Can there be a tale more outrageous than that told of George Wickham and Lydia Bennet. Our much maligned couple fell in love, or something very like it, and have now fled along the road to Gretna Green.
Will they ever reach the anvil?
~Catherine Curzon and Nicole Clarkston
The carriage lurched to a halt in the darkness, and Lydia wriggled in Wickham’s arms. She was hungry, and greatly in need of refreshing herself, but Wickham, to her delight, seemed loath to release her. She giggled as he pulled her back to his chest, twining his fingers into the thick snarl which had once been a rather fetching coiffure.
“My darling,” she crooned, “could you not kiss me better after we have got a room? I should think that you would find this carriage unbearably stifling by now!”
“Miss Lydia, you are in the carriage, so even at half the size it would still be a palace.” He touched his forehead to hers and caught her lips for the very ghost of a kiss. “And we are due to stop at the next inn, so you will have your room and your soldier.”
“Oh! And I had my little heart set on remaining here. But if you insist that this next inn is indeed finer and more comfortable, I shall have to content myself with fifteen more miles in your arms.”
Lydia waited for him to assist her to the ground, taking a moment to search for her wayward bonnet. Once decently secured of that item for her walk into the inn, she found her companion’s attention had strayed. He was gazing at some point beyond the coach, his eyes somewhat alarmed and his body tense.
“George? Have you forgotten about me already?”
He held up his hand to signal her to be silent and took a small step backwards, the better to be concealed by the shadow of the vehicle. She followed the path of his gaze to a small gaggle of men who were almost hidden in the darkness, illuminated only by the faint red blaze that signalled the end of a tobacco pipe that was clenched between the lips of one of the travellers. What might have worried her lover so much, Lydia wondered, that it could steal his attention from her so completely?
“George?” she whispered into the darkness. No sound returned from him for a moment, and the only voices drifted to her from the small clutch of men and the closed doors of the inn. None seemed to give any notice of Lydia Bennet, the girl who had left everything behind to follow love.
The crunching of gravel brought her head up. Wickham approached swiftly, extending his hand. He beckoned silently for her to step down, an unaccustomed urgency in his manner.
“George,” she frowned, “is this inn truly so bad as your face implies? Why, if it is not a fit place for a gentleman and a lady to take their refreshment, I suppose we can endure until the next.”
“It wouldn’t be a terrible imposition, my love?” His voice was a whisper, his head flicking back towards the party of men, the pipe flaring once again. “It will not be far, I promise it.”
She stretched her middle for a moment, tilting her head while she reflected. Certainly she would be more comfortable if she stopped now, but another hour would be bearable. “Perhaps, but mustn’t we wait for the horses to be changed?” Her eyes followed the old team just as they were led away from the carriage, the coachman already having ordered a fresh pair.
“Yes, yes, of course.” Wickham clutched her hand tightly and led her further into the shadows, away from the chattering trio of men. He turned his back to them and bowed his head to kiss the hand he held, then whispered, “Shall we take a short stroll, my love? You must be in need of some air.”
Lydia stared at his face, mirrored a ghostly blue in the moonlight. “George, I do believe you have gone mad. Why would we stroll outdoors when there is a perfectly good inn just there? I should enjoy a quiet moment with you rather well, but if I am to wait for the horses, I may as well take a moment to refresh myself. It would be abominably dull to stand here and watch the coachman about his business!”
“You would rather a noisy old inn than the moonlight and the man who loves you?” His arms encircled her waist, bringing her closer still. “A crowded tavern or a secluded night?”
“George,” she pushed him back, allowing his fingers to playfully catch hers as she did so, “we delicate ladies sometimes require a moment of privacy in order to remain perfectly composed. I should prefer to enjoy the remainder of our carriage ride in comfort.”
“Forgive me, I am too selfish with your company.” He raised one eyebrow and smiled, the devil dancing in his expression. With one last glance back Wickham encircled Lydia’s shoulders with his strong arm and steered her towards the doorway, moving quickly towards the noisy interior.
The sounds were nothing to the smells that washed over them as they entered. Ale and sweat, grime and perfume all mingled curiously in the room. Lydia had little accustomed herself to such spectacles. Her uncle and father always insisted on the cleaner inns when they traveled, the ones more respectably maintained for gentler travelers—and, of course, they never traveled so late in the evening. The crowed was slightly less polished than she had previously experienced, but Lydia was nothing if not a brave girl. She had her George, with his secreted pistols (he had allowed her to fondle one) and cared nothing for a brood of smelly farmers and labourers.
A buxom elderly woman with little bloom to her features and even less good humour appeared before them. Lydia allowed her valiant guardian to make the inquiry for her, then left him with a smile and a coquettish wave as the grumbling matron led her to a private room.
To be continued…