Betas: Much thanks and appreciation to Meg and Debra Anne for brainstorming, encouraging my muse, and correcting my boo-boos. Any mistakes are mine, as sometimes I tweak things afterward. Also much gratitude to Ola for cold reading and reassuring me.
Author's note: This is my first published JAFF, so constructive criticism is welcome and appreciated!
Disclaimers: I have borrowed some words from the original novel, and may have adapted a few lines here and there from the '95 adaptation—though it may or may not be the same characters saying them. ...I may have also borrowed the odd line from the classic movie, The Princess Bride. No copyright infringement is intended, it's all in good fun.
WORSE FATES COULD BEFALL US
George Wickham knew his time was near. He had rung up debts of honour and other kinds at an alarming rate, even for him, and admitted to himself that he had gotten reckless after Darcy had left the area. Thus, he made a plan, and set it into motion one night.
Unfortunately, that night, his boarding mate, who customarily slept like a piece of wood, gasped as one who has been awoken in the middle of the night to find someone else in the room.
"Wickham?" He heard the rustle of covers as Denny likely sat up.
"Shush. Do not sound the alarm," he whispered. "I am off to meet…a lady."
"Now?" Denny yawned. "What time is it?"
"Too late for the likes of you, you lobcock!"
"I cannot cover for your carousing forever," his friend grumbled and rolled over, pulling the coverlet back over himself. "It is too much, Wickham."
"I make you this promise: it will not be for very much longer."
When Denny began to breathe slowly and evenly again, Wickham silently pulled out the table drawer where his friend kept his billfold and removed the money. He put it into his own pocket and walked quickly, but quietly, over to the window of the room they shared, opened it, and slid out.
It was only two o'clock, but—mercifully, for it was very cold despite the layers he had worn—the sky was clear and the moon was full. There had been neither rain nor snow for days. He skirted the edges of farmers' fields, ready to run into the forest at any sign of someone following him, unlikely though it was. He was certain no one had seen him depart, and felt he could safely stop at an inn for some breakfast by a fire, and perhaps catch the stage the rest of the way to London.
Jane Bennet was entirely downcast after her disillusionment as to Miss Bingley's friendship, and no less by the abandonment by that lady's brother. The excellent company of her aunt, uncle and cousins notwithstanding, she could no longer bear to be in town with her disappointment. She began to think of nothing but to be home again with Lizzy, and begged to be sent back after she had passed only four weeks in London.
At first it seemed as though her efforts were in vain; her uncle could not be spared from his business, nor her aunt from her children, to take her. Thus Jane had begged them to send her home by the mail, accompanied by a servant. It was by no means a lengthy journey into Hertfordshire, and could be accomplished in less than half a day.
Still, they could not be easy about it—important though it was to her happiness—and wished to defer the issue to her father by writing; but Jane pleaded to be let go, as a letter to Mr. Bennet, the most dilatory of correspondents, could delay her trip by days, if not weeks. Her aunt and uncle, knowing their brother as they did, could offer no contradiction to this fact, and at last assented on the condition that she travel with a maid and a manservant, and no less. Jane had no objections, and was set to travel early the next day with her companions. She packed only a carpet bag with her necessities, and left her trunk behind to be returned at a later date.
The mail coach took on four passengers; Jane and her party numbered three. A nervous-looking young solicitor, who said his name was Mr. Brown, joined them at the last moment before the coach was to leave. He said he was on his way to visit his uncle in Meryton.
"Oh! Mr. Goulding," Jane cried when she was told the name of his uncle. "We are well acquainted with the Gouldings, and dine with them often. They are very kind."
"I am glad to hear they are well thought of among their neighbours," Mr. Brown said. "I have never before met them in my life."
He went on to explain that his mother had married a man with a small estate in one of the northern counties, and neither their family nor the Gouldings found the distance easy. They had corresponded through letters, but that was all. It was not until he had finished his studies at Cambridge and travelled to London in search of employment that he found he had the opportunity to make a visit.
"I hope very much you enjoy your stay in Hertfordshire," Jane said warmly, and he thanked her. He inquired about the neighbourhood, and she began to speak very happily of the people and the assemblies.
A sudden jolt threw Jane against Molly, the maid who sat beside her. Robbie, her uncle's manservant, was likewise thrown against Mr. Brown across from them and then fell hard to the floor on his knees. The carriage came to a skidding halt amidst the shouts of the men outside.
