(Aug. 1, 1812)
(Based upon Archibald Denny, from my novel, The Three Colonels.)
Lieutenant Denny had just finished his breakfast when Lieutenant Chamberlayne walked in. “I say, have you seen Wickham? He seems to be missing.”
Denny sat up. “Missing? Are you certain? Sometimes he sleeps in town.”
At that moment, an angry Captain Carter walked in, followed by Lieutenant Pratt. “There is no doubt about it,” he thundered without preamble. “Wickham has fled!”
Chamberlayne paled. “He owes me money, too.”
Denny felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. He knew that things were getting tight for George, almost desperate, his gambling debts being pressing, but surely he wouldn’t just desert!
“Miss Bennet is missing, as well.” Carter eyed Denny. “Colonel Forster wants to talk to you.”
Denny just stared in horror at his captain. George could not have done that! He could not have!
Somehow, Denny made it to Colonel Forster’s office without losing his breakfast. He stood at attention, watching his commander pace up and down the small space. Never had Denny seen the affable colonel in such a state.
“She’s gone, she’s gone, and I was responsible for her,” he said over and over again. “How can I tell her father? I never should have let Harriet talk me into this foolishness!” He finally addressed Denny. “All right, you are friends with George Wickham. Where the devil is he? Where did he go?”
“Sir, I do not know. Are you saying that Lieutenant Wickham absconded with Miss Bennet?”
“Yes, yes, we are certain of it. She left a note.” He tossed a piece of paper in his direction. “Read it, if you like.”
Denny picked it up and read.
“MY DEAR HARRIET, you will laugh when you know where I am gone, and I cannot help laughing myself at your surprise tomorrow morning, as soon as I am missed. I am going to Gretna Green, and if you cannot guess with who, I shall think you a simpleton, for there is but one man in the world I love, and he is an angel. I should never be happy without him, so think it no harm to be off. You need not send them word at Longbourn of my going, if you do not like it, for it will make the surprise the greater, when I write to them, and sign my name ‘Lydia Wickham.’ What a good joke it will be! I can hardly write for laughing…”
There was more, but Denny had read enough. His disappointment, pain, and horror nearly brought him to his knees. Only his will kept him upright.
“Well?’ the colonel demanded. “What do you know about this business?”
Denny’s mind swirled with the possibilities. “Sir, I did not know that Wickham was going to desert. I was aware of his debts of honor as well as other financial difficulties, but I did not think him capable of this. Looking back, I suppose I should not be surprised that he left. I am disappointed in him.
“But I had no idea about Miss Bennet! Not a breath of this sort of action was ever hinted between us. I own myself shocked.”
The colonel drew close. “You have called on Miss Bennet very regularly at my house, lieutenant. You had no suspicions of her attachment to Wickham?”
“None at all, sir!” Denny cried with more feeling than he intended. “I … I knew that Miss Bennet liked George, but she showed him no especial attention. She was attentive to many of the officers.” Including me was Denny’s depressing thought.
Colonel Forster seemed to catch the level of Denny’s disappointment. The interview became much less an interrogation. “So, you believe that the two are well on their way to Gretna Green?”
This was Denny’s nightmare. “I am afraid that—sir, Wickham had often talked about his plans for the future. He has always held that marriage to an heiress was his goal.” At Forster’s look, he added, “For example, his courtship of Miss King in Meryton.” Denny looked down at the note. “From this I can tell that Miss Lydia—Miss Bennet—believes that she and Wickham are eloping to Scotland. I have had many conversations with Wickham, sir, and I can categorically state that such a thing would be in opposition to all his long-term plans. Miss Bennet is not an heiress.”
“Good God, do you know what you are saying?”
Denny came to attention. “Colonel, I do not know where Wickham has gotten to, but he would never willingly go to Gretna Green for anything less than ten thousand pounds.”
