The walk to Meryton was a much welcomed diversion for Elizabeth Bennet. The previous day's turmoil stemming from Mr. Collins' quite lengthy—but unwelcomed and unaccepted—proposal had barely subsided. Mrs. Bennet's constant lamenting over their "most ungrateful girl" and her "thoughtless behavior" not to mention her nerves had heightened the house's already unsettled atmosphere.
Charlotte Lucas' arrival and invitation for Mr. Collins to remove himself to Lucas Lodge gave Mrs. Bennet further license to voice her ill humor with less discretion. So intent on her vexations was she that she failed to notice the adverse effect they had on her household: the greater her wailing, the less empathy she received.
Rather than endure the further tirades of her mother, Elizabeth escaped with three of her sisters—for Mary had chosen to remain—on their leisurely walk into town. While Kitty and Lydia spoke further of the events of the past twenty-four hours—amid much shrieking and giggling—Jane and Elizabeth walked in silent contemplation, only uttering the occasional sotto voce comments to one another.
Their arrival in Meryton was greeted with the hoped-for appearance of Lt Denny and other favored gentlemen of the militia residing in the town. Of note was also the much previously missed Mr. Wickham. As the initial greetings of the two groups dissipated with Kitty and Lydia proceeding off with their favorite officers, Jane excused herself to visit a shop to give Elizabeth time alone with Mr. Wickham; a favor Elizabeth greatly appreciated.
"I was disappointed to hear of your being called to town on business, Mr. Wickham, for you missed a very festive ball," Elizabeth commented as they walked at leisure through Meryton.
"Yes," he responded, maintaining the ruse, "I was also disheartened to not be in attendance, as I was not able to enjoy your very pleasant company." Although Elizabeth looked forward, Wickham's sideways glance allowed him to view her attempt to cover a smile, but not the slight blush that graced her cheeks.
Debating with herself whether to maintain the charade, she forced the subject. "I was led to believe that your absence could have been attributed to your desire to 'avoid any contact with a certain gentleman.'" She could sense his posture straightening as though formulating his defence. After a moment, he replied, "I found as the time drew near, that I had better not meet Mr. Darcy; - that to be in the same room, the same party with him for so many hours together, might be more than I could bear, and that scenes might arise unpleasant to more than myself.''
A brief glance was exchanged between the two as they continued their walk. "Of course," he continued, "I am very much grateful that Mr. Bingley so generously invited the officers to attend the ball. It continues to be the main topic of conversation, including the loveliness of the Bennet sisters."
At this, Elizabeth halted and faced him. "Then it is even more reprehensible that Mr. Darcy should be allowed to enjoy the status of a gentleman while slighting someone with such forbearance."
Wickham looked down on her with a very kindly smile. "It is to your credit that you display such loyalty, in defiance of those with rank or social standing." They stood, gazing at each other for a moment, coming to a silent understanding before he gestured for them to continue.
"I appreciate your sentiments, Miss Bennet," he sighed deeply, "but it is an unfortunate burden that I have born for years, and fear I shall continue in doing for many more."
Truly this is a man grievously harmed, thought Elizabeth, still leisurely walking alongside Wickham. So absorbed in her thoughts was she that she had not noticed the unease that suddenly overtook him until he completely stopped. Looking up, she saw Wickham's sheet white face, then realized they had come to the far end of the village, and two men—very nicely dressed—standing but fifteen feet before them.
"What is it, Mr. Wickham," she asked quietly, taking his arm. "Please tell me what is wrong."
Keeping his eyes on the gentlemen before him, he leaned down to her. "Miss Elizabeth, it is best that you leave now," he said.
Focusing her attention on the same two gentlemen, she leaned into him and replied, "I will go for help and return straightaway."
Barely had she turned around then she bumped into two more gentlemen directly behind them.
"That won't be necessary, Miss," said one, towering over her.
It felt like her breath had left her completely as Elizabeth stared at the two men she had just encountered. Finally getting enough air, she started to question, "Who …"
"Miss," the one closest to her cut her off, "we have business with Wickham here and don't need no interference. No harm'll come t' ya if you just come along quiet like."
She stared between the two strangers and Wickham, contemplating what action she should take.
"Better to just do as they ask." It was Wickham's voice breaking into her mind. "I'm sorry you have to be a part of this," he said quietly as he took her hand and started walking in their original direction. The two men came to flank the couple on either side with one commenting, "That's right. We don't want to keep the Duke waiting, now do we?"