O Sophia, how describe the looks of fear and horror which surrounded us on all sides in that hitherto so happy household! Caroline fainted in her mother's arms and was instantly conveyed to her room, where we attended her until consciousness was restored and misery with it. The Admiral employed himself in the library, in questioning the men and women, with a view to discover some more certain clew to pursuit, or possibly some accomplice, his experience as president of courts-martial standing him in such good stead that he terrified them all, and I feel certain, had any been a party to the flight, it must have been known. So valuable is manly presence of mind in such emergencies! Nothing, however, transpired.
Time advanced, and Mrs Darcy requested we would remain. The shades of night darkened, and still no news. It was impossible not to admire Mrs Darcy's fortitude, for indeed this must have forcibly recalled the time when her sister Mrs Wickham (as I have learnt from Marianne Dashwood) made the fatal elopement with Wickham which has secured her a lifetime of wretched poverty and uneasiness. I readily understood her deplorable appearance at the Sundale inn on hearing her story. Fatal indeed, Sophia, are the steps of female error, and how impossible to be retrieved!
We are not to judge Providence, yet it certainly appears that masculine imprudences are viewed more leniently from on high. Rectitude, no doubt, is demanded from all; but it must be owned the consequences are less severe when a man forsakes the narrow path of virtue. As the Admiral frequently observes—woman is the weaker vessel and therefore much more is rightly expected from her, and the punishment justly more severe, as we observe in the case of Eve and other examples for our learning. This, however, is a bewildering subject, and more suited to my dear Admiral's understanding, so I pursue it no further.
We were all unable to eat, and were sitting listless in the parlour as midnight approached, when my ear caught the gallop of a horse. "Mr Darcy!" I cried, starting to my feet and trembling with agitation.
Mrs Darcy, exercising an almost superhuman composure, sat rigidly in her chair. The door was flung open and in rushed Mr Wickham—disordered with speed and riding, but recognisable to me as the handsome, dissipated-looking man we had seen at the inn at Sundale. He seized Mrs Darcy's almost lifeless hand and cried: "Courage, Ma'am! She is safe. She is with Mrs Wickham at Sundale, and the miscreant fled."
How is it possible, Sophia, that I should describe the scene that ensued?
Hearing the commotion, Caroline tottered downstairs and swooned again at our feet, yet was scarcely heeded—all crowding round Wickham, who obligingly soothed our anxiety.
"When," he said, "the officers of our regiment returned to Chatham from the enjoyment of Mr Darcy's hospitality, the incidents of their stay were naturally broached, and Willoughby spoken of. Nothing, however, transpired until Colonel Vaughan returned from leave, when the subject happened to come up again. 'But, good God, who is this?' cried Colonel Vaughan. 'Young Willoughby died eight months ago at Calcutta, and was an only child. My own brother attended his obsequies. Who can this person be?' All was astonishment. His brother, Mr James Vaughan, was hastily summoned from his residence in the Dockyard, and fully confirmed this, he having lately returned from India. He looked very gravely upon the matter, and mentioned that Mr Willoughby, senior, had formed years ago an illicit connection with a Portuguese female, of which there were two sons of most disreputable character. I waited not to hear more, but called for my horse, and in regimentals, as you see me, rode at full speed for Sundale, where Mrs Wickham was awaiting me for the Sundale Steeplechase, that being the nearest way here."
Mrs Darcy pressed his hand, but was still unable to speak. He proceeded:—
"It was now almost dusk and she pressed a little necessary refreshment on me in the inn parlour. I was swallowing it hastily, when a post-chaise drew up at the door and a man alighted, supporting in his arms an almost senseless female, a large veil concealing her bonnet and face. He called for a private room and refreshment in a haughty impatient tone, and was turning to the stair with his burden, when, struggling from his arms, she tottered toward Mrs. Wickham exclaiming, 'O Aunt Lydia, save me—save me!' and dropped at her feet."
A sob broke from Mrs Darcy's pale lips, but still she spoke not.
"Mrs Wickham removed her veil, and there was Miss Darcy, in a truly pitiable condition. The baffled villain, little thinking how he had run into a trap of his own making, stood one second a mask of terror. I made for him instantly, sword in hand, but he ran with the speed of lightning through the ostler's yard and was lost in the beech woods behind. I gave directions for search to be made and returned to the ladies."
Mrs Darcy lifted his hand in both hers and pressed it to her lips. "The hand that saved my Charlotte!" was all she could murmur; and indeed we were all in tears of thankfulness and joy. Mr Wickham's own manly tones trembled as he resumed:—
"Between the agitations that ensued, the dear girl told us how he had forced her into the post-chaise and driven off at full speed, determined so to compromise her that a marriage would be insisted on, or even besought by her parents. He had sent a decoy chaise on the Merton road, and driven furiously to Sundale, counting on the coast being clear. I waited not, however, to hear more, but left her in Mrs Wickham's arms, and rode on hither."
