Elizabeth Bennet wondered how she had come to have the misfortune to be walking next to the stupidest man in England. She was making her way towards Meryton—the nearest village to her home at Longbourn House—and with her were her four sisters, as well as the man in question: their cousin, Mr Collins. He had arrived a mere two days ago, but already Elizabeth was wondering how she was to survive the duration of his stay.
It was not that she did not have an appreciation of the absurd—indeed, she had a healthy sense of humour and shared her father’s fondness for observing the follies of others, as well as taking delight from the ridiculous. Mr Collins, however, combined within him such an absurd lack of sense with such an irritating pomposity of manner that it would challenge even the most hardened connoisseur of fools to find pleasure in his company.
Elizabeth knew that she should attempt to show more patience with their guest. Her elder sister, Jane, was always taxing her to be more tolerant and, in truth, Elizabeth wished she could be more like Jane—always seeing the good in others and finding points to appreciate, even within the most disagreeable of personalities. But she knew that she was not like Jane. On the contrary, their personalities were as different as night and day. She watched Jane now, walking beside Mr Collins, her beautiful countenance serene as she patiently listened to him boast of the sermons he delivered to his parish back in Hunsford.
“…and I flatter myself that my sermons exude the most perfect symmetry of any you will find in England—neither too quick, nor too slow, with as many verbs as nouns within the sentences and with just the right mixture of grandeur and humility as befits a clergyman of my station.”
“They do indeed sound admirably balanced, sir,” said Jane politely.
“Yes! And as my patroness, the esteemed Lady Catherine de Bourgh, honours me with her condescension at every sermon, I feel it is my duty to show my gratitude for her attentions by demeaning myself with abject servitude. Furthermore, as a clergyman, I feel that it is my duty to establish the…”
Jane must have the patience of a saint! Elizabeth thought as she walked along beside them. If she had to listen to Mr Collins mention Lady Catherine de Bourgh one more time, she feared that she would lose all sense of propriety and say something less than courteous to their cousin.
She sighed. Perhaps one of the reasons for her increased vexation was the fact that she could sense Mr Collins singling her out for his attentions and it supported a dreadful suspicion which was growing in her mind. Mr Collins had made it clear in the letter which had preceded his arrival that he was very sensible of the injury he was doing to his fair cousins by being the fortunate person to inherit Longbourn, their family home, in the event of Mr Bennet’s death. It was an unpleasant prospect which had cast a pall over the family for as long as Elizabeth could remember. Their father’s estate was entailed to the male line only and since there had been no sons born into the family, Elizabeth and her sisters—together with their mother—could be rendered homeless by the rightful heir taking over the estate.
But Mr Collins seemed eager to make amends and had come upon the perfect plan for atonement. Elizabeth had overheard him confess his intentions to Mrs Bennet this morning. He had decided that it was time to take a wife and, as a means of redressing the injustice, Mr Collins was determined to choose a wife from among his fair cousins. This plan was received with great joy by Mrs Bennet, whose sole ambition in life was to arrange good marriages for her daughters. She praised Mr Collins warmly for his thoughtful consideration and eagerly encouraged him to pay his suit to her daughters. However, she did caution him that Jane—the eldest—was currently being courted by another young man and was likely to be very soon engaged.
To Elizabeth’s horror, she had heard Mr Collins cheerfully move his first choice from Jane to herself. Nothing could have induced her to marry such a man and Elizabeth dreaded the situation arising when she would be forced to say so. She knew that her refusal would greatly upset her mother, who cared not whom she married, as long as that marriage was one of respectability and comfort. To all purposes, Mr Collins was a good match. Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s patronage ensured him a comfortable living with a respectable income and an enviable position within the community. It would be impossible for Mrs Bennet to understand Elizabeth’s heart and how such material benefits paled in the face of a marriage with no respect or love.
But perhaps it would not come to that, Elizabeth reminded herself with determined optimism. Her cousin had not proposed yet and she would do everything in her power to prevent such a proposal. She was interrupted in her reverie by the man himself, who sidled close to her and said:
“Cousin Elizabeth, we have not had the pleasure of hearing your dulcet tones in the past few minutes. Do you find the walk too wearying for conversation?”
“Not at all, sir,” said Elizabeth. “I was merely enjoying the landscape in silence. It is pleasant to see such agreeable scenery after the dreary rain of the past few weeks.”
