet inquiries on your behalf. However, I am sorry to report that the information I have gathered in the week since writing to the Colonel has done nothing to ease my concern over Mr Wickham's affairs.

In truth what I have learned, though it is likely to be but half the story, is of such a nature that I have resolved to send this letter to you directly to request your immediate help in resolving this situation before it is beyond my power of aid.

As you know, Mr Wickham has debts of honour from card playing and billiards, and I have also since learned that he has been taking the plunge somewhat recklessly on the turf. I am sure you are well aware that the kind of people this would bring him into contact with are not likely to be patient or understanding should he prove unable to settle his accounts and their methods can be extremely direct. Colonel Fitzwilliam requested that I try to discover the extent of these debts. This has, you may readily understand, proved most difficult as I am aware of the need not to alarm the subject of my investigations -- or the creditors themselves; who, finding that inquiries are being made, may get cold feet and demand immediate payment - an action that I am convinced would cause Mr Wickham's flight or ruin. Since he has a young wife who is with child I am anxious to avoid either of these consequences - quite apart from the disgrace to the regiment. As an approximation, however, I would suppose his notes of hand to amount to at least two thousand pounds, though it may be much more - I have little idea of the extent of his horse racing debts.

His habits seem dissolute and he neglects his military duties. I have it on good authority that he has been seen several times visiting a certain notorious house near the docks. He is known in the rougher ale houses in that area and is often much the worse for drink. I have reports that on several occasions he has been involved in altercations - both with other patrons and innkeepers. Once or twice these have become violent and he has worn the evidence of them on his face.

Sir, I cannot but beg that you come to Newcastle yourself if possible to avert a catastrophe. I know you will want to do all in your power to aid Mrs Wickham and I fear her husband is headed for debtor's prison, dismissal from his commission and public disgrace - or worse. What further I have heard about Mr Wickham habits and domestic situation is also of a nature to give me great uneasiness, but these details I am uncomfortable relating by letter without confirmation.

If it is your power to come I will be happy to arrange that suitable accommodation is available for you on your arrival. I should add my superior officer General Ashe is a friend of your cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam and thinks very highly of him. I am sure he will be honoured to help you in any way possible.

I will await your reply

Yours & c.

Captain Anthony Perry

Elizabeth sighed and, handing the letter back, declared with some bitterness, "I had not thought it possible that George Wickham could lower himself further in my estimation. I fear I find once again that my discernment is severely lacking."

"Elizabeth," Darcy replied, taking hold of her shoulders and looking her squarely in the eyes, "you are only one in a long succession of people who have been deceived by the manners of that man. I could take you into Lambton right now and introduce to you to a great number of them; respectable tradesman, women of the village and their sons - and daughters. You have heard of some of the intrigues and seductions he engaged in before he left Derbyshire. You know well of the debts he ran up in Hertfordshire and Brighton, before his situation forced him to flee and involve your sister in his plans. My own father and sister were deceived by him. I believe even your aunt found him a charming man and gave credence to his assertions, and I think we would both agree that your aunt is a woman of insight and understanding. You have no reason to chastise yourself."

Elizabeth sighed again. "I am sorry, Fitzwilliam. You should be planning how to deal with this situation, not listening to my self-recriminations. I believe I am still blaming myself for not having made Wickham's character known to my family last year after I returned from Hunsford. If I had, then none of this would matter as he would not be connected to us."

"You could do no such thing since the information I gave you was imparted in such a way as to make your divulging it a breach of confidence," replied he with increasing anger, "God damn the man! I thought I had received punishment enough for my mistaken pride in not making his character generally known, but it seems he is to forever torment me."

Observing the effect that her outburst, which she now felt with shame had been egotistic and unhelpful, had on Darcy, Elizabeth berated herself silently and decided to concentrate on practicalities. "Well, but Lydia is Mrs Wickham now, and no amount of self-reproach will change that. We must deal with the situation now."

"Yes, you are right," he agreed, calming somewhat. "I will write that reply without delay....what do you mean we?"

She looked at him determinedly. "Fitzwilliam, I am going with you to Newcastle."

Darcy, who had in fact been cogitating on this very idea while Elizabeth had been reading the letter, was unprepared for this assertive statement. He had come to no decision himself, torn between the consideration that he felt Elizabeth's help might be useful in dealing with Lydia and any other ladies caught up in Wickham's intrigues and the possibility that the consequence on her feelings of any actions he might take could affect those actions. He knew he would go through any mortification, bear any cost, to ease her mind; and that thought made him worry that he would be less effective in what he had to do. Also there was the possibility of some danger. Wickham had put his own and his wife's safety at risk if he had involved himself with the 'race gangs' and anyone connected with him may become a target of their methods.

But all this was overshadowed by the purely selfish thought that he would miss her. He did not want to be parted from her at all - let alone to go on such an unpleasant errand. He had always thought himself rational but that quality seemed to desert him when it came to her. Not wanting to make any decision based on what he felt was emotion rather than logic, he decided to let her arguments help him determine the answer. He crossed his arms on his chest and asked simply, "Why?"

He said it in the tone one of his former college masters would have used on a pupil required to prove a proposition in logic. It carried no encouragement, though he was quite ready to be convinced, and conveyed only a desire for rational justification of her statement.