Forster blanched and cursed. “Get Cater in here—now! I must find that bastard! There is not a moment to lose!” He glared at Denny. “As for you, you and the other officers are confined to quarters until I return! I will get to the bottom of this!”
Denny’s mood darkened as he sat helplessly in his tent. He did not share his space, thanks to his seniority, so he could escape Pratt’s grumblings and Chamberlayne’s gossip. He had heard enough from the latter when he informed his comrades of their colonel’s orders.
“I am surprised Wickham made off with that Bennet girl. I thought sure he had his eye on Mrs. Forster! You have seen how she practically monopolized his attentions. Hah! Perhaps he was playing a double game! Who knows, maybe he had both of them at once!”
How it was Denny did not break Chamberlayne’s jaw for that, only the Good Lord knew.
Denny thought over his entire acquaintance with Lydia Bennet. Certainly she was a beautiful, young, spirited girl, but liveliness was no sin. Perhaps she was too young to be out in society. Denny conceded that she was, even though she looked and acted older than her years. However, there was no excuse for any officer to take advantage of a young lady, even one who was naïve and flirtatious. As a gentleman’s daughter, Miss Lydia should have been protected from those who would harm her—even protected from her own mistakes. That was the duty of an officer and a gentleman.
I should have done more, Denny realized. I should have protected her.
Denny was infatuated with the lovely Lydia Bennet, and had she been older and had he more fortune, he would have offered for her. But marriage had been out of the question. At just fifteen, Miss Lydia was too young to marry, and as a lieutenant in the militia, Denny was too poor. In only two more months, he was to leave the regiment to join the regulars. Then, with three years of hard work and advancement, and the better pay that came with it, he would be fully able to support the daughter of a gentleman, and he intended to travel to Hertfordshire and court the then eighteen-year-old Miss Lydia.
Denny sighed. He thought the lady favored him as much as any man in the regiment. Now he saw that he had been a fool. Of course, she would fall in love with George Wickham—handsome, clever, witty George—not with poor, plain Archie Denny.
He recalled what he knew about Wickham. George was charming and affable—everyone’s friend. Yes, sometimes he drank too much, and he certainly gambled too much, but Denny was sure there was not a wicked bone in Wickham’s body. Foolish, boastful, and impulsive—yes. But evil? No.
George had suffered much misfortune in his life—losing his mother at a young age and later his father, the son of his godfather stealing George’s inheritance, and that same Mr. Darcy interfering with George’s courtship of Miss Darcy. George deserved Denny’s pity and friendship.
Perhaps this misadventure was not George’s idea? Mayhap Miss Lydia had learned of George’s plans to desert and invited herself along. Could that be it?
There—that would explain it. Miss Lydia was in love with George and wanted to marry him. The only question that remained was would George marry her? George said he would only marry an heiress, but he said many things and did the opposite. Could this be another example of his unpredictability?
Archibald Denny was a man who strived to live above his station. He wanted one day to be a gentleman, so he taught himself to think and behave like one. Therefore, he tried to look at the world with a rational eye. But he was also a soldier, a good one. He had never been in combat, but he had taken to his training as a duck to water. If the time came to fight for his king, Denny expected that he would do his duty without hesitation.
He was a man of strong passions. Loyalty and trustworthiness were important to him. Wickham had been a good friend to him, so Denny would give him the benefit of the doubt. But Denny had spent time in London and had seen what happened to young girls who had been seduced and abandoned by their lovers. There was no way for them to earn their bread except on their back. It was horrible.
Denny wanted desperately to think well of George Wickham and Lydia Bennet, so he convinced himself that all would end well. Miss Lydia’s charms and good humor would prove to be as irresistible to Wickham as they had been to himself, Denny was sure of it. They would marry, Wickham would somehow extract himself from this scrape, and they would settle quietly somewhere. Lydia would be as happy as she deserved.
Denny had to think that, for if George did Lydia wrong, if he abandoned her to the mercy of the streets, Denny knew he would hunt his friend down and kill him.