Elizabeth Bennet hurried through the woods and into Hunsford as daylight swiftly left the sky. She dared not wait at an inn nearby for fear of Lady Catherine sending men to find her and bring her back in time for a horrid wedding and a future she might never escape.
The purse Anne de Bough had supplied weighed heavily in her pocket and after securing a post-chaise that would take her as far as London, Elizabeth breathed easier.
The driver helped her inside and she sent up a silent prayer of thanks that the first part of the plan she and Anne de Bourgh devised had passed easily, though her heart still raced to think of it.
Her driver roused his footman and told the man they would travel through the night. Elizabeth had never done such a thing, and she was frightened to be alone, but her desperate situation made propriety a luxury she could not afford. The cold weight of the blade Anne had given her brought much comfort. She must do all she might to move daily toward Brambling Hall. Thoughts of returning to Netherfield Park were easily dismissed as she wished to be in the last place anyone might think to find her.
She sat back on the bench and removed her gloves and hat. She smoothed the traveling dress and admired the dark blue of the fabric. There were lovely bits of embroidery upon the sleeves she had not noticed until this moment, her escape from Rosings having distracted her mightily. The dress was given to her by Miss Anne, and she would treasure it until the day she might see the kind young woman once more. But she worried terribly for her new friend. Lady Catherine would be livid over Elizabeth’s absence and if she found her own daughter had plotted and funded her escape, well, it pained Elizabeth to think of the words she would use to hurt the gentle Anne de Bourgh.
The post-chaise moved along further from Hunsford and Elizabeth allowed herself the small luxury of a yawn and stretch. There was a book left on the bench beside her and she began to read until her eyes grew heavy. In but a few day’s time, she would throw open the doors of Brambling Hall and lock herself away until Jane and Bingley returned. Mr. Darcy and Lady Anne would come to her and all would be well.
In due time, the post-chaise stopped briefly and Elizabeth alit from the conveyance and went inside the inn with the footman to find something to eat. The thrill of her escape and the first bit of rest she had enjoyed outside the walls of Rosings gave her a hearty appetite.
As she sat waiting for a small basket of food, she spied a man and woman staring at her. She became most uncomfortable and sent the footman to retrieve the basket as she returned to the post-chaise. The pair followed her from the inn and came to walk beside her. Elizabeth kept her pace and tried to ignore the couple.
“I say, young lady, do you travel alone?” The handsome man asked as his lady friend took her hand gently.
Elizabeth eyed the pair with doubt, hoping only to disengage herself from their company. “I do not. I have a driver and a footman.”
The gentleman laughed and smiled down at Elizabeth Bennet. “We are bound for London and wondered if we might share your conveyance as far as you would allow?”
Elizabeth glanced between the two and while they were dressed as well as any gentleman or lady, a bit of unease settled in her mind. “I am not opposed to your presence, but the next stop in Hertfordshire will be for a mere moment and then we shall be traveling along to Derbyshire. I would see you are far as Meryton.”
The gentleman bowed and introduced himself as George Wickham and his lady friend as a Miss Sally Younge. Elizabeth’s unease at their company grew. She reluctantly offered her name in introduction.
Mr. Wickham assisted the ladies into the carriage and Elizabeth kept an eye on the odd couple. The man plied her with unending questions and she soon grew bored with his charming ways. Only when the name Darcy fell from his lips did she take notice.
“Are you acquainted with the Darcy family, then? I live near Pemberley with my sister, Jane Bingley and her husband.”
George Wickham’s eyes flashed his delight as he glanced to Miss Younge before offering his smooth lie. “Perhaps we might meet again in the future as the Darcys are family friends, you might say.”
Elizabeth nodded and pointed up the road. Meryton was coming into view and she would be relieved to have them gone from the post-chaise. She didn’t care for the man’s leering glances nor the woman’s strange smile.
George Wickham walked through Meryton in the early morning sunlight as though he were someone of great importance.
He stopped before a small inn and opened the door for his companion. They could afford but a day at the establishment before begging another ride. He bristled at his inability to have found a way to further impose upon the lovely Miss Bennet and her kindness.
However, his mind delighted at his stroke of profound luck in meeting a young woman well acquainted with the Darcy family. While Sally Younge slept on the bed in their small room, he paced the floor plotting how they might make use of their fortuitous meeting the night before.
