Love's Arrow Poisoned



Part 4

"Then underneath the coverlid and cloak he has a poisonous strumpet in his arms." - Thomas Lovell Beddoes

At approximately the same time as the Darcy carriage was exiting Pemberley - and at a distance of some one hundred and sixty miles away - George Wickham was woken by the sun streaming through the window of the bedchamber where he lay. The light, forcing itself unbidden through his tightly closed eyelids, acted like a sledgehammer on his brain and aggravated the headache which already pounded therein. He attempted to close his eyes more tightly but that action had no more effect than to make the stars he could already see dance and multiply in a multitude of garish colours, so he grabbed the coverlet and pulled it firmly over his head. It, however, was altogether too thin to adequately perform the task of shutting out the light and he knew any attempt to return to sleep was futile. It was easier to awaken by degrees, though, and so he opened his eyes groggily with his head still under the bedclothes and adjusted to the light slowly, occasionally shutting them again when it became too painful to keep them open.

His body ached from head to toe and he felt a raging thirst which he had to quell, so he cautiously peeked over the top of the coverlet with his eyes open as narrowly as possible and scanned the bedside table for any sign of a water jug, without any real hope of seeing one. In that expectation he was correct, though he did spy the wine carafe he had all but emptied the previous night -- or was it early this morning? -- and in want of any better alternative took a large swig. He regretted it immediately. The wine was like vinegar and he nearly spat it all over the bed. Typical - just the sort of thing I would expect! They wait 'til you are half drunk and then give you this abominable bilge-water! It did however have the advantage of waking him more quickly.

By now he was better able to contemplate his surroundings. The room in which he lay was small and shabbily furnished. The bed hangings were worn, as were the curtains. Standing on the threadbare carpet were two chairs and small sofa -- which looked as though an African elephant had been its most recent occupant -- and he could see the stuffing escaping from the side of one of the chairs. His clothes were strewn hapharzardly about the floor and furniture and he groaned as he recognised their crumpled state. It was then that his nostrils were assailed by the scent of cheap perfume and an unladylike snore beside him revealed its origin. He groaned again, though more quietly this time in case he disturbed his companion, and turned in the bed. A plump arm and untidy mass of frizzy blonde hair were all he could see and the events of the previous night came back to him by degrees. He recollected with exasperation the garishly over-painted face and loud, strident voice that appertained to that form beside him, and had no inclination to inflict either on his senses again if it could possibly be avoided.

He rose with caution and quickly checked his money belt to confirm no one had taking advantage of his comatose state following the excesses of the previous night to lighten it. It was untouched, but he realized that its contents were not sufficient to cover his expenses with the establishment. Well, he knew the back way out, useful when the authorities paid a visit.

As quietly as possible, he started to gather his clothes together with the intention of departing before anyone else was astir.

The weather was fair, with a bright sun and very little cloud, and the Darcy carriage made steady progress northward over the dry roads. They passed Matlock very early, then, with the beautiful Peak country visible out of the carriage windows to the left, progressed on towards Chesterfield. Another consequence of the good conditions was that Darcy's valet and Elizabeth's maid were able to travel outside, providing them with some privacy to discuss the reasons for their journey and some of the likely ramifications of what they had discovered - as well as some conjecture as to what further disclosures might await them.

The one aspect of the situation they had not discussed to any real degree was the one Elizabeth most wanted to, and yet most feared contemplating. Darcy, who felt he could not conjecture on something which, even though it may be an unfounded rumour, would be painful to her, decided that he would leave the introduction of the subject to her, if she wished to broach it. He had, however, ruminated on it since receiving the Colonel's letter, as well as in the intervals of silence during their journey, with distaste.

It was during one of these brief intervals of silence that Elizabeth decided that she simply must have his opinion on the matter. Whether it was more in the hope of hearing him assuage her anxieties than the hope that they could construct an argument to dismiss the accusation summarily she could not quite determine. The confines of the carriage offered privacy and made any evasion on his part much more difficult and so she gathered her strength as well as she was able and broke the silence which had settled over them with a hesitant, "Fitzwilliam?"

Darcy, who had been looking out of the window at the passing countryside and ruminating on the very subject she was about to open, turned to her and replied, "Yes, my dear?"

