Colonel Forster left Brighton at first light, before the sun had actually appeared above the hump of Beachy Head to the east. The day was lovely, with a light mist filtering the light and giving the trees along the highway an ethereal, mysterious beauty. But the colonel was oblivious to the wonders of nature as it awoke, and to the bird songs heralding the end of the dawn chorus; his thoughts were turned inwards to the reason for his ride.
Not two nights before, his wife’s guest, Miss Lydia Bennet, had left their house with one of his men…to own the truth, with George Wickham. He could hardly believe it even now that one of his men would behave in such a scaly way towards a guest in his superior officer’s house! Miss Bennet, of course, had gone willingly, and she had shown herself during her stay to have very little in the way of dignity or propriety. He had thought that she would keep his wife happy while he pursued his duties, and, indeed, she had enjoyed having her friend stay…He shook his head to try to clear it of the tumbling thoughts roiling in it.
The two eldest Miss Bennets were lovely young women who always behaved like ladies. The two youngest girls, however, were the most unrestrained, rambunctious young women he had ever met it was not long after the regiment moved to Brighton for the summer that he began having serious reservations about the influence Miss Lydia might have on his wife. His wife! He had married her for her good humour and her dowry of one thousand pounds, but she was twenty years younger than he. At first he had enjoyed her light heart and how young she made him feel, but the summer in Brighton with Miss Lydia had opened his eyes to the difference between youth and immaturity. Both girls (he could not call them ladies…they were far too young) enjoyed flirting with the officers and he had often wished that his wife would behave more like a well-bred matron than like the feather-headed girl just out of the schoolroom. Several times he had had to restrain their exuberance for some scheme which threatened to hurt their reputations…and his.
What would he say to Mr. Bennet when he reached Longbourn? At least they would have received his express and he would not have to deal with the hysterics which he was positive had overcome Mrs. Bennet when the express had arrived.
He stopped at mid day to bait his horse and to refresh himself with a tankard of ale and a light nuncheon of cold meat and bread before continuing on towards Hertfordshire. When he approached London he began making inquiries at the inns but could not trace the fugitives beyond Clapham. There they had, unfortunately, changed to a hackney coach and continued on the London road…and there the trail petered out. He could find no trace of them on the road they would have taken to Scotland. He finally gave up the search and found a small but comfortable inn along the road for the night (and not a very restful one) and set out very early again the next day. It was very fortunate that his horse was large and strong and that he rode very light, or the poor beast would have been done in by the exertion of the past days.
It was very late in the day when he finally arrived at Longbourn, covered in dirt and sweat from the long ride and wishing only for a glass of madeira and a comfortable chair. Instead, he found himself in Mr. Bennet’s library facing an angry father.
But it was not so bad as he had feared. Mr. Bennet placed the blame for Lydia’s folly directly onto his daughter’s shoulders and accepted the colonel’s apologies…although without any lightening of his expression. He accepted Mr. Bennet’s offer of dinner, (and a grim affair it was!) then set out for the return to Brighton, where he had engagements the next evening. As he left Longbourn he shook his head over the follies of youth and was glad that his wife would no longer be influenced by Miss Lydia. She was stunned by the elopement of her friend…and shocked that she had so misjudged her as to think that her flirting was merely pretense, rather than a deep-seated lack of breeding. Perhaps, once this fiasco was over, his wife would start to settle down…certainly when they started a family it would give her something better to think about than parties and routs. The colonel managed a smile over that scenario as he cantered towards Brighton.