He had wasted the last bit of money he’d swindled from Fitzwilliam Darcy after the Ramsgate debacle almost a year ago and with dear Georgiana dead not long since, he must find a way to refill his coffers, and soon.
He sat lounging in a chair watching his lady friend sleep, biding his time. Sally was a mean woman, but without her rest she was downright wicked. His mind satisfied at the idea of tracking Miss Bennet to her home in Derbyshire, he allowed himself to fall into a light sleep.
He was shaken from his slumber some hours later by the now well-rested Sally Younge.He rose and washed his face before tossing the cloth in her direction. “Make yourself a fine lady and we shall seek our fortune. That Miss Bennet in the post-chaise is someone important to the Darcy family. Her manner, her dress, her ready admission of their connection. Yes, she will do.”
“But she has likely gone on to Derbyshire by this hour. I doubt we shall find her lingering about after the firm declaration she made of her travel plans.”
George Wickham winked at his accomplice and held out an arm for her, his dashing, gentlemanly manners ready to earn their keep. “We shall find a way, Sally. We always do.”
Elizabeth arrived outside Longbourn after having changed her mind on the way to Brambling Hall. Stopping for very long had not been in her plans, but there was nothing for it if she wished to be rid of the odd couple from the inn.
The sudden sight of her girlhood home caused her to weep after her ordeal at Rosings. The driver stopped and the footman walked with her to the front door of Longbourn. She knocked, but there was no answer. She waited and tried again. Hill came, her hair flying about, disheveled in a manner Elizabeth had never seen in all her life. “Hill, what has happened?”
“Miss Elizabeth, your family is at Netherfield. They have not been home since the night of the ball.”
Elizabeth did not wait to hear more and hurried to her post-chaise. “We shall stop at Netherfield before going on to London.”
The driver followed her direction and soon they came to the circular drive of Netherfield Park. Jane was on the terrace when she arrived and Elizabeth could see her sister was not well. The babe! Of course, with the Bennets at Netherfield and her own morning illness, coupled with her worry for Elizabeth, Jane was likely overwhelmed by it all.
Elizabeth ran to her across the gardens and up the great stone steps. “Jane, dear, why are you out here alone?”
Jane grabbed her sister and held her tightly, the tears flowing freely at the miracle of her arrival. It was moments before she could speak.
“It seems to be the only place in all this grand estate to have a moment to myself, lately. But Lizzy, how have you come to be home in Hertfordshire? Charles sent for the Darcys to save you from those horrible people in Kent, yet you are alone.”
Elizabeth helped Jane inside and sat her by the fireplace in the parlor. “I escaped with the assistance of one Miss Anne de Bough of Rosings Park. I rode here through the night, meeting a very strange couple who claim to know the Darcys. I shall not stay, for I must be off to Brambling Hall. I do not think Mr. Collins would travel so far to find me.”
Jane nodded and wrapped her arms around her favorite sister once more. “When I received your letter, I wanted to come save you but Charles wouldn’t have it. Blasted man! He did send an express to the Darcys. I am surprised you did not see them at Rosings.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “There was no time to wait, Jane. And I could not be certain you would receive my letter. Lady Catherine decided we were to marry in her parlor last evening after Miss Anne tried sending an express to London.”
Elizabeth trembled at the memory and sent for tea. “Thank goodness for Charles’s good sense to keep you here. You are in no shape to travel my dear. You look terrible, though it pains me to say. How is the babe?”
Jane sighed and accepted her tea from the maid. “Tis not the babe,” she said, her hand lovingly upon her middle, “tis our family upstairs. I fear they will never go home, Lizzy. I cannot bear to think of it.”
Elizabeth frowned, hoping Jane did not mean to say their family was now living at Netherfield. “How has this come to be Jane?”
“Father fell ill the night you were taken away and mother will not leave his side, of course, not to mention her own maladies that change and worsen daily.”
Elizabeth placed a gloved hand over her mouth and shook her head. Tears formed in her eyes. Her father must have regretted his decision to have her removed to Rosings.
Jane poured her sister a cup of tea. “You must not be afraid here, Lizzy. Drink this for courage. Charles and I will return to Brambling soon, you must wait and go with us.”