"There is one aspect of the Colonel's letter which we have not considered fully," she continued, "though I fear the exercise may do more harm than good. I am sure you know to what I allude."

"Yes," he answered with a sigh, reaching over and taking her hand in his own, "I believe I do. You mean Wickham's drunken ramblings about your sister and her friendliness with the other officers no doubt."

"Yes. I can not believe it. Lydia has always been a silly girl, and from the moment the regiment were quartered in Meryton there was nothing but officers and flirtation on her mind, but I can not believe her capable of..." she struggled to finish the rest of her sentence and Darcy squeezed her hand in sympathy. After a moment she recomposed herself and concluded, "I do not know which I find harder to comprehend - that it might be true or that Wickham, without any reason, should invent and broadcast such a rumour."

"Yes, those were exactly my own thoughts when I first read the letter myself," agreed he, and continued haltingly, "but perhaps he does have some reason for spreading such a tale."

Elizabeth's head shot up at this. She regarded him with dismay and asked, "You do not believe that horrible accusation do you?"

He considered this question carefully, then replied. "Well, you know your sister better than I, but I must confess I do not." She sighed in relief at this assertion and after a pause he proceeded, "When I discovered them both in London last year she struck me as very much attached to him. Indeed, as you know, I tried everything in my power to persuade her to leave Wickham and return to the Gardiners' with me. But she was implacable. I have never regretted my failure on that account more then I do today. If I had been successful there may have been a way of returning her to home without any lasting damage to her reputation. But she would not give him up -- and so they had to be married -- and we are now embarked on this journey."

"You have no cause for self-recrimination, my love," stated Elizabeth firmly, squeezing his hand in assurance, "if it were not for your efforts, she would have been abandoned and disgraced. But if it is not true, why does he make such an accusation? If he does not believe it, through some mistaken idea about Lydia's unguarded behaviour, then does it have some deliberate, cold-blooded intent behind it?"

Darcy considered. "Well, if it is the latter, then I can think of only one possible motive, if such rantings can have any rational reasoning behind them," he answered at length. He paused there and cleared his throat. This was a subject which he knew he must handle with some delicacy. "This is difficult, my love. You, er, remember that part of the Colonel's letter which referred to Wickham's visits to certain houses?"

"Yes, I do," she affirmed, noticing from his manner his discomposure.

"I assume you can conjecture what sort of establishment Fitzwilliam alludes to?" he asked, gently.

Elizabeth realized then the reason for his embarrassment and, determined to make it as easy for him as possible, replied with more nonchalance than she really felt, "Yes, I believe I can. I assume he means houses..." having reached that point, however, she could not finish the sentence. She was no prude, but was unsure what language would be appropriate.

"Yes, bawdy houses, or as they are sometimes called, stews," he supplied for her, noticing her dilemma. "I am sure you can comprehend what sort of unfortunate women it is that frequent these places and the conditions that exist in them. Any man who visits there regularly puts himself in danger. Disease is common and can spread quickly and, since the symptoms often do not manifest themselves for some time, a person may disseminate it without being aware that he or she is afflicted." Elizabeth stared at him in shock and disbelief.

"I see," she cried in disgust and anger, "what you are saying is that it is a form of insurance. Wickham is risking both his own and Lydia's health and should anything happen he will be in a position to blame her for it. This is quite unbelievable! The man is without any scruple or redeeming feature whatsoever!"

"Yes," he replied grimly, "I have never thought this as strongly as I do know, but I wish in some ways I had listened to Colonel Fitzwilliam's advice after what happened at Ramsgate!"

"What advice?" she questioned, not sure she wanted to know the answer.

"He said I should have called him out and killed him before the blackguard could ruin any more innocent lives."

An astonished, "Fitzwilliam Darcy!" was all she could say.

"He even offered to perform the task for me if I found it distasteful. If I had let him then so much could have been avoided!" he exclaimed bitterly.

Elizabeth, despite her distaste for violence, or the idea of her husband involved in such activity, could not quite repress the wish that Colonel Fitzwilliam had prevailed in his arguments.

