Mr Darcy’s nausea increased with every step he took into one of London’s numerous slums one desolate afternoon in the late summer of 1812.
The subtly perfumed handkerchief he held in front of his sensitive nose helped but very little against the well nigh unbearable mixed stench of urine, excrement and vomit, of illness and death, of thin beer and mouldering food.
But it was not only poor Mr Darcy’s nose that suffered. His eyes did not particularly feast either on the dark, narrow alleys filled with shoeless, unwashed children begging for a farthing. He had to witness exhausted women, all skin and bones, hanging out some ragged clothes to dry. Mothers were nursing a babe, at the same time loudly reprimanding the rest of their abundant offspring. Intoxicated men leaned impassively against the doorpost, holding either a half-empty bottle of gin or a crust of bread in their dirty hands. Famished dogs were savaging for food between the litter indifferently thrown in the streets by its inhabitants, and vendors pushed their carts filled with obscure goods to try to earn a bob or two elsewhere.
The pawing, even in intimate places, of slovenly trollops offering him their services, laughing at him, showing him their prematurely decayed teeth, made him physically ill. The foul language they shouted after him, when he made it clear he did not have the intention of being drawn in by their arts and allurements, shocked him deeply.
Mr Darcy inspected his pockets to insure his timepiece and purse were still there. After all, it was a truth universally acknowledged that prostitutes were wont to pluck a man in more than one way…
It was the first time Mr Darcy had set foot in this part of London, and, even though he was not afraid — his man carried a gun –, he was not amused either, far from it. He was disgusted by the fact that poverty could have such an ugly face. It grieved him that the government of London did not behave more affably towards the poor, and did so little to relieve the acute needs of its less privileged citizens.
The horrid odours, the noise, the filth and the atrocious penury made him yearn for the fresh air of the virgin forests of Derbyshire. Never in his life had he so badly craved a dive into the pure, limpid, crystal clear water of the pond in Pemberley Park.
And more than ever he longed to tenderly hold against him the innocent maiden he had enclosed forever in his heart, now a little over eight months ago.
The thought of Miss Bennet made his perilous quest in this rough area of London a little more tolerable. Unconsciously he whispered her name, and an expression of heart-felt delight diffused over his handsome face. He was certain that he could make her the happiest of women, as she could make him the happiest of men… if only she would have him. And if, by a fortunate turn of fate, such happiness were to be bestowed upon him, he had the firm intention to show her his undying love, in all manners imaginable, for the rest of his days.
Mr Darcy had known young women in the past. A pretty face had tempted him on more than one occasion. Indeed, he had been sensitive to the seductive hints the young ladies of his acquaintance were wont to send in his direction with and from behind their fans. However, that was before he had been given perforce the responsibility of the family estate after his father’s untimely death. Soon after, he became sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention…
Astonished, and not a little annoyed, he often wondered why the mothers and daughters with whom he was forced to put up occasionally during the season so utterly and completely underestimated his intelligence. Unconsciously shaking his head, Mr Darcy could not help but conclude that the ways of the young women of his sphere, encouraged by their mothers, were hardly any different from the methods used by the prostitutes who solicited him today.
Even though Mrs Bennet was as mercenary as all other mothers he knew, her daughter Elizabeth was different. He did not only consider her one of the handsomest young women of his acquaintance, but admired her even more for the liveliness of her mind, her honesty and her loyalty. She did not care about his riches, his possessions, or his station… Had he not learned that the hard way, that fatal spring in Hunsford? Her blunt refusal of his hand had taught him a lesson in humbleness indeed.
“…had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.” Those words had haunted him for months. He, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, gentleman, shuddered at the memory.
Instead of developing a thorough dislike for the young lady, that most unfortunate event had made his passion for her grow to unimaginable heights. Rather than forgetting her, Mr Darcy did not wish to rid her from his mind… not one day, not one hour, not one minute… And thus, she followed him wherever he went. As his guardian angel, she seemed to watch every step he made… gently speaking to him, advising him, correcting him… Indeed, she had improved his mind and soul by extensive censuring…
He hoped she had observed at Pemberley how well her reproofs had been attended to.
There was no denying it, he loved and admired Miss Elizabeth Bennet. He could not look at other women without finding a blemish, and when comparing them with the object of his regard, he found each and every one of them frightfully lacking.