As the passengers righted themselves, one of the outriders yanked open the door. "Axle broke," he said after he had ascertained that his cargo and passengers were quite well. "We will have to have the coach fixed. There is an inn not half a mile from here. You can take shelter there until such time as we are ready to carry on."
It was lucky the day was only cold and foggy, and not wet. Still, the passengers found themselves very grateful when they were welcomed into the inn's public room with hot drinks and a place to sit by the fire.
As soon as Robbie had secured them a place beside the fire, he left Jane and Molly to themselves, promising to keep on top of the situation with the coach and report back when he heard anything new. He had seen an old friend across the room, and wished to sup with him.
Mr. Brown sat with them and ordered them some soup, and he and Jane talked companionably once more while Molly gnawed on a piece of day-old bread that had been brought to them in the meantime.
When the soup came, they were grateful, for it was nice and hot and warmed their insides, though the flavour, or lack thereof, left something to be desired. Weary, cold, and hungry as they were, they would not complain, and all ate very quickly.
Mr. Brown finished his soup first, and made his excuses to go and refresh himself. Jane nodded and lifted another spoonful to her mouth as he went off.
A rough-looking labourer stumbled on his way past their table, and knocked into Molly's arm which rested on top, putting her bowl of soup over into her lap.
"Oh, dear, Molly!" Jane exclaimed. "Go and get yourself cleaned up before it soaks completely through—Robbie is just over there, and Mr. Brown should return in but a moment; do not worry for me."
"Thank ye, ma'am," the maid curtsied and hurried off to the kitchen in search of a rag and some wash water.
The voice had been familiar, and Wickham was able to put a face to it as soon as the maid had removed herself. It belonged to Miss Jane Bennet, and he could do naught but wonder at her being at this inn on this morning. He had hoped to get away to London without being seen; her presence complicated things, and he could only hope that she would not take notice of him. He pulled his collar up and his hat down, and sunk lower in his seat.
A clatter of hoofbeats was heard in the yard and he looked out the window by which he was seated to see a gaggle of red-coated militia officers, led by Chamberlayne, dismounting.
The windows were thin, and Chamberlayne had all the subtlety of a goose. Wickham heard him call noisily to a group of boys and men hanging about the stables, "Hallo, there! We are looking for one George Wickham, lately of—"
He swore an oath under his breath. It seemed Denny had sounded an alarm, after all—likely after he found his billfold missing. He had underestimated Denny's growing impatience with him, and now the militia were after him. If he did not escape, he would surely be hanged at worst; sent to King's Bench at best. He needed somewhere to hide, and quickly. His gaze fell upon Miss Bennet, peacefully finishing her soup; she had not heard Chamberlayne's shouting from her place by the crackling fire. They would not be looking for him with a female relative—he made a snap decision, stood, and, being sure to keep his back to the window, walked over to her, removed his hat, put on his most charming smile and cried with feigned surprise, "Miss Bennet!"
She looked up and, spotting him, smiled. She was radiant even in the dingy light of the inn, and if she had been half as lively as her sisters Elizabeth or Lydia, he might have considered persuading her to go with him. As it was, she would have to be a momentary distraction.
"Why, Mr. Wickham!" she exclaimed in her soft voice. "How strange I should meet you here at this early hour! I am returning to Longbourn from my uncle's in London."
He matched her quiet tones so as not to alert their fellow patrons to their conversation. "And I am to London on business once more, so we shall not travel together, but I am pleased to meet you, Miss Bennet! I was just about to take a short turn outside, and would love a companion if you feel you are up for it. I visited at Longbourn only yesterday," he lied when he saw her hesitate and look over her shoulder in search of her maid, "and I can acquaint you with the latest news from there."
He could see her brighten at the thought of news from home, and stole a quick glance out the window. The officers were still speaking with the men gathered outside, no doubt describing him, but soon enough, they would come in. He looked back at Miss Bennet, who still seemed uncertain. He smiled disarmingly again. "We shall first ask the innkeeper to tell your maid to meet us outside when she returns, if we have not come back before she does. Well, what do you say?"
With Mr. Wickham smiling at her so encouragingly, Jane agreed, and he held out his hand to help her rise. She glanced over at Robbie, who was engaged in lively conversation with his friend, and she was loath to interrupt him, so she did not.
But, as she was about to follow Mr. Wickham from the room, she was struck by uneasiness. She looked back; Mr. Brown had returned to the table and was watching with an intense expression, but made not a move to come after her. It now occurred to her that she should really have stayed until Molly came back.