George Wickham, having safely negotiated his escape through the back of the establishment without discovery, exhaled a sigh of relief and turned up the narrow alley that ran between the backs of the adjoining houses. It was a less than celubrious neighbourhood, and he had to pick his way through piles of refuse and the prostrate forms of those forced to sleep in the street through lack of money for a bed or by overindulgence in gin - or whatever other noxious liquids they sold in the nearby drinking shops and taverns. He was accosted by one or two beggar children as he made his way along, but he waved them aside imperiously and increased his pace, determined to get out of the area as quickly as possible.

Catching his reflection in the window of a dirty, unkempt pawnbrokers shop which faced on to the alley -- no doubt it was the back premises of some other shop in the main thoroughfare beyond -- he stopped to check his appearance. It was well he did, for a couple of seconds later a window in the top floor some doors further on opened and the contents of a very full chamber-pot were thrown into the street. He realized with distaste that he would have been right under that unholy precipitation if he had not stopped and after straightening his cravat and adjusting his coat he proceeded, stepping gingerly around the puddle which now lay in the dirt.

His success at escaping the house and that irresponsible person on the top floor cheered him a little and he whistled softly to himself as he came to the end of the alley and turned into the street at the end. The sun was out, the air was fresher here and his head throbbed less and Wickham began to feel that all was right with the world.

Unfortunately this impression lasted no longer than it took for him to go less than one hundred paces. Before he was aware of it, a figure emerged from a side street and was upon him before he had time to react. Both recognised the other at the same instant. Wickham started, paled and looked around nervously, as if determining if escape were possible. He would have gladly gone back and taken his chances with the proprietors of the bawdy house -- or even the lunatic with the chamber-pot -- than face this gentleman. The other's reaction was a broad smile, but when he spoke there was no sign of congeniality in his address.

"Wickham." It was more statement than greeting and Wickham, like all unscrupulous and unimaginative people, fell back on his standard routine. He attempted to appear pleased to see his interlocutor and replied with as much charm as he could muster, "Why, Sutton! How good to see you. I have not had the pleasure since we met at Nash's last week."

"Yes, though I had expected to see you before now." This was said with some emphasis and Wickham licked his lips nervously.

"Ahh, well I had intended it so," he replied, "but my duties have been rather pressing of late and I have not had the opportunity to avail myself of your kind invitation to call."

"Really?" Sutton asked, his eyes widening in surprise. "And it is your duties that call you out at such an early hour in this neighbourhood?"

Wickham started and for once was tongue tied. He surreptitiously observed the other. He was a deep-chested, powerful looking man of about five and forty, though he seemed younger on first sight. His face was a mask and Wickham, whose manners were better suited to flattering young ladies with little experience in the world, realized any attempt to dissemble would be in vain and felt his confidence draining away.

"Not in your uniform, either," continued Sutton drily, when he did not immediately reply, "well, I am sure you have ample reason for being discreet."

"Yes, erm, well I must be on my way," Wickham said, circling round him in an attempt to make his retreat. He could think of nothing more than ending this conversation and getting as far from there as possible.

"Of course," said Sutton, tolerantly, "but before you go, a matter of business." He stepped closer, using his large form to block the way.

"Oh, yes?" Wickham asked, as nonchalantly as he could manage.

"Yes, well you know the situation old boy. Since we last spoke, however, my circumstances have taken a more pressing turn. I really must insist on at least a small token of your willingness to settle matters."

"Of course," Wickham responded, with an unconvincing smile. "I can assure you that will not be a problem."

"Good, good," the other said, "well, I don't expect you would be carrying anything substantial on you at the moment, especially in this neighbourhood."

"No, quite," Wickham replied with a nervous laugh, "when would you like..?"

"Shall we say tomorrow? I am busy 'til then and that will give you some time to arrange things. Not at my place; where we met before - at dusk?"

"Certainly. I will see you then."

"I hope so, Wickham," Sutton said wistfully, "I sincerely hope so. Good day." He raised his hat and stood aside to let Wickham pass.

Wickham, making his escape deep in thought, could not but curse his bad luck at such a meeting, in this of all places. As always, however, his thoughts were centred on himself only and, unfortunately, it never struck him to wonder what Sutton himself was doing at 'such an early hour in this neighbourhood'. As he reached the corner he glanced back to see Sutton still standing in the same place, watching his progress intently. When he had turned into the next street and was out of sight he could not help breaking into a run and making off like a lamplighter.