“Ah, yes,” said Mr Collins, rubbing his hands together. “Though I would not have been surprised had you expressed a fatigue which prevented you from conversing easily. I flatter myself that I am a great walker—particularly as I have had ample opportunity to improve my stride by taking daily walks in the grounds of Rosings Park, the estate of my patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. But we do not all have my skills. I understand that ladies are often of such a delicate constitution that daily exercise can be quite overwhelming. Such is what I have often told Lady Catherine when discussing the limited activities of her daughter, Miss Ann de Bourgh. Indeed, Miss de Bourgh is a true lady and, even when travelling most of the distance in her little phaeton, she finds most outings extremely wearying and requires several days of rest to recuperate after each event.”
“I assure you, sir, I am not one of such females,” said Elizabeth indignantly. “I frequently walk about the countryside and enjoy the exercise greatly.”
“I am delighted to hear that, Cousin Elizabeth!” Mr Collins beamed. “Such a characteristic would be particularly valuable in a clergyman’s wife, who would need ample energies to tend to her parish. Indeed, as Lady Catherine herself said to me: ‘Mr Collins, you must marry. A clergyman like you must marry. Choose properly, choose a gentlewoman for my sake; and for your own, let her be an active, useful sort of person.’ I have the fervent hope of finding a lady with just such characteristics—combined with the beauty as displayed in your delightful person—to lead to the altar soon as my future wife,” he said, with a meaningful waggle of his eyebrows.
Elizabeth hastily tried to back out of the hole that she had dug for herself. “I… I fear you’re mistaken, sir. My energies are directed towards much more selfish pursuits. Indeed, I feel that I would be most unsuitable for the role and I do not think I would fit Lady Catherine’s ideals for a clergyman’s wife in the least.”
“My dear cousin, your modesty does you credit!” said Mr Collins. “But I cannot imagine that her ladyship would disapprove of you. Your candid humility adds to your charms.”
“I beg you to believe me, sir,” said Elizabeth desperately. “It is not false modesty which leads me to speak thus. I am relating the truth of my temperament with the utmost honesty and I beg that you pay me the compliment of believing what I say.”
“Ah, but I know that it is the established custom of your sex to say one thing when they mean the exact opposite.”
“Upon my word, sir, that is an arrogant assumption! There are some, perhaps, who might employ such devious arts, but I am not one of them. Believe me when I say that I always speak directly and from the heart.”
“Oh, you behave with just the sort of charming coyness that I would expect from your sex, my fair cousin!” gushed Mr Collins.
Elizabeth gritted her teeth. She wanted to scream. Was there ever a more obtuse man alive? She saw that in the course of their conversation, they had fallen behind the rest of the party and she hastened her steps now to catch up with them. Perhaps once in the company of her other sisters, Mr Collins might be diverted by them and leave her in peace for a period. She could hear him huffing and puffing next to her as he attempted to keep pace with her steps and thought wryly of his earlier boast of being a great walker.
Elizabeth caught up with her sisters just as they were approaching the stone bridge which spanned the river on the outskirts of Meryton. The river had become swollen from the recent rains and grey water surged along its banks. But the stone bridge was built high over the waterway and there was little danger of them getting their feet wet. Indeed, there was ample space on the banks beneath the bridge and, during drier times, many congregated there to fish, enjoy the shade, and perhaps even observe the comings and goings of travellers above, without needing to show their presence. At present, however, the water level had risen so high that Elizabeth wondered if there was any section of the bank beneath the bridge which was not submerged and could still shelter someone in the archway.
The next moment, her question was answered when a tall figure suddenly appeared from the shadows beneath the bridge and swung himself over the parapet to stand before them.
Kitty and Lydia gave stifled screams, whilst Mary clutched her book of sermons before her, as if holding a shield. Jane moved closer to Elizabeth, her hands seeking her sister’s for reassurance, as Mr Collins let out a cry of horror and staggered backwards.
The stranger drew out a pistol and levelled it at them as he smiled and drawled that time-honoured phrase beloved of highwaymen:
“Stand and deliver!”
Elizabeth felt the breath catch in her throat as she recognised the handsome features of the tall figure in the scarlet coat and black cape. She saw him direct his gaze towards her and his eyes lit up as he beheld her face.
“Madam.” He swept her a flamboyant bow. “How delightful to make your acquaintance again.”