"Brother, you are weary—famished!" cried Mrs Darcy, ever considerate. "Are we to have no thought for you, who have had so much for us? I knew—I knew my Charlotte could not so fearfully be lost to all sense of propriety, and knowing this, can now recover. Oh, could my Darcy but know his girl is safe!"
O Sophia, what a scene was here—all pressing refreshments on our deliverer—all joyful excitement. The only element lacking, dear Mr Darcy's presence! And two hours later,—for none could go to rest,—that also was supplied; for finding his pursuit of the Merton chaise mistaken, he returned home, drooping and almost despairing, in the faint hope of tidings.
Words sink beneath the effort to describe his manly gratitude to Wickham, and the relief of hearing he had not been deceived in his belief in Miss Darcy's principles. Never have I seen his majesty of demeanour so softened. He also addressed Mr Wickham as "Brother," and the latter was profoundly touched. If I mistake not, this will be an epoch in his career and that of his unhappy wife. Mr Darcy's is a spirit that will never leave an obligation unacknowledged. They rode together next day to escort Mrs Wickham and the interesting victim to Rosings—Miss Darcy in a pitiable condition, but yet fully sensible of her safety.
"On such occasions," observed Mr Collins to the Admiral, "it cannot be denied that a special Providence appears to attend the great. Had Miss Darcy been a humbler female, had she not been possessed of relatives willing and able to defend her, what might not have been dreaded! This leads us to devout admiration of the discriminating bounties of heaven, so well bestowed where most needed and deserved. For what, Sir Charles, is the downfall of a female of low birth, however worthy, compared with that of a young lady who has adorned elevated circles and is the cynosure of all eyes and hearts!"
The dear Admiral owned to me later that this exordium so bewildered him that he knew not "at which end to take hold of it," to use his own expression. I feel the difficulty myself.
The public prints will have informed my Sophia that the miscreant escaped, and that it is now known the pair were brothers, a dark stain for the complexion having converted the younger into the attendant, for the visit to Hunsdon. Reassuming his own appearance, he acted as the driver and was of course wholly in his brother's interest in securing a wealthy prize in Miss Darcy. What machinations, and what a deliverance!
Mrs Darcy, who is all candour, said later to me that she had suspected the beginning of an attachment in my Henry's mind, and that, if it were so— Here she hesitated in the most interesting manner.
I took her hand in mine. "Hesitate not to open the subject, my dear Ma'am," said I, "for I can confirm your view. Henry is deeply, deeply interested in your sweet girl—poor lovely innocent! And if there is any hope—"
It was my turn to hesitate. She resumed more calmly:—
"Then, if it be so, Lady Sefton, I may speak plainly. Candour is a necessity of Mr Darcy's character and mine. I cannot deny that Charlotte's imagination was touched, however slightly, by Willoughby's romantic tales and appearance. Young minds are susceptible—"
Indeed, Sophia, there was a false glitter about him which I, for one, instantly distrusted; but the inexperience of the young will ever be a danger. I said as much and she continued:—
"Calm recollection and these frightful events have, however, wrought a complete cure and a revulsion of feeling which has turned her mind to Mr Sefton's worth with full appreciation. If later—much later—he should make an application, I believe he might hope for a success which I venture not to promise. Her parents are also to blame for incaution. But the future may yet be all brightness."
As for Henry, his affection is unaltered, and perhaps deepened, by these occurrences. And it has impressed me, Sophia, that possibly Mr and Mrs Darcy might have had more exalted aspirations for their lovely heiress than a mere baronet's son had not this shade fallen on her opening flower. I think it is the Swan of Avon who observes that there is a soul of goodness in things evil, and so it may have proved in this instance.
As to Marianne Brandon, the whole affair has cost her a severe illness, in which she incessantly deplored her own impulsive nature, though all did their utmost to mitigate the blow. "Shall I never acquire the calm judgment and sober reason which alone can preserve from such errors?" was her cry. "Surely I, who have so much reason to distrust the name of Willoughby, should have hesitated to introduce one of that fatal race to the notice of friends."
I fear she will never forgive herself; but it may prove a warning to a being whose only fault is incaution, and a too warm belief in human nature. The Colonel is, and will be, her unfailing support.
Although nothing definite has yet been said, the Admiral is now inspecting Hoddesden House, with a view to our young couple's occupation, and I hope ere long to send you the joyful news of the addition of a daughter to my comforts.
I should not conclude without dwelling on the danger of insufficient introductions; and something might also be said of the impiety of admitting false gods to adorn a Christian library, even as objects of art. But my Sophia is well able to draw her own conclusions and her affectionate sister will now, with all good wishes and endearing thoughts, conclude.
Postscriptum.—Mr and Mrs Wickham are now visiting at Rosings.