Around mid-morning that day, Mrs. Lydia Wickham awoke slowly from a deep sleep and groggily surveyed her room. She felt a little queasy and, ringing for her maidservant Clara, lay back on the bed with a groan and closed her eyes. Forthwith, the door opened and Clara entered quietly, knowing the mistresses dislike of noise at that time of day.

"Ohh Clara, I am very ill today," exclaimed Lydia with a groan.

"I am sorry, ma'am," the maid replied, thinking however that it might have less to do with her condition than the amount of wine she had partaken of the previous night. "You would not like some breakfast brought to you, then?" she asked innocently.

Lydia appeared a little disconcerted by this question, which required her to choose between sating her not inconsiderable hunger and maintaining the fiction that she was really ill. However, as usual her own selfish needs took precedence over appearances and she answered in a tone which unsuccessfully attempted to convey that she was being persuaded against her wishes, "Oh yes, I think I can manage a little toast. Ohh, and tea. And perhaps a little scrambled egg -- and bacon too."

"Very well ma'am," Clara replied, suppressing a grin, "I'll have it brought up."

"Thank you," Lydia said. "Is my husband here?"

Clara's smile vanished. "No ma'am. He was here but he went out about an hour ago," she informed her flatly, crossing the room to open the curtains and presenting her back to her mistress, lest her unease be noticed.

"Really! I have hardly seen him this last week. What time did he arrive home last night?"

Clara, fully aware that he had returned home only that morning, not the previous night, replied disingenuously, "I am afraid I could not say ma'am. As you know it was my night out last night and I was not here."

"Oh well, it doesn't matter," Lydia stated, "did he say where he was going or when he would be back?"

"No ma'am," the maid replied shortly.

"Oh well, I suppose we can do without him for a while. I shall have breakfast and then I think I will go and see the Misses Fitton."

"Are you sure you are well enough, ma'am?" asked the maid, conscious that the 'Misses Fitton' did not seem as happy in Mrs Wickham's society as she was in theirs, though they were too ladylike to intimate it to her.

"I shall be fine once I have eaten and I can not sit around the house all day," declared Lydia firmly.

"Very well ma'am, I shall fetch your breakfast," said Clara, and departed with alacrity.

Having paused for luncheon at Wakefield, the Darcys travelled on through the afternoon, with only one stop to stretch their legs. They passed Leeds by mid-afternoon, but then the weather began to appear threatening, with banks of massed clouds forming on the north-eastern horizon. As a consequence, Darcy's valet and Elizabeth's maid were thereafter accommodated inside and any further discussion was curtailed. They had planned to reach York, or possibly Boroughbridge -- a major coaching stop on the great north road and some few miles beyond -- by sunset but the weather broke and a steady rain began to fall. This slowed their progress as the visibility and condition of the road deteriorated and they did not reach York until after dark. Deciding that venturing further would be slow going and possibly dangerous, they decided to stop there for the night. They arranged rooms in a comfortable and homely inn and discussed arrangements for the morrow. Hoping that the rain would have ceased by the morning and the roads would be dry, they arranged with the coachman to have the carriage ready again from first light and, after supper in a private room, retired for the night.

As she lay in bed later that night, Elizabeth found sleep hard to come by, despite the tiredness she felt from the journey. She stole a look at Darcy, barely visible in the light from the small fire, and contemplated the last forty eight hours. Since the Colonel's letter he had acted with purpose and determination and she had seen a new side to him, the man of action who could work with intelligence and resolve to solve a problem. It was, no doubt, how he had been the year before when Wickham and Lydia had eloped, but she had not been a witness that time. Now she was with him and could only wonder at his ability to organise and plan. Every aspect of their journey was handled with aplomb, from dealing with the innkeeper or blacksmith to ensuring those who travelled with them had every comfort they needed. He seemed to be in his element and she was glad to be there to see it.

The cost -- or was it also partly the cause? -- of this efficiency, however, she feared may be detachment. She hoped he was not suppressing his own feelings in an attempt to assuage hers. She determined that if he was providing the material and organizational skills needed for this endeavour, she would provide the emotional support if and when it was required. She could not believe he would be able to meet that man again with equanimity. Indeed it would be difficult for her too. And Lydia was sure to be a trial to his patience and tolerance -- as would some of her acquaintance, if past experiences were anything to go by. She would be needed as a buffer to prevent any unpleasantness. She reflected with dread on what Wickham may have related to Lydia about their previous dealings, considering how she had referred to Darcy in her letters. The thought that Georgiana's name might come up in any confrontation made her feel almost sick. She began to fidget with her hands and shifted in the bed restlessly.