Elizabeth sipped her tea, the familiar note of one of her father’s favorite wines meeting her lips instead. Jane did indeed wish her courage. “I cannot stay Jane. I would be too angry with father and mother, though they could not have known the horrible man they meant for me to marry.”
Jane moved closer to Elizabeth and tried to reason with her, the roads were not safe for a young woman alone, she must stay.
But Elizabeth had been freed when Miss de Bourgh slipped that purse into her hand. “No Jane, I must not wait here. My presence would alarm mother and she will declare to father I must return at once to our cousin.”
Elizabeth stood and walked quietly to the parlor door. “I am safe now, Jane. I shall take a carriage from Netherfield with a footman and driver, and perhaps a young maid.”
Elizabeth slipped into the hall and bade the butler to ready a carriage without alerting her family of her presence. She stepped outside and spoke to the driver of the post-chaise and thanked him for his effort. She watched the conveyance disappear from the drive and turned to step back inside to visit with Jane as long as she might.
In less than a half hour, she was ready to leave Netherfield with the trusted driver and footman, and one maid by the name of Eleanor. A generous basket of food was supplied by the Cook.
Elizabeth was pleased to find her sister truly well, except for the events their family had caused beginning the night of the ball. Jane stood with her before the waiting carriage and promised she and Charles would be home as soon as they might. Jane wished to welcome their first child at Brambling.
The conveyance pulled away from Netherfield and Elizabeth was relieved to have left without seeing the rest of her family. Had they been in residence at Longbourn, she might have made her mother and father know the character of Mr. Collins. As they were now, her presence would only make a terrible situation worse for her dear Jane.
George Wickham and Sally Younge wandered about town after a meager lunch. He spied the post-chaise that had carried them last evening. Leaving Miss Younge standing before a milliner’s shoppe, he approached the driver and tipped his hat to the young man.
“I say, is this not the same conveyance we rode in with Miss Bennet last evening?”
The driver nodded and turned away to ready himself for the next couple climbing into the post-chaise. Wickham had to find whether the young lady had remained or taken another carriage on her way to Derbyshire. “Sir, has the young woman hired another carriage to take her where she wishes to go?”
The footman passed by and upon hearing the question, stopped and offered his remarks upon the situation. “The young lady you met last evening has made arrangements at Netherfield Park to continue her trip to Derbyshire.”
George Wickham thanked the men and found the road that led away from Meryton toward London. He then retrieved Sally from the milliner’s shop and hurried down that same road with her dragging her feet. “George, must we rush about the town? And are we to walk to London, now?”
Wickham silenced her and continued their trek for miles down the road. He stopped and ripped at his own coat and then tore Sally’s clothing, rubbing handfuls of dirt across her dress. She slapped at him and called him a string of the most vile names she could manage. He stepped out of her reach and soothed her with his plan.
“Patience, dear Sally, for Miss Bennet may be along any time now. She stopped long enough to change her transportation and visit her family, I daresay. We must wait here upon the road.”
Not an hour later, a grand carriage appeared in the distance and Wickham pulled his partner in crime away from the road. They would be seen soon enough. “The story we tell will be that we were attacked by bandits as we walked upon the road. You may hold your head in your hands and feign injury to impress our terrible situation upon Miss Bennet.”
Sally Younge sneered at him as he turned away. Why must he always chase after this one and that one when he had her in his bed? They could live the rest of their lives on the thievery and lies they easily performed. But Wickham always wished to align himself with the wealthy, or one of their circle, of which he most certainly was not.
They looked up and the carriage stopped near to their patch of ground. Elizabeth glanced out her window to find the man and woman she’d met earlier standing upon the road, clothing torn here and there and the dust of the road dulling their charm.
“We did not expect to see you again so soon, miss. Were you not on your way to Derbyshire?” The man asked innocently as the woman gazed steadily in her direction, a hand across her forehead.
Elizabeth found herself speechless before them. What did they mean standing in the road as they were? She was about to urge the driver on when the man stepped away from his lady companion and spoke to Elizabeth with a tremble in his voice.
“I must see her to London, miss. We have been robbed. I was hoping we might see you again. Tis a blessing you have come this way.”