Elizabeth, at first expecting a flat refusal or incontrovertible reason as to why she should not go had used the few seconds while Darcy was cogitating to plan her response to any argument he might use. When he merely used that one word in that tone, however, and therefore left it to her to open the attack, she realized that he was open to reasoned argument. Mustering her thoughts, she replied in a measured tone, "Fitzwilliam, you can not wish to deal with Lydia alone, you know what she is like from your efforts on her behalf last year. She has an unreasonable prejudice against you from your time in Hertfordshire, made worse when you discovered them in London. It has been encouraged even more so since, no doubt, by Wickham's account of what transpired between you at the time of their wedding. She will not listen to your advice - not only because she does not know her own best interest but because it will be you giving it. If I am present, as representative of my family, it will be much easier to guide her. She will be more open in her confidences with me and if her removal from Newcastle becomes necessary then it will be accomplished more easily if I am there.

"Also, you know that in the past women have often been the victims of Wickham's lies and attempted seductions. I believe that I will be much better placed than you to obtain any relevant information from any of the parties involved, which might not be passed on to you or Captain Perry." She paused for a moment. Having sent in the rational artillery to break down his defences, she decided that the emotional cavalry would finish the job. "Lastly, I will be much happier in my mind if I was there than here, not knowing about what is happening and worrying." She then administered the coup-de-grace. "And I would miss you so."

Darcy had listened in silence to this speech, merely nodding his head occasionally as she made a succinct point, and as she reached the end of it he nodded again and seemed to consider for a few seconds. Her rational reasons for going were similar to his own, though organized much better. He also remembered Colonel Fitzwilliam's advice:

I know she will be a great help to you in whatever action you decide to take...Do not shut her out of this, Darce.

Elizabeth watched in apprehension - needlessly as it turned out. She had decided him. Trying to persuade himself -- not altogether successfully -- that it had been her rational arguments and not those final half a dozen words that had convinced him, and ignoring her adroit manipulation, he nodded again. "Very well, you have made your point. Indeed, how can I argue against such logical analysis?" He took her arm and they proceeded toward the house. "I will ask Captain Perry to arrange accommodation for us both. I'm sure you will need time to organize the packing of trunks and make any necessary arrangements with Mrs Reynolds."

Elizabeth, gratified and slightly surprized that she had won the day so easily, nodded and replied, "Yes. I take it you do not wish me to write a note for Lydia to be taken back with your reply?"

"No, I believe surprise will be our best line of attack," Darcy responded. "If Wickham discovers we are on the way he will know that his affairs are more widely circulated than he would wish and he may take precipitate action."

"You mean he may flee Newcastle?" asked she in concern.

"Yes, and that would be extremely injurious to Mrs Wickham. We will be there in two days, we cannot make the journey all the way tomorrow. Hopefully, we will not be too late." He paused a moment, then added seriously, "Elizabeth, please understand that while we will do everything in our power to protect Mrs Wickham and any innocent victims, Wickham's activities may already have caused consequences which will make it impossible for us to conceal them from the knowledge of others, as we would wish."

She regarded him with alarm for a moment as the import of what he was saying assailed her. He was informing her that even the Master of Pemberley could not always order events as he would wish, regardless of his influence or means. She comprehended that despite her confidence in him, which she knew he recognized, she must not expect miracles that were beyond his capabilities. He was also issuing a warning that some of the dire consequences she had envisioned when first reading the Colonel's letter may yet come to pass, and there might be little they could do to prevent it. She nodded her head and, squeezing his arm to underline her comprehension, answered simply, "I understand."

He favoured her with a small smile and inclined his head in acknowledgement, confident that she had fully realized his need to issue this warning and the reasoning behind it.

By this time they had arrived in the main hall and Elizabeth continued, "I will inform Mrs Reynolds of our plans and organize the packing of our trunks. I should also like to write to Jane and my aunt Gardiner and inform them that we are going, though I will not divulge the details. There will be time enough for that later if the situation is as grave as we apprehend."

"Yes, of course," replied Darcy, "please inform the staff that we leave at first light."

Early the next morning, a carriage stood outside in the courtyard at Pemberley. Trunks were being loaded by the staff and final preparations made for the journey. Darcy stood nearby, giving last minute instructions to his Steward when he noticed Elizabeth, who had been engaged in the same activity with Mrs Reynolds and now stood waiting, turn suddenly to walk back inside.

"Elizabeth," he asked, interrupting his discourse, "is all well?"

"Yes, I will be ready to depart directly," she replied, "I have just had the notion to fetch something that I overlooked before. I will be but a moment."

She was gone only a minute or two and returned without mentioning the reason for her errand and Darcy found his curiosity piqued. He finished his business with the Steward, though now in a slightly distracted way, and they made their adieus. As he handed her into the carriage, however, he could not help inquiring, "And what, pray, did you have to fetch that you could not send Mrs Reynolds or another member of the staff for?"

She laughed at him beguilingly and replied teasingly, with an arch look, "Surely you, a man of sense and education who has lived in the world, can supply the answer to that question yourself?"

"Very well," he responded to her challenge, smiling, "during the journey I will attempt to give myself the trouble to work it out."

Part 4

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