All may not be sunshine and roses as our joyous couple had expected. What began as a delightful journey full of teases, anticipation, and longing, has just taken a frightening turn.
Someone has followed them, and they know George Wickham by name.
“Are you mad? Don’t listen to them!” Lydia snatched at Wickham’s sleeve as he leaned over her toward the window. “Tell the driver to whip the horses and let us be gone!”
“It’s quite all right, nothing really.” Wickham smiled but it looked mirthless, his eyes dulled. “But nobody I want you to meet.”
“Then they can have some manners and wait until you are not escorting a lady. Impertinent scoundrels!” She righted her bonnet, which had gone askew several moments before, and folded her arms over her body for emphasis. “They have no business interrupting our travels.”
“Step out!” came the shout and Wickham put his hand softly to her face, then kissed her. Even by Lydia’s standards it was a kiss to remember, lingering and desperate and heated. Then he moved away and nodded once, as though that alone was enough to armour him for whoever waited outside.
“The coachman will take you to safety, my love.” Wickham smiled. “And we have had fun, haven’t we?”
She shook her head. “You speak as if they would lead you to the gallows! They are simple highwaymen. Just give them your watch and let us be on our way.” Even as she spoke, however, the men called for him by name again. She felt his fingers slipping away, gazing in disbelief at his retreating face, the smile of farewell.
“I am travelling alone, gentleman,” Lydia heard Wickham announce as he opened the door and began to descend. “Lucky for you, I would hate to be embarrassed in front of a lady!”
She was alone in the darkened coach. Her senses, sharpened now in her solitude, discerned a muffled protest outside, then the scraping of feet. Why… they were taking him off somewhere! And if their purpose was to remove him from the road and witnesses, their intentions could only be deemed wicked.
The coach now rocked, as the horses began to move. They were carrying her away from him! Her breath came in short pants as she looked about the inside, desperate for something–anything! Her bag, no longer secured on the opposite bench, rolled to the floor.
George’s shirt tumbled out.
Scarcely thinking, she snatched it up and stuffed it beneath her dress. Not satisfied, she rummaged within his bag to pull out a pair of breeches. It joined the shirt.
“Oh!” she cried loudly. “Driver, you must stop! Pray, stop the horses, I beg you!”
She repeated her pleas until the driver could no longer deny that he had heard her. The coach stopped, but the driver made no efforts to dismount and check on her.
“Please, sir, is there someone who can help me? I fear my time is upon me!” She added a shriek of pain, followed by a throaty groan, for proper effect. “Sir! Oh, my baby, my poor baby!”
A white face now appeared at the door. Lydia grasped her stuffed dress in the throes of her imaginary agony and moaned. “My husband! Where is he?”
“He’s–” The coachman glanced away then back over his shoulder. He rose to his tiptoes to get a better view of exactly what was happening, then he flinched and told her. “He’s talking to the gentleman. Are you not well, Miss– Missus?”
“Not well! What do you think, you buffoon?” she roared. She was fairly certain even Aunt Gardiner lost her temper while labouring, and she played her act to its fullest. “Do I look well? I need my husband, or you will be forced to deliver my babe yourself!”
“I don’t know if–” He flinched again, then nodded. “I’ll have a word with the gentlemen, they look a bit occupied, but I shall try!”
He took off running and she heard his voice, filled with panic and urgency when he shouted, “Lady in the carriage, sirs, she’s with child– Not only with child, ‘aving it! Now! She’s calling for the gentleman, sirs!”
Lydia sat up, watching, but the instant heads began to turn her way, she screamed in pain. “Is that blood? My petticoat is spoilt!” She doubled over then, clasping her stomach and groaning. “Mother, where are you?” she lamented. “I am sorry… so sorry we shall not arrive. My–ohhhhh…..”
She found a bit of George’s eau de cologne spilling out of his bag, and as she crouched near the floor of the carriage, she splashed it on her face.
Mere moments later a face appeared at the door but this was not the pale coachman, nor her beloved. It was a grizzled face that told a thousand stories, none of them suitable for a lady like her, and none of which Lydia would want to hear. His heavy beard was stained with tobacco and wisps of grey hair poked greasily from beneath the knitted cap that he wore, yet most of her attention was taken by the pistol he hald in his gloved hand. It was pointed away from the carriage, at the place where Lydia knew Wickham must be, unable to move on the threat that he might pull the trigger.
The man glared at Lydia, looking her up and down with a frown of distaste. She gave another of her theatrical howls and the man stepped away, grimacing. Who might have thought that a labouring woman would chase away a fierce bear of a creature like this, but he appeared utterly unprepared for such an event.
“Lord above,” he growled. Then he leaned into the door and told her in a low growl, “There’s no cunning woman here, lady, can you not put a cork in it?”
“Cork yourself!” she snarled. “And wash your filthy hands. If you deny me my husband, then you shall be the one to catch my b–aaaaaahhhhh! Oh!” She lay back, gasping a moment and writhing her head against the carriage seat. “You shall have to suffice! Quickly, help me!”
“Your harlot is about to drop a little Wickham, or so she says,” he laughed, the laugh turning into a harsh cough that rattled deep in his chest. “She wants you to come and do the dirty bit before you and I take our leave.”
Lydia’s gaze settled on the gun again and he jerked it to summon Wickham towards the carriage. She saw his shadow first, moving at a steady pace, both hands clearly held as he made his careful way towards them. The ruffian stepped back to allow Wickham to take his place at the door of the carriage, unharmed, thank God. With his back to the man, Wickham caught Lydia’s gaze and mouthed one word silently.
She did. Loud and high, a piercing cry that shattered the stillness for miles around. She followed it with a second, equally chilling. The hulking brute of a man fell back slightly in the face of her feminine mystery.
With his own face a rather pained grimace at the sound she was making, Wickham jolted his elbow backwards. It connected with the rogue’s face with a sickening crack, sending the man reeling backwards into the dirt. He gave a groan and lay there, unmoving, blood streaming from his nose. Wickham stooped to retrieve the dropped gun and with a flourish, fired it into the air. As the brute’s riderless horse whinnied and thundered away into the distance, her beloved clambered into the carriage and bellowed, “Go! Now!”
Lydia clasped him to her breast, nearly smothering him in her ecstatic relief. The carriage spun and rocked, and they could hear the panicked coachman slashing at the horses. “George! I feared I had lost you!”
George Wickham, his face firmly buried in his lover’s bosom, could only give a muffled agreement to her declarations, though Lydia was sure he would be saying the very sweetest of words.
“Aren’t you glad,” she lifted his head, interrupting herself with a dizzying, frenzied kiss to his pale lips. “I say, are you not glad that I kept your shirt?”
To be continued…