"Mr. Wickham," she began, ceasing to follow. "I must beg to return to the table and wait for my companion."
Wickham's face darkened as he looked over his shoulder. "You will do no such thing. You have seen me, and I cannot have you telling them I was here."
A chill washed over Jane. "I beg your pardon? Tell whom?"
He grabbed her by the arm and began to pull her across the room, his fingers digging hard into her forearm.
"Mr. Wickham!" she cried, but he ignored her. She looked wildly about, but none of the other patrons seemed to wish to catch her eye.
At last, she spotted a man sitting in the darkest corner of the public room. He wore regimentals, and slowly put down his ale as he appeared to watch them pass. She could not speak, for fear of tipping off her captor—who had not noticed the man—and making a scene, but put all the fear she felt into her expression. She could only hope he might see it and understand. Surely a soldier must come to a lady's aid when no one else would? Then she recalled that Mr. Wickham himself was in the militia, and choked back a sob.
Wickham tossed the innkeeper a handful of coins, said his name was Bennet, and demanded to know which upstairs room was available for him and his 'sister,' who had become very ill. The round little man squatted to pick the coins up off the floor, and his greedy little paw reached for a sovereign that had rolled over next to Jane's slipper as he spoke the words, "Last on the right, govn'r."
The man licked a little gob of spittle off his lips, and Jane began to shake as Wickham yanked her toward the stairs. She looked frantically behind her, but no one followed. The soldier did not care to come to her aid. Another sob escaped and, blinded by tears, she tripped on the first stair.
"Get up," Wickham hissed and jerked her to her feet. "Quickly."
"Mr. Wickham, please," she whimpered. "Do not do this!"
The command came like a slap, and she stumbled after him up the stairs. They had nearly reached the top when Wickham stopped suddenly and tried to back up, pushing Jane sideways against the wall. From her position, she was able to see the tip of a sabre pressing against his throat.
"Wickham," the man behind the blade growled, and Wickham quailed.
With a start, she recognized the soldier from the tavern—how had he gotten upstairs ahead of them?
"Release the lady," the soldier ordered. When Wickham failed to do so, or even to speak, he continued, "I heard you were in a militia—should you not be with the militia? —No?" The man cocked his head. "I suspect you have your reasons. Debts, perhaps? A by-blow or two? No matter—you know I have three excellent reasons for killing you, so you will have to offer me four as to why I should not. I suggest you do so now."
Wickham's lips flapped uselessly, and Jane could feel his palm and fingertips begin to sweat through the sleeve of her pelisse. Her own heart was beating so fast, she thought it might burst right out of her chest.
Wickham finally found his voice. "Sure—surely you would not spill blood in front of a lady."
"Oh, now you wish to treat her as a lady?" The officer—for Jane could now see his uniform closer—narrowed his eyes and pressed his lips together. "You are right, though, I do not desire to make a scene—for her sake, and not yours. I suggest you run past me and take the servants' stairs in the back, as I did. There are some officers in the front yard looking for you."
In his panic, Wickham did not question the source of the statement and ran in the direction the officer had come, taking the servants' stairs as directed.
Jane exhaled a huge breath and collapsed back against the wall.
A few moments later, they heard a faint shouting; the officer had all the appearance of chagrin. "Yoicks! I am afraid, for Mr. Wickham's sake, that I forgot I had told them he would come out the entrance to the servants' stairs."
Shyly, Jane smiled at him as much as she was able under the circumstances. "Sir, I cannot begin to thank you—"
He held up a hand. "If you thank me, know that I did it as much for myself as I did it for you."
"You seemed…familiar with Mr. …Wickham?
"Let us just say that I know whenever Wickham is involved with a gentle young lady, there is trouble." His eyes darkened.
"I am sorry," was all Jane could say.
"Do not be. He was stopped in time."
They were silent long enough for Jane to become aware of their surroundings.
"How long have we been up here?" she cried, her heart beginning to pound again.
The officer caught her concern and grimaced. "Long enough."
"Long enough for what?"
He made no reply, but offered her his arm, and slowly they took the steps together one at a time. "Hold your head high," he commanded gently. "We have done nothing wrong."
"Would that that would matter!"
Jane stopped short at the bottom of the stairs. Mr. Brown was no longer sitting at the table by the fire where they had left him, but had put on his greatcoat and was exiting through the front door toward a stagecoach.