Elizabeth breathed deeply, her heart racing at the idea of helping the couple. There was something amiss about the gentleman and the young lady but she could not place it. She was certain no harm would come to her now, not with the staff of Netherfield by her side and so made up her mind.
She nodded and allowed they might go as far as London. She was made to regret her decision as soon as they seated themselves across from her, for the man continued his questions and declarations in the same manner he had during their previous travels. As the carriage moved along through the night, Elizabeth was soothed by the presence of the servants from Netherfield. The droning nature of the man’s voice, coupled with the wine Jane had given her earlier, left her struggling to keep her eyes open.
Before long Elizabeth nodded off as the cool evening air moved through the carriage chilling those within. She heard whispers and snatches of conversation but thought it all a dream. Suddenly the carriage stopped and she came fully awake. Wickham jumped from the open door of the carriage and Miss Younge doubled over in her seat making a terrible noise.
The maid Eleanor clung to Elizabeth, her face a mask of concern. Moments later, the door of the carriage slammed shut and they were off again. Elizabeth leaned her head out the window and saw the driver and footman laying by the side of the road in the light of the swinging carriage lanterns.
She searched the ground as the carriage moved farther away, thinking Mr. Wickham must have been set upon by the same bandits once more, but could not find the body of a third man. Miss Younge sat up, a broad, wicked smile on her face, and laughed at Elizabeth’s agitation. “No need to worry for Mr. Wickham, miss. He is in the driver’s seat.”
Elizabeth rose swiftly, her aim the door of the carriage. Miss Younge knocked her easily back against her seat, pinning her roughly in place. She turned an object before Elizabeth’s eyes. “Try your tricks again and I shall cut your pretty maid, miss.”
Elizabeth saw the glint of the woman’s blade and breathed deeply, her mind racing along as quickly as their conveyance.
“What does Mr. Wickham hope to gain by doing such an evil deed? I have no connections from which to seek a fortune as ransom.”
Miss Younge laughed at Elizabeth’s words. “We shall find the truth of your statement, miss. Wickham is a desperate man and were I you, I should consider doing all I might to insure my safety and honor.”
Elizabeth’s maid gasped at the woman’s implication and cast her eyes to the floor of the carriage. Her trembling body threatened to send Elizabeth into her own fit of terror.
Perhaps her captors believed they might extort a large sum from Charles Bingley? Elizabeth thought of Jane and the anguish her plight would bring to her sister. The ousted driver and footman would return to Netherfield with the news if Wickham had not killed them. “I speak the truth. My father is quite ill and my family is dependent upon my sister and her husband. I am certain they would pay whatever Mr. Wickham asks, within their ability.”
Miss Younge sat back on her bench and sighed deeply. “I have given you sound advice. If you choose to ignore it, I can do no more. Wickham is terribly erratic when funds are low. I do hope he spares your maid, at least.”
Elizabeth squeezed Eleanor’s hand for comfort as sobs racked the young woman’s thin body. Mr. Wickham’s partner in crime had a way with words, her presence far more menacing than Elizabeth had first thought.
Mr. Darcy sought to find all that he could of Elizabeth’s plan from his cousin as they rode for Hertfordshire. “If she had only waited a while longer, I would have her beside me now. Tell me, Anne, where was she bound? I imagine it must be Netherfield.”
Anne took her aunt’s hand and spoke freely in the Darcy carriage. For the first time in her life, she was at ease and without worry. “She would not say, William. I asked her, I did, but she was worried mother would force the truth from me. I cannot think she was planning to return to Netherfield for the fact Mr. Collins would certainly search there first thing.”
Mr. Darcy agreed with his cousin. Elizabeth would not choose to return to the place Mr. Collins had stolen her the night of the ball. She must be headed to London or Derbyshire.
Lady Anne sighed deeply, her remorse at having parted company with the lovely, young Elizabeth Bennet causing her melancholy to return. “Had we only gone to Hertfordshire from the start, we might have avoided the terrible scene at Rosings Park. I promise this, William, she shall never worry about that parson again. I only wish she knew it as she made her way to a safer abode.”
Mr. Darcy took his mother’s hand and held it tightly in his own. “I shall find her, mother, of that you may be certain. We shall go to Netherfield first, her carriage must have passed that way and she may have stopped only long enough to see Mrs. Bingley before traveling on.”