Lydia turned round eyes on Elizabeth. “Lizzy? Do you know him?”
“I… I…” Elizabeth stammered, wondering desperately how to answer the question.
Yes, she did know him. She had encountered him one night during her recent stay at Netherfield Park, the country manor currently rented by Mr Bingley, Jane’s most ardent admirer. Jane had taken ill during a visit to Netherfield Park and been obliged to remain there until she had made a full recovery. Elizabeth had gone to keep her sister company and what had been expected to be a tedious stay—coping with the indifferent company of Mr Bingley’s two sisters and his arrogant friend, Mr Darcy—had turned into an adventure fraught with mystery and intrigue.
Elizabeth could still scarce believe all that had happened in the four days while she was staying at Netherfield Park. One of those events had been her meeting with Wicked George the Highwayman during a solitary stroll one night. Then, as now, he had been overwhelmingly charming, with the gallant manners one would associate with a gentleman and not an uncouth criminal. And though Elizabeth had been presented with ample evidence of his intention to steal items of value from the house, nevertheless she had found it difficult to completely despise him. There was such an air of openness and humour about his countenance, as to seemingly vouch for his goodness and amiability.
“I had the good fortune to meet this fair lady during one of her walks in the grounds of Netherfield Park,” said Wicked George. “I must say, the meeting was a most pleasurable one and I had long been hoping to repeat the experience.”
From the corner of her eye, Elizabeth saw Jane look at her reproachfully. She knew that her sister would be wondering why she had not shared these confidences with her—indeed, if only Jane knew how many secrets she had kept from her with regards to their stay at Netherfield!
“It was not a social exchange,” she said, hurrying to refute the impression he was giving. “We met briefly during a nocturnal excursion of mine to cure a headache and I found the encounter a most disturbing experience.”
“Madam! You wound me to the heart!” Wicked George exclaimed, clutching his hand to his chest in a dramatic fashion. His laughing blue eyes invited them to enjoy the joke with him and Kitty and Lydia burst into giggles. Jane frowned at them, then looked at Elizabeth expectantly, but before either could say anything, Mr Collins suddenly leapt forwards.
“Away with you, brigand!” cried Mr Collins, flapping his hands in front of him.
He tripped over a rut in the road and fell face down in the mud. Elizabeth saw Wicked George’s lips twitch and she had to admit that her cousin did present the most comical spectacle. Jane hurried to help Mr Collins to his feet. He staggered upright, his face as red as beetroot and his clothes covered with mud.
“I have no wish to inconvenience such lovely young ladies,” Wicked George said with another gallant bow. “But alas, I do require recompense for my troubles. Therefore, may I be so bold as to ask for the donation of any monies upon your person?”
Kitty and Lydia immediately began digging in their reticules, eagerly pulling out what meagre funds they had.
Wicked George waved their offers away with a smile. “No, no, I cannot deprive such beautiful ladies as yourselves.” He nodded to Mr Collins. “But this gentleman here can certainly share the delights of his purse with me.”
“How dare you!” spluttered Mr Collins, clutching his side where he no doubt kept his purse tucked away in a pocket. “I will have you know, I am well connected, you villain. This affront will reach the ears of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and—”
“I quake in my boots,” said Wicked George with a laugh, which brought an answering chuckle to Elizabeth’s throat, and she had to struggle to maintain her composure. She was horrified at herself. It would not do to have such empathy with a criminal! And yet she could not help being touched by his easy manner and bold humour.
Wicked George held his hand out to Mr Collins. “Your purse, sir.”
Mr Collins huffed and spluttered, but at length drew out a fat purse from an inner pocket. He handed it over with ill will and turned away with an affronted sniff as the highwayman tipped his hat and said, “I’m much obliged, sir.”
He looked around at the rest of them. “It has been an unexpected delight today to meet with so much beauty. I shall treasure the memory and hope to have the pleasure of seeing your lovely countenances again ’ere long!”
Kitty and Lydia giggled and even Mary simpered. Only Jane looked slightly disapproving. Elizabeth had to admit that while his compliments were exaggerated, his manners were charming and she could not help smiling at his flippant flattery.
Then they heard the sound of hoof beats rapidly approaching, and in a minute two riders appeared around the bend of the road behind them.
“Mr Bingley!” said Jane in tones of delight.