Taking in his surroundings, Mr Darcy sighed. He fervently hoped he could return to his beloved estate on the shortest notice… and would it not be a lovely prospect if he were to do so in Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s company? No, if that were to happen, she would be Mrs Elizabeth Darcy. They would travel as husband and wife. Happy thought indeed…
However, this happy thought roughly awakened him from his musings, and a deep frown suddenly creased his dark brow. For goodness sake, old boy, stop it. Do not get carried away, do not tempt fate! he scolded himself. Your encounter with Miss Elizabeth at Pemberley was encouraging, perhaps even a good omen, but whatever outcome will result from this mission only the future can tell.
Mr Darcy realised as well that he had to focus on the mission at hand. The thoughts about Miss Elizabeth were far too distracting. A distraction that could cost him dearly considering the many dangers a neighbourhood such as this entailed, despite his armed man.
~ * ~
You must understand, dear readers, that Mr Darcy was on an important mission. Nay, important was too weak a term to describe how he felt about it. He was convinced that this self-imposed task was decisive for the future happiness of the young woman he loved so dearly, whose good opinion he desired so desperately…
After having witnessed the heartbreaking despair of his fair acquaintance at the inn at Lambton, he had felt fully responsible for the grief inflicted upon the Bennet family. At that very moment he had firmly resolved to do everything in his power to rescue Miss Lydia, and subsequently the family, from scandal and ruin. He was determined to make the best of the situation that naïve, selfish, foolish girl was in, due to that ravenous, perverted, useless man, the notorious George Wickham. He did it for Elizabeth, for her happiness alone, and it was imperative that he succeed.
Naïve, selfish, foolish… he pondered. Was Miss Lydia in fact so different from Georgiana? They were both young and, naturally, highly susceptible to the seductive charms of a smooth flatterer. They were both desperate to experience the rush of young love and be treated as the adults they considered themselves to be…
He shuddered at the thought of what could have happened to his dear sister if he had not paid her an unexpected visit. Visions of seduction, elopement, the theft of her inheritance and eventual abandonment in an area such as he visited at this very moment… How utterly close his poor sister had been to the miserable state of being a fallen woman.
He knew Wickham well enough to presume that he would leave Miss Lydia as soon as a better bargain presented itself. He could only pray he was not too late, and that he could make Wickham marry her. He knew it would cost him a lot, but that was the least of his worries.
Lost in his musings, Mr Darcy approached the lodgings owned by a woman whom he was loath to become re-acquainted with, but whose co-operation he sorely needed. He was on his way to Mrs. Younge, the former companion of his sister, and the very woman who had made common cause with Wickham in his attempt to abduct her.
~ * ~
Taking a deep breath, Mr Darcy gestured at his man to knock on the door, quite unwilling to touch anything himself belonging to the woman he was about to meet.
He immediately recognized the piercing voice that invited him to enter. A voice that was all too familiar to him. Upon entering the small, dark poorly furnished room, he saw her sitting at a table, mending a garment.
The encounter would be indelibly imprinted on Mr Darcy’s mind. The impertinence and hostility of the woman was beyond description. Startled at first at the sight of him, she almost immediately dared mock him, laugh at him to be thwarted again by Mr Wickham, who had informed her about his suspicions concerning a certain young lady from Hertfordshire. With an ugly grin on her face, she told him that no riches in the world could ever best the charms of a Mr Wickham, if the owner of it all was a proud, disagreeable, unpleasant sort of a man…
After shamelessly having diddled him out of a pretty sum, Mrs Younge eventually informed him about their whereabouts. They had both been taken into custody: First Mr Wickham for gambling debts and unpaid accounts and, soon after, Miss Lydia as well, for theft.
Feigning compassion, Mrs Younge explained that the poor creature did not have much of a choice. She had been abandoned penniless by her lover, and did not have the means to buy food or pay her rent.
Just when Mr Darcy started to wonder why Miss Lydia had not sought contact with her family in Cheapside, Mrs Younge added that the foolish girl, against her better judgement, kept on believing her lover would return to her, and marry her, and presumed his arrest was nothing but a stupid mistake.
When Mrs Younge commenced insinuating that Miss Lydia might be enceinte, Mr Darcy was barely able to hide his horror. Inwardly he prayed she was telling him this only to chagrin him more.
In a flash it occurred to him how very fortunate his sister had been indeed to be spared the shame and misfortunes Miss Lydia had to bear now. He had no knowledge of what exactly Mr Wickham had done to Georgiana. He simply refused to think about the possibility he had taken Georgiana to his bed. It was too painful, too horrid for him to even think that this despicable creature might have touched her in that way, might have robbed her of her maidenhead…
Miss Lydia’s situation was much worse than he could ever have imagined. Fixed in astonishment, he suddenly grew a little faint, and, before the ghastly woman in front of him would notice his indisposition, he sank into the nearest chair.
