Have you ever wondered what really happened between George Wickham and Lydia Bennet in Brighton? It seems, dear readers, that there are two sides to every tale. The couple in question have been roundly abused and ridiculed by fans of a certain novel, wherein they were not the primary characters, but their romance is one of remarkable beauty and passion. What care have they for naysayers?
Set aside thoughts of rakish rogues rakes and giggling girls and join us on a little trip to the seaside, where the most unlikely couple might suddenly meet in a crowded ballroom. We invite you to suspend prior misconceptions for a time and enjoy this delightful tale of star-crossed love.
~Catherine Curzon and Nicole Clarkston
Lydia Bennet twirled into her place in the line and clapped with merriment. Brighton, with its diversions and balls and bright rows of glittering officers, was a perfect dream. What a pity that her sisters had not all come, for she was certain that they should have all had husbands within the fortnight!
“Miss Lydia,” Captain Denney bowed as the dance ended, “may I request the honour of a second dance this evening?”
Lydia glanced over his shoulder to see her next partner, and her heart flipped when Mr Wickham smiled in her direction. He certainly was the handsomest of all the officers, to say nothing for his gentlemanly charm. “I am afraid I have not a dance left,” she dismissed Denney with a careless wave of her hand.
Denney accepted her refusal with good grace and moved toward the refreshment table. Lydia never saw where he went after that, for her gaze was reserved for the handsome lieutenant who was walking toward her. She drew up her shoulders- she was quite the tallest girl in the room!- and met him with an artless smile.
“Miss Lydia, I confess I have been watching the passing minutes with a sense of impending defeat,” he intoned gallantly. “For it seemed that you and I were never to find ourselves together on the floor.”
“Mr Wickham, you did not think I would neglect our dance? I have been looking forward to it, for these other fellows all have a habit of treading upon my toes.”
“Miss Lydia, should your toes suffer unduly, I give you my word as a gentleman that I will carry you safely to the nearest and finest medic that Brighton might offer,” he promised with a slight inclination of his head.
She laughed, thinking that her heart was in far greater danger from him than her toes. Oh, dear, did the man have to have such a perfectly thrilling countenance or such a deliciously romantic address? To be sure, there were men whose faces more closely resembled fine paintings, but George Wickham’s beauty was in his rugged imperfections- the light scar over his cheek, the faintest masculine shadow along his jaw, and his eyes… oh! Lydia had never seen such sadness veiled by gentle good breeding. This was a man who had seen the world, and yet looked on her as though she were the most alluring creature he had ever known.
The man danced devastatingly well. Lydia had never before felt herself so elegantly skilled on the floor. She turned, she stepped, and his eyes praised every move more eloquently than any words. Every time they came together, he contrived to present her to the room as his greatest treasure. Each time they passed and met others, he would wink in her direction, assuring her that were not the strictures of the dance firmly against it, he would have drawn close only to her. When the musicians had finally drawn out the last note, Lydia was breathless and red from more than the exertion of the dance.
“My dear Miss Lydia, I fear I have been so enchanted by your company that I have become a most ill-mannered fellow!” Wickham protested as he escorted her from the floor- a thing, she noted, that Denney had failed to do. “Here am I enjoying our dance and, selfish it may be, your very presence, that I have singularly failed to see that are a delicate creature. Allow me to seek some refreshment by way of an inadequate apology.”
“Oh, Mr Wickham, you are too gracious!” She put a hand to her panting breast as he stepped from her, fearful that she had seemed too eager for his return. Did not Mary always say that a lady ought never to reveal all that she felt? Oh, hang Mary and her advice. What had such practices brought Jane, but heartache and loneliness? No, she decidedly fancied George Wickham, and there was no shame in allowing him to know it.
“Lydia, my dear!,” her closest friend Mrs Forster approached with a drink. “Is this not a fearful crush? I have already had my gown stepped on twice. You look rather flushed, my dear. Who was that you were just dancing with?”
Lydia forced a calm breath and beamed proudly. “Only the handsomest man in the room, Lieutenant Wickham.”
