“Hurry Kitty! I haven’t got all day to spend at the milliner’s.”
“I merely desire to browse a little more. Why do we have to leave so soon?”
“The rest of my wardrobe for my trip to Brighton must be made today. We don’t have hours to dawdle in one boutique.”
I grab the bonnet out of my sister’s palms and set it on the table. Clutching her arm, I lead her to the entrance, but she detours to the side to admire a new reel of ribbon.
“Oh! You’re impossible. Join me in the tearoom when you are finished. I shall wait for you there.”
Turning on my heel, I exit the milliner’s and cross the avenue. My boots stomp on the wooden sidewalk, representing my annoyance with my sister. She’s simply jealous that Mrs. Forster chose me as her special friend to accompany her to the coast.
As I turn the corner of Main street, I hear a familiar fellow laughing. George Wickham. I squeal, thinking about the tall, handsome lieutenant, and pivot toward the sound. Next to me is an alleyway crowded with crates and barrels of food. Crawling between the boxes, I giggle at how silly I must look, creeping like a burglar. Near the back, I can just make out the tip of Wickham’s head.
“How could you! You said you would marry me!”
A female yells out. The greeting dies in my throat and I struggle to stay still as the shock overwhelms me. Maybe it isn’t him I heard after all. Perhaps it’s another gentleman who sounds similar. He is not the kind man to slight a lady.
“Be serious now. I never proposed marriage. You mentioned it on several occasions, but I did not agree.”
A shrill sob erupts from the poor girl. I cringe at her hysterics, simultaneously feeling sorry and annoyed at the loud noise. If my beau rejected me after our betrothal, I would be distraught as well.
“Be quiet. I don’t care what you do with the babe. How do I even know it is mine? If you’re willing to lie with me, surely there are others?”
My god, it is him. No other officer has that smooth voice. I cannot believe it. After his engagement to Mary King ended many weeks ago, he declared himself to be free. Has he been lying this whole time? Flirting and going to parties while this unlucky woman stays at her residence waiting for him? On top of it all, she is increasing.
The reality of it weighs heavily on me. Wickham dallied with a local’s daughter and will be forced to take responsibility. No respectable gentlemen will allow their daughters nigh him after they found out.
The sound of a slap resonates followed by silence. I hold my breath, afraid.
The woman screams out in pain. It is too much for me, but my feet hardly move. I need to learn what is happening. Driven by horror and curiosity, I stand on my tiptoes to observe the scene. My heart drops in my chest. He is pressing Victoria Withers, the blacksmith’s daughter, against the brick wall. His fingers wrapped around her jugular. She thrashes against him, but none of her hits deliver a blow sufficient to free herself. A rush of blood flows to my head, creating a throbbing in my temple. The pounding is so loud it drowns out Victoria’s cries.
“Don’t you ever touch me again. Do you understand?”
Victoria doesn’t speak and stares at him.
“Do. You. Understand!” He punctuates each word by shaking her.
Finally, nodding, Wickham releases her, and she sags to the ground. He glares down at her motionless form before walking away, exiting out the rear of the alley onto the nearby street. I can’t remain any longer and run. Knocking crates askew, I dash off, flying down the lane to the milliner’s.
Kitty is perusing the shelves when I bang the door open, startling everyone in the shop.
“Come quickly, we must go home!”
She huffs and sets a piece of fabric down, annoyance written on her face.
“Oh, alright. I don’t see why you have to ruin my shopping day, but let us depart.”
“Thank you. Make haste!”
Sensing my urgency, she picks up her skirts and follows me along the road to Longbourn. I bolt without peeking over my shoulder, afraid instead of Kitty, a dark-haired male chasing me with his arms outstretched, ready to strangle my neck.
“Lyd-Lydia. Stop. It hurts to breathe.”
Pausing at the bridge, I wait for her to catch up.
“What’s the matter? You were fine earlier and now you long to return to the house. Are you ill?”
The feelings I have are close to illness. In fact, I would let myself faint if I did not want to appear as a milksop. I consider for a moment, pondering if I should confess. My anxiety might even ease if I confide in her.
“Today I watched Mr. Wickham do something extremely awful. I cannot discuss it here. I’m frightened. What if he realizes I saw him?”
My voice cracks, revealing how worried I am. A rare display for me.
Kitty straightens and grips my wrist, pulling me forward.
“Lydia, if it’s that bad, then we need to inform Papa. He always knows what to do.”
We sprint the rest of the journey until we reach the estate. For a second, I contemplate not disclosing the incident to Papa and leaving it alone. It would become a secret that only I am aware of. Then, I think about Victoria Withