We (Jane Austen’s readers) are traveling merrily along with the Gardeners in Derbyshire, visiting Pemberley and watching the first hopeful hints of understanding blossom between Darcy and Elizabeth. We are not present at Longbourn when the fateful letter from Colonel Forster arrives, informing the Bennets of Lydia’s elopement. We only learn what has happened there belatedly and second hand (some through Jane’s letters and some through her further explanation once Lizzy returns). Here, then, is that “missing scene.”
Midnight Express for Longbourn
The Bennet household had just settled down for the night after a day of industrious occupation. Mrs. Bennet had been to Meryton and argued not only with the butcher about her bill, but also with various ones of her neighbors who seemed to be circulating malicious rumors about that handsome officer she and her girls so much admired: Mr. Wickham. After exhausting herself in this manner, Mrs. Bennet had retired early, saying her head was very ill indeed.
Jane and Kitty had once again spent the entire day entertaining the lively Gardiner children whilst their parents were away to Derbyshire on holiday with Elizabeth Bennet in tow.
Mr. Bennet alone had been able to preserve himself from excessive exertion, and had thus found he was quite able to stay up late, reading once again his favourite of Shakespeare’s plays (Much Ado About Nothing) and chuckling to himself at the silliness and absurdity he found there. Upon finishing, he thanked his lucky stars that his own household suffered no such dramas, and then he likewise retired to a gentle slumber.
Shortly after twelve, however, such a pounding came at the front door as would surely have awakened the dead. One by one, the Bennets tumbled out of their beds and down the stairs to see what the cause of all this unwelcome commotion was. It was an express, the contents of which turned out to be even more unwelcome.
Mr. Bennet, after paying the man and closing the door again, in silence read the letter, which was addressed to him:
My Dear Mr. Bennet,
It is with a heavy heart that I write to you with news that must bring you considerable distress. But I am afraid of alarming you. Be assured that your daughter is well, so far as it is within my power to judge. I am sorry to say that Miss Bennet last night removed herself from my house and from my protection. She has in fact eloped with one of my officers – Lieutenant George Wickham, whom you will remember.
From her own information – a brief letter left for my wife – we do at least know that she departed with him of her own accord and in very high spirits, stating that the couple’s intention was to make for Gretna Green and there to wed. I have no real reason for doubting this, only a general uneasiness over the gentleman’s character. He at first seemed to me to be as fine a young man as ever one could hope to meet with. On closer acquaintance, however, I have observed in him a worrying trend toward imprudence, this event being yet another evidence of it.
I feel myself in part responsible for what has occurred. You entrusted your daughter to my care, and I have failed to keep her safe from harm. I now pledge myself to do everything within my power to assist you in recovering her. I will closely question the men under my command, especially Wickham’s particular friends, to see what is to be learned here. Then I plan to come to you directly at Longbourn, to offer whatever service I may render you. Till then, please extend my humble apology and sincere respects to all your family.
“Oh! What is it, Mr. Bennet?” cried his wife when he let his hand and the letter drop to his side. “Tell me at once. Have you no compassion for my nerves?” Thunderstruck and thoroughly incapable of speech, Mr. Bennet gave the letter to his wife, who in turn passed it on to her eldest daughter. “You read it to me, Jane. I am in too much of a tremble.”
But hearing the letter only increased Mrs. Bennet’s agitation. She was taken ill with hysterics immediately, and the whole house disintegrated into a state of utter confusion not soon to be recovered from. Moreover, there was nary a servant belonging to the business who did not know the whole of the story before the day was out. Within two more days the whole community knew of the Bennets’ troubles. Half their neighbors then had the goodness to pity them their great misfortune, and the other half were only too proud to say they had always predicted such an unfavorable outcome for the family.