Mrs Forster’s eyes widened. “Oh, my dear, he is a most excellent dancer, but my husband was told some troubling things about him. I would caution you, he has not a good reputation with the ladies.”
“How could he have? He steals hearts everywhere he goes. I am certain that a number of them wished to secure him, but he is not so easily caught.”
“La! No, he can be caught easily enough by a fortune. You do remember poor Mary King, whom he jilted when her uncle tried to change the terms of her settlement.”
“Mary King! She has the face of a horse, and no wit besides. Many a man must choose a sad marriage of convenience, particularly when his advantages have been ruined by another man’s jealousy. I am only gratified that he withdrew before he was irreversibly committed. I think it noble that he would not marry just for a fortune.”
“He could not get it, that is why he left off the pursuit,” retorted Mrs Forster. “He will fall readily enough for the next loose fortune, I daresay.”
“He has paid me marked attention of late, and I’ve not a farthing to my name. How do you deem that the behavior of a man seeking a fortune?”
“A man may seek things apart from a fortune in a lady’s company, and it is a wise woman who does not bestow it.” Mrs Forster took a slow drink and lifted a significant brow at her friend.
“I never thought to hear you speak so! Did you not encourage me to seek the desires of my heart? There are certainly enough officers here from which to select only the best, and Mr Wickham stands out among them all.”
“Do not forget my advice, dear. There are plenty of others, when you finally decide that he is not worthy of your notice.”
“As if I could! Now stop trying to make me unhappy, for he is returning now with my drink and nothing but merriment will do.”
Mrs Forster pursed her lips in one last look of caution, and wandered away to speak to Miss Smith, a young lady of no account and questionable family. Lydia decided instantly that she would no longer be troubled by the woman’s jealous warnings. What could she know? She had married an old man, and a colonel at that. Did she not know that it was not the stuffy old colonels who swept away hearts, but the young, dashing lieutenants?
“Miss Lydia,” his dark gaze slid momentarily away, settling on Mrs Forster for a second, no more, before it was on Lydia again. “You blush delightfully, but I fear the room is too stuffy for a lady of your elegant constitution. Might I escort you outside, the better to feel the benefit of the coastal air?”
“Oh, indeed, Mr Wickham, I find the room has become most tiresome. What interest can a ballroom full of dull people hold to match the stars and fresh air?”
“What indeed?” He threw a glance back across the room, a Puckish merriment in his expression when he said, “Let us escape, before the assembled forces of propriety detect our scheme!”
Lydia barely suppressed a squeal of delight. He had singled her out, the one man she had admired above all others! Oh, he had seemed distracted by her elder sister at first, but she had been confident that in time, he would see her for her greater passion. She wished she could speak as artfully as he, but she was content to simply listen to the liquid honey dripping from his lips… oh, what a delightful thought!
“Mr Wickham,” she smiled and snuggled a little more intimately close to him, “have you ever been to sea? I have been told that sailors must know all the stars, but it is not thought a proper thing to teach ladies. I find that dreadfully inconvenient, for is it not a lovely topic?”
“I have not,” he confessed, escorting her from the throng though she noted he made no effort to put a greater distance between them. “I am afraid these feet are rather too fond of solid ground or stirrup to brave the rolling decks of the navy. If I had my way, all ladies would be taught the ways of the heavens, what finer subject on a night as clear as this?”
She tipped her head coyly near his shoulder and gazed upward. “I think the most interesting subjects have more to do with tales of people- of love and war, of great deeds done and fair maidens rescued. I have heard that there are such tales in the stars, Mr Wickham. Do you know of any?”
“What sort of tales might a dull old soldier such as I know that could possibly intrigue an effervescent young lady such as you?” He dipped his head and dropped his voice to a low murmur to ask, “Would you have me recount scandalous tales from the classical myths, Miss Lydia?”
“Oh, to be sure, I am a lady, Mr Wickham. I could not possibly have any interest in hearing about the scandalous tales. Surely something mildly shocking will do, and I shall determine whether you are a skilled enough story teller for me to continue listening.”