These activities were interrupted after several minutes by one of Darcy's hands, which descended over hers, stopping their movement, and his deep voice was heard.

"Elizabeth," he said calmly, "please try to sleep. We will both need to be at our best tomorrow and we have a long journey ahead of us."

"How much further is it to Newcastle?" she asked.

"I did not mean that," he replied, "reaching Newcastle will be but the start of our task. You know I will need your help and support for what is to come."

"I am here," she stated simply, turning over and putting her arms around him.

"So you are," he affirmed drily, "and however much I am inclined to take advantage of that fact -- again -- I must still recommend you try to get some sleep."

The rain had ceased in the early hours of the morning and by dawn the breeze was already drying the roads, a process which increased rapidly when the sun began to shine in a crystal blue sky, peppered with occasional small fluffy clouds. They made good progress, passing Boroughbridge early and heading on towards Thirsk. Elizabeth watched the rolling Yorkshire moors pass by on the right hand side of the carriage as they travelled on, and almost wished they could stop to explore the strange beauty that they seemed to exhibit. But apart from a short stop mid-morning to stretch their aching muscles, they pressed on.

They halted for an early luncheon in a village inn some five miles beyond Northallerton and when they had eaten and rested the horses, proceeded on their way. Darlington was reached next and then the road took them towards Durham. Elizabeth marvelled again at the way Darcy and his staff managed to balance their need for swift progress with the need to avoid any risk of accident or injury to the carriage or horses by reckless haste.

As their final destination began to draw closer, they discussed the arrangements on their arrival.

"What will we do immediately we arrive?" asked Elizabeth.

"I suggest we find a good inn where we can obtain a private room," Darcy replied. "While we take some refreshment, I will send Farrow with a note for Captain Perry to tell him we have arrived."

"Farrow? Is that the groom you asked especially to be one of the party?"

"Yes, he will, I believe, prove helpful. Not only is he an excellent groom, knowing just about all there is to know about bird and beast, he is also discreet and trustworthy. I have relied on him before and he has never made me regret it," Darcy coughed and continued, "er, he also has a talent for obtaining information which has proved useful to me before. He seems to be just what any young housemaid could desire and they seem to be eager to share their confidences with him."

"I see," said Elizabeth, raising her eyebrows in humour, "well I trust you will warn him not to leave behind too many broken hearts when we leave?"

Darcy laughed. "Yes, I will remind him. But don't worry, he is a sensible man. His father was head gamekeeper before his death and he has looked after his mother and sisters since then. I try to do all I can to aid him in that but he does not like the idea of charity. I am sure he will do well and further himself, with or without my help."

"You think very highly of him, I see," Elizabeth stated.

"Yes, I do," Darcy answered simply.

"Then I should like to know him better," she said, "but to return to what we shall do when we arrive. Do you think we should attempt to see Wickham and Lydia tonight?"

Darcy pondered this thoughtfully. "Perhaps," he suggested after a few seconds, "we should wait to see what Perry has to say. No doubt he will have more information for us. I do not think we should act until we are sure of our facts. Perhaps tomorrow morning may be a more suitable time to pay our respects?"

The Darcy carriage finally reached Newcastle just as the sun was setting. Heading towards Quayside, the main residential and commercial area, Elizabeth watched with curiosity out of the window at the sights that were visible in the fading light. Newcastle seemed to encompass as much variety as London, though crammed into a much smaller area. Shops, markets, tenement houses and, towards the north side where the city was expanding, rows of new built houses of a much larger and imposing type. Here also the streets were wider and seemed to be laid out as part of a conscious plan to provide residences for the masters of the new industries and commerce's that were responsible for the growth of the city.