The hijacked carriage arrived in London but Elizabeth and her maid were bone tired, neither having slept with Sally Younge’s eyes upon them.
The door to the carriage opened and George Wickham smiled tenderly at his new friends. “You may find your accommodations lacking, Miss Bennet, for we cannot afford lodgings as comfortable as Netherfield and certainly none to approach the likes of Pemberley.
Elizabeth stood to take his arm, her skin crawling with fear. She would do all she might to keep her young maid calm until they were settled. Mr. Wickham heard the unmistakable clink of coins as Elizabeth stood and turned to Miss Younge. “Search her now, for she has hidden a good deal of money on her person. I would dearly love to find it myself but I know you have quite a jealous streak, my dear.”
He winked and stood watching. Elizabeth would not endure such horrid actions against herself and angrily turned over the purse Anne de Bourgh had given her. Sally Younge laughed in Elizabeth’s face. “I had thought you more capable of a good fight, Miss Bennet. I find it must mean you are only a threat to the ladies at a fancy tea.”
Elizabeth kept her face serene as her emotions nearly choked her with their ferocity. Mr. Wickham and his crude companion would pay for their misdeeds, she would see to it the first chance that presented itself. She did not escape the prison of Rosings to fall into yet another trap. “Come, Eleanor, do not fear. These travelers have their money, a good bit of my possessions, and a fine carriage with horses. We may take our leave of them.”
George Wickham’s face fell into a sad mask as he helped Elizabeth and her maid from the coach. “I am afraid you are mistaken, Miss Bennet. This money shall only provide a night or two of luxury for our hard work. We shall require quite a bit more before you are to take your leave, as you say.”
Elizabeth lost the last bit of control she possessed and slapped George Wickham hard across his face. Sally Younge jumped from the carriage and tore the sleeve of Elizabeth’s dress with her knife.
Eleanor screamed and the woman was upon her before the young woman could blink. She twisted her hands in the maid’s hair and pulled viciously until the tears flowed freely down her captive’s terrified face.
George Wickham grabbed Elizabeth’s arm and shoved her into a dark doorway of what appeared to be a flop house with unsavory characters gathered about. He marched her up a rickety flight of stairs and pushed her through a flimsy door and upon a bare mattress in the floor. Eleanor soon found herself beside her mistress.
“Stay with them, Sally, while I go and secure our room for the next few nights. I shall send Terrence to guard them as I require your services in my bedchamber this evening.”
Elizabeth and Eleanor sat up, their stomachs churning at the picture of Wickham and his dreadful companion in the throes of passion. Elizabeth spoke before the man might take his leave. “We must not be left in such a state guarded by a man of questionable reputation, Mr. Wickham. Did you plan to gain money for us, I would think Mr. Bingley unhappy to find how we’ve been treated.”
Wickham sauntered over to her and knelt on the floor, his eyes gone soft and his voice a husky whisper. Elizabeth shuddered as his lips came close to her ear. “Mr. Darcy is the one who shall pay my little songbird. You gave me all I need to know when you brightened about your connection to the Darcy family when first we met. Tell me, has the proud man offered for your hand?”
Elizabeth turned her head away, bent on ignoring his question.
Sally approached with her knife and held the point against Elizabeth’s throat. “If he did, we must not harm her, but if he did not, I would enjoy a moment alone to carve out an understanding with the chit.”
Elizabeth gazed into Eleanor’s eyes and swallowed the fear that consumed her. “He did, we were to meet here in London with my parents, yet they are too ill to travel. Mr. Darcy will kill you for this, surely you must understand that fact.”
Mr. Wickham stood and smirked as a bored gentleman in the grandest ballroom in London might. He pulled Sally away from Elizabeth and left the woman huddled on the floor with her maid, terrified of their circumstance.
If Elizabeth could escape this squalor, she could find Darcy House and gain the protection of the Darcy family. It did not matter she had lied about Mr. Darcy’s proposal to that animal Wickham. It mattered not that he had not offered for her yet. It had been the only way to keep Sally Younge from killing either her or the maid who trembled beside her.
Elizabeth remembered the blade Anne de Bourgh had given her. If this Terrence person, who was to guard them, tried so much as to speak to them, she would hide it in one hand and kill him if she must.