“What month were you born, Miss Lydia? Perhaps there is a story in the stars just for you.” She heard a smile in his words. “I cannot promise it will be scandalous, but it will be yours.”
“December the Fourteenth,” she answered promptly. “Oh, I do hope you know of something fabulous, for I should dearly love to think of the month of my birth as special in some way, particularly if you should also agree.”
“One cannot weave much of a romance around the tale of the Archer,” Wickham lamented, but his words took a more devilish timbre when he added, “And a gentleman cannot speak of centaurs to a lady of your delicate breeding, Miss Wickham.”
Lydia felt an almost imperceptible movement at her side as Wickham drew just a little closer, if that were even possible. She smelled the scent that must be his, of a certain masculine something, brandy and leather and cologne mingling in the cool evening air as one of his hands came to rest on her shoulder. Then he pointed into the darkness, his fingertip tracing a hitherto unremarkable pattern of bright pinpricks in the black shroud of night.
“There is Sagittarius, our archer.” Wickham was looking at her as he encouraged her to follow the lines of the constellation though, Lydia could sense it. “Do you see him, Miss Lydia, smiling down on us? Was there ever a more selfless fellow than brave Chiron?”
Lydia was having some difficulty in looking at the stars. Her eyes were turned upward, it was true, but the one bright point illuminating her world was not in the distant heavens, but cradling her almost against him and showing her marvels she had never before seen. “No mythical centaur could be as brave and as selfless as one who defends his homeland,” she breathed. “Oh, I pray you, do not praise Chiron’s greatness, when I see truer nobility all round the ballroom… and before me.”
“You flatter a gentleman who little deserves it,” Wickham told her softly. “But I must confess that the heavens have rarely found such a rival as stands beneath them now, her splendour as breathtaking as their celestial majesty has ever been.”
“Mr Wickham, this is most unfair! I am, as you say, a lady of delicate breeding. I have not the experience of speaking with gentlemen, and I know not how to respond to such gallant words. Am I to swoon into your arms, or slap you and walk away?”
“One is optimistic for the swoon, either before or after the slap,” was his devilish reply. “But it should be the lady’s prerogative.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed, “Indeed, I ought to slap you heartily for such a speech! But I think perhaps you would enjoy that, so I shall think of another form of punishment for you. I believe I shall deny you the pleasure of the remainder of the ball, for you will be unfortunately detained out of doors.”
“Madam, if you are appointing yourself as my jailer, than I will be a happy man indeed,” he laughed, a spritely sound in the silent evening. “And my toes shall doubtless thank you for your consideration.”
“Then consider yourself imprisoned, Mr. Wickham. I shall do my utmost to be certain that your detention is not a solitary one. I should hate for you to be left entirely alone to suffer your punishment. How, then, shall we occupy ourselves?”
“I imagine you have no interest in military drills?” He arched his eyebrow and added, “Or the finer points of strategy?”
“Strategy! Do you not know, Mr Wickham, that ladies excel at strategy? I declare, your very best generals are nothing to a lady who desires a prize and sets about a scheme to obtain it First there comes the intelligence of the field–who the adversaries are and the merit of the territory to be won. Next comes strategic positioning, placing oneself to best advantage over other attempts. At last, when the lines are properly drawn and there is no fear of a surprise attack by one’s opponent…” she wiggled her eyebrows for delightful emphasis, then whispered, “the strike!”
“And when one’s opponent recovers his senses he has already lost his standard,” he dropped his voice to a delighted whisper, “Miss Lydia, you are delightfully shrewd; a quality I must lament I have never possessed.”
“Never fear, sir, for when a lady has won the object of her quest, she is a gracious champion. I shall not describe her comportment when she loses, for I intend never to lose.”
“I believe I would gladly capitulate to your salvos, madam,” Wickham assured her. “And I have never favoured surrender.”
“Then brace yourself, sir,” she smiled coquettishly, “for you are about to be conquered.” She waited for the innocent lift of his brows and then she turned and raised herself up on her toes. “Yield, sir,” she laughed, and captured her hapless prisoner with a toe-curling kiss which would surely have left even Napoleon vanquished on the field.