They found a comfortable looking inn and after ordering a cold supper -- an action which at first was made slightly difficult by Darcy's unfamiliarity with the strong local dialect spoken by the proprietor -- refreshed themselves after the journey. Darcy then dispatched Farrow with a note to Captain Perry and joined Elizabeth in the private room they had engaged for the meal. There was food in abundance and variety and they ate heartily, given the circumstance that the nerves of both were by now at high pitch.

When they had finished their meal they each took a seat before the fire and Elizabeth observed Darcy discreetly. He was studying the flames in an abstracted way, but with a face which reminded her of a person who was awaiting an unpleasant interview and was unhappy at the inaction the wait entailed. Deciding that he needed some reassurance, she got up and settled herself into his lap. Darcy, brought back from his reverie, decided that this action indicated her need for some comforting and he silently pulled her into him, resting her head on his shoulder and stroking her hair.

They were still engaged thus when there was a sharp rap at the door. Elizabeth, somewhat reluctantly, stood up and quickly rectified her slightly dishevelled appearance before Darcy called out, "Come in," and Farrow entered, followed by a gentleman in military uniform.

"Captain Perry, sir," Farrow announced, standing aside to let the Captain enter, then exiting and pulling the door closed behind him. Elizabeth saw that the Captain was a tall, fair-headed man with pronounced side whiskers. His age was difficult to determine, except that he must be between twenty and thirty, and he had a pleasant though not particularly handsome countenance. He held himself well, and gave the impression of physical strength, despite his slim figure. Despite her recent exhortations to herself to be wary of judging too much on first appearances, she took an instant liking to him and her confidence revived somewhat as she decided they had found an ally they could trust.

He bowed and said in a melodious voice, "Mr. Darcy, sir, I am delighted to meet you,"

"Captain Perry," Darcy replied. He rose and offered him his hand and the Captain took it, shaking it warmly. "I am delighted to meet you too. Allow me to introduce my wife," he motioned to Elizabeth.

The Captain bowed again, "Mrs Darcy, a pleasure."

Elizabeth came a little nearer and curtsied, replying with a smile, "Captain, I am glad to make your acquaintance." She could see on closer inspection that the Captain was more nervous than she had at first realized. There was a tension around his mouth and eyes which began to drive away the increase in ease she had felt since he entered. 'Oh dear,' she thought, 'he looks like a man about to impart unpleasant news.'

"Captain," Darcy continued, "thank you for coming. I hope we have not disrupted your business. I was not quite sure whether you would respond in person to my note, knowing that you have already devoted much of your time and energy on our behalf. Allow me to thank you for your help to my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and for keeping me informed of developments."

"Well, sir," Perry responded, "as far as Colonel Fitzwilliam is concerned it was a pleasure to be of assistance. As you know, my General is acquainted with him and has spoken highly of him to me in the past. I knew he would not be taking a presumptuous interest in Mr. Wickham and so, as I was already beginning to become concerned myself, I was happy to oblige him. When he asked me to keep you informed I was sure he would not make such a request of me unless he knew you were the best person to help. I only wish we could have met under more agreeable circumstances."

"As do I, Captain, I assure you," replied Darcy drily, "but I am sorry to say that this is not the first time that I have found myself in this situation."

"Yes, I have heard some rumours which made me believe that might be the case," the Captain admitted. "I was in contact with an officer of the --shire a few months ago who intimated that Mr. Wickham had resigned his commission in that regiment because of similar difficulties. Indeed, from that moment on, I decided to keep a discreet eye on his activities and this enabled me to be of more help to Colonel Fitzwilliam when he contacted me than I might otherwise have been."

"I see. Well, I believe he and I could not have wanted for a better ally. Tell me, have there been any further developments since you sent me the express which brought us here?" asked Darcy.

The Captain looked from one to the other nervously and responded only with a hesitant, "Err.." 'Oh well, I knew it,' thought Elizabeth, 'here it comes.'

"Come Captain," urged Darcy, misinterpreting the reason for his uneasiness, "you can speak freely. My wife is fully aware of the situation and knows all the details of your communications. What further trouble has Wickham got himself into?"

"Well," answered Perry uncomfortably, "I am afraid, er, that is the problem. I... I do not know."

"What do you mean?" asked Elizabeth nervously, dreading the reply.

"I do not know," replied the Captain as firmly as he was able, "because Mr. Wickham has not been seen for nearly two days."

Part 5

Return to Austen Interlude