The newcomers were indeed Mr Bingley and his friend, Mr Darcy—the latter looking his usual stern, haughty self, astride his big black stallion. Unlike his friend, Bingley, whose amiable countenance had already broken into a ready smile, Darcy’s handsome face was inscrutable, his dark eyes guarded.
“Oh, sirs!” cried Mr Collins. “You are just in time! Assist me in apprehending this villain! He is attempting to rob us!”
“A highwayman?” demanded Bingley as they arrived next to the group. “Is this the scoundrel who was stealing from my house?” He swung down from his horse and hurried to Jane’s side. “Miss Bennet! Are you unharmed?” he asked.
“She is fine!” said Mr Collins peevishly. “But he has stolen my purse! Make haste! He is getting away!”
Wicked George had taken advantage of the commotion to dart to the side of the group. He hesitated, looking for a moment as if he intended to swing himself back over the parapet and dive once more beneath the bridge. Then he changed his mind and turned instead towards Bingley’s horse. He ran up and grabbed the animal’s reins, attempting to hoist himself into the saddle.
“Fie!” said Bingley indignantly. “That’s my horse!”
Darcy had been in the act of dismounting as Wicked George ran up to Bingley’s horse, and now he jumped down and charged towards the highwayman. Then Elizabeth saw the most extraordinary thing. As Darcy advanced, Wicked George turned and the two men faced each other properly for the first time. Darcy froze in his tracks, the colour leaving his face. Wicked George took a step back, his own face flushing with colour. The two men stared at each other for a long moment. Then Wicked George swung himself up into the saddle of Bingley’s horse and in two seconds was galloping away.
“Darcy?” said Bingley in confusion. “What’s the matter with you, man?”
“You let him escape!” hissed Mr Collins. “You—”
Darcy swung around and gave Mr Collins a quelling look. The clergyman spluttered into silence. Darcy said not a word, but returned to his own horse and stood with his gaze fixed to the distance, his expression brooding. Elizabeth looked at him thoughtfully. He gave the appearance of a man indulging in a myriad of recollections and none of them pleasant.
Bingley, after a perplexed look at his friend, turned back to Jane and began enquiring once more after her well-being. To her repeated reassurances that she had not been harmed in the encounter, he finally declared himself satisfied and asked if they required an escort back to Longbourn.
“Thank you, sir, but as a matter of fact, we are on our way into Meryton to see my Aunt Philips,” Jane explained. “We are all unharmed and I believe we will continue with our original plan. It is but a few hundred yards down this road. But what of you, sir? How will you return home without your mount?”
“Ah, fortunately Netherfield Park is only a few miles from here and the distance should not prove laborious for Darcy’s horse, even with two riders,” said Bingley, waving a hand carelessly. “If you are certain that you do not require my protection, I will take my leave now.”
Jane smiled at him and, after bowing to her and the rest of the party, Bingley hurried over to join his silent friend. In a moment, the two had mounted Darcy’s great black steed and were cantering away.
“La, but what a lark!” said Lydia excitedly as soon as the gentlemen were out of earshot. “Did you see? I fancy that the great Mr Darcy was afraid of Wicked George! He let him escape and made no move to stop him. What—”
“Lydia, be quiet,” admonished Jane. “We do not know the particulars of the situation. Mr Darcy may have had good reasons for his actions.”
Lydia was very much taken, though, with the idea of Mr Darcy being frightened by Wicked George, and despite Jane’s continuing disapproval she spent the rest of the journey into Meryton whispering and giggling with Kitty over this suggestion. The one advantage of the whole interlude was that Mr Collins seemed greatly subdued after his experience and talked a great deal less the rest of the way, for which Elizabeth was heartily grateful.
She herself was occupied with pondering over Darcy’s strange behaviour. She was certain that there was more to the encounter than had met the eye. From what she had witnessed, there was no question that the two men had known each other in the past and that the acquaintance had not been a casual one. But Wicked George was a highwayman! What possible connection could he have to a respectable gentleman like Mr Darcy?
She remembered the last night of her stay at Netherfield Park when Wicked George had been discovered in the woods and Darcy had given chase. It had been dark then, and Darcy must not have seen the highwayman’s face as the latter bent over his horse to make his escape. Today was the first time he had seen Wicked George properly in full daylight and it was evident that Darcy had been shocked by the recognition.
The question was—why?