Meanwhile, Mrs Younge continued her account, and Mr Darcy learned that Miss Lydia had made the most of her situation, despite her lack of money and connections. However, one afternoon she was caught in flagrante delicto stealing some fruits, and brought to Newgate gaol to be tried soon in the Old Bailey. And that was all she knew.
When he had taken his leave, Mrs Younge’s diabolical laughter echoed in his ears. Deeply grieved, he realised again what a wretched, wretched mistake he had made not having exposed Wickham’s actions to the world. His protectiveness towards his sister, and, if he was honest with himself, his fear of a scandal would now cost him dearly. Because of his failure, of his mistaken pride, the woman he held most dear in the world and her family had to suffer the scandal of a daughter fallen prey to a man without conscience, without scruples. A daughter who, however minor her offence, would probably be punished outrageously in comparison to her crime, and be deported to the New World.
Wickham’s revenge on him was complete after all. And, for a moment, Mr Darcy was at a loss as to how to proceed. He decided to return home, to think things over and muster up the courage to visit the gaol in the morn, where he, undoubtedly, would have to bribe his way in to speak to Miss Lydia.
~ * ~
Sitting in one of the comfortable armchairs of his townhouse library, Mr Darcy stared into his glass of brandy, contemplating the events of the day. He was practical enough to know that, the way things were, his hopes to ever call his wife the one person for whom he devoted himself to this cause had faded to nothing.
He could have forced Wickham to marry Miss Lydia if only he had found them before the watches had… But he knew he could do very little for either of them now. His heart shrank at the thought that the poor girl, this gentleman’s daughter, had been locked up in a cold, damp cell with many others, deprived of daylight, decent food, fresh water or medication…
The least he could do was provide her with the best criminal lawyer possible. And, before the trial, he would see if there was anything to be done to relieve her from the terrible fate she was experiencing at present.
…The day had been long and difficult for Mr Darcy. His exhaustion combined with two glasses of excellent brandy on an empty stomach made his eyes grow heavy eventually. Not capable of fighting sleep any longer, he soon peacefully rested in Morpheus’s arms. His hand hanging over the armrest of his chair fell open, and the empty glass that held it fell, with a muffled flop, onto the thick Persian carpet…
~ * ~
… Deeply inhaling the fresh sea air, Mr Darcy smiled contentedly. He was standing on the fore deck of the frigate that brought him and his family to New South Wales, and, but a minute ago, the captain had informed him that the coast was in sight.
It had been a long and difficult journey with illnesses, pirates, heavy storms and high seas, lack of fresh food and water… But they had survived. How anxious they were to disembark, and acquaint themselves with their new country, the country where they were to be re-united with the youngest Bennet daughter.
Violently in love, Mr Darcy observed with fond adoration his wife of but a month, the former Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who was cheerfully chatting with his sister Georgiana. Mr Bennet was quietly reading a book, while his wife and daughters were discussing ribbons and bonnets.
Contemplating the horizon, Mr Darcy reckoned their new life at such a great distance from good old England would be extremely difficult. In that virgin territory where hardly anything had come to development as yet, life would be rough, with dangers lurking everywhere. However, he had his loved ones with him, and that was all that mattered. Together they could overcome all obstacles.
After all, those were nothing compared to the difficulties the Bennet family had had to endure in the confined society of their Hertfordshire neighbourhood. After Miss Lydia had been tried and convicted to be deported to New South Wales, they had been shunned by their friends who, with malicious delight, had seized every opportunity to expose the family to ridicule. Their nightmare had come to an end, and Elizabeth was his, now and forever.
The thought, moreover, to have seized the opportunity, however involuntarily, to build up something entirely new, with his two bare hands, instead of but securing the continuation of that what was bequeathed to him thanks to the hard work of his ancestors, filled him with joy…
~ * ~
A confused Mr Darcy suddenly sat up straight in his chair. A knock on the library door had cruelly awakened him from a most unusual dream. He could remember but fragments, and those fragments did not make sense, not in the very least.
Almost immediately the terrible circumstances of young Lydia, and subsequently all persons involved, including himself, came back to him. Still, … and that was most peculiar, despite the well-nigh hopeless situation, his melancholy had vanished… He felt as if a new hope, a new energy had overflowed his body… A smile curled his lips. He did not know how and when, but somehow he was certain, absolutely certain that a favourable conclusion to this atrocious occurrence was within reach…