P&P200: Lydia Decides to Leave Brighton with Wickham
Not only did Lydia Bennet and Harriet Forster see the village and visit the shops the next morning on the arm of Mr. Wickham, but the following day Colonel Forster hired a bathing machine for the ladies. While Lydia found the idea of submerging herself in the sea exciting beyond belief, the thought of the act was nothing when compared to the thrill she actually experienced taking part of the exercise.
Despite the sharp instructions and heavy hand of the matron who accompanied them, Lydia stayed in the water for a full half hour, splashing and laughing, much to Mrs. Forster’s chagrin. While Lydia had taken to the water with no trouble at all, poor Harriet had not enjoyed her experience in the least. She sputtered and flailed in the waves from the moment she was dipped until the very second she was hauled back into the machine. It was an experience the colonel’s young wife would not be repeating, no matter how often and insistently Lydia begged her to reconsider.
After spending the entirety of that afternoon and evening at home (for Mrs. Forster insisted she required rest in order to recover from her encounter with the sea) the colonel invited some of his officers to dine with them. Among them were a few of Lydia’s favorites: Denny, Pratt, Chamberlain, and Wickham. The party was a gay one, and when they all sat down to the card tables after supper, Lydia found herself most agreeably engaged with Lieutenant Wickham, who begged a seat beside her with an engaging smile.
“I am sorry that you did not find anything in the shops yesterday to please you, Miss Bennet,” he said.
“No one is sorrier than I, I daresay, for I had my heart set on a new gown or two. At least they had ices.”
Wickham laid down a card and said, “I understand you went bathing yesterday morning. I have not gone myself. How did you enjoy it? Hopefully, you had a better time of it than poor Mrs. Forster.”
“Oh!” cried Lydia, “but you should! I have never enjoyed anything so much, but Harriet flatly refuses to bathe ever again. I do not know what I shall do while I am here, Mr. Wickham, for I had such fun yesterday. Alas, today was nothing like yesterday. Harriet imagines herself ill at every turn, but it is all in her head I daresay. We stayed in all day, you know, and never even ventured out of doors into the garden.”
“I am excessively sorry to hear that. Tomorrow, perhaps, you shall find something to better occupy your time. From what I understand Mrs. Forster was feeling under the weather after her turn in the bathing machine, though she appears to be in good enough spirits now.”
Lydia scowled. “I certainly hope so, for I fear I cannot bear to be confined to this insufferable house for so much as another day. If we were in London I daresay I would be able to slip away without anyone being the wiser, but here in Brighton Colonel Forster is always about, postulating about what is proper and right. In my opinion, he is being very droll, for he was not half so concerned about any of that when we were in Hertfordshire.” She sighed deeply and selected another card. “If only we were in London. I could buy a proper gown and perhaps go to the theatre. Harriet would forget all about sea bathing and being ill. Oh, what fun I could have!”
Wickham only smiled, but his look was warm and Lydia soon found herself unable to keep her attention entirely on the game at hand.
* * *
“Will you take a turn with me about the room, Miss Bennet? I daresay it will be refreshing after sitting in one attitude for so long.”
Lydia was surprised indeed by his continued attentiveness, but pleasantly so, and readily agreed. She took Wickham’s proffered hand and almost sighed aloud as he tucked hers into the crook of his arm. She could not deny she had a very pleasant evening, despite the fact that her day had been extremely dull; the highlight being the gentleman currently leading her to the opposite side of the drawing room, where they might have some privacy. Lydia could hardly believe her good fortune.
Wickham glanced around the room before tilting his head toward her own and saying in a low voice, “Can you keep a secret, Miss Bennet?”
“Of course, sir,” she said, her eyes wide, eager for gossip.
“It is not common knowledge, but I am to be sent to Town tomorrow night on urgent business for the regiment. In fact, not even Denny and Pratt know. No one knows, except Colonel Forster and myself, and now you.” He gave her a quick smile, laying his free hand over hers.
Lydia thought she might melt.
“The nature of my business,” he continued, “is quite secretive. So secretive, in fact, that Colonel Forster has not even shared it with Mrs. Forster.” The corners of Wickham’s mouth turned upward ever so slightly. “But, I could not bear to deceive you in such a manner. The thought of parting with you, Miss Bennet, without saying a proper adieu after we have grown so close leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”
Lydia gasped, thrilled that the handsome Lieutenant would make such an intimation. “I would be very angry with you if you were to go away without saying goodbye, Mr. Wickham; indeed, things will be very dull without you. I do not know how I shall pass the time. How long will your business keep you in Town?”
Wickham sighed heavily, patting her hand. “It will be many weeks before I may be able to return. By then, I am afraid you may have gone home to Longbourn and we shall be parted forever.”
“How dreadful!” Lydia cried, truly horrified by the prospect of parting with Mr. Wickham for so long a time as forever. “I cannot imagine how I shall bear your absence if we are never to meet again. I have enjoyed your company very much, Mr. Wickham. Tell me, do you truly have to go?”
“It is all arranged. I leave tomorrow after nightfall. I do wish there was some way that we might see one another. I confess I have grown most attached to you, Miss Bennet. If only I had more to offer. If only you would agree to…” Here, he shook his head and looked away. “But, alas, I am but a lowly Lieutenant. If I were to ask, your father would never permit me to court you, never mind mar—. But I am afraid I have said too much. Forgive me.”
“Do you mean to say that you wish to marry me?” Lydia asked on a breath.
Wickham’s eyes held her own. “The idea of never meeting again is one that grieves me. If I could but convince you to wait for me, but even that, I am afraid, would be asking too much. As I mentioned before, I may be gone many weeks. Of course, you would not wish to leave your friends, though traveling to Scotland would not be such a stretch beyond London. But I am a sentimental fool, thinking of such a thing with such a lovely creature as yourself.”
Lydia bit her lip. Scotland, to her, sounded wonderful. She would be married—and before any of her sisters, too! She would be Mrs. George Wickham, esquire. Oh! she thought. How well that sounds! “I would not be gone forever. I daresay Harriet would hardly miss me. And I do have more than enough money to buy wedding clothes, and maybe even go to the theatre. Of course, we would have to stop in London first, for I cannot imagine buying wedding clothes anywhere else. Oh!” she cried. “What fun we shall have! I can hardly wait!”
Wickham’s answering smile was slow as he quickly flicked his eyes from Lydia’s happy countenance to the cluster of officers taking refreshment with Colonel and Mrs. Forster. “That is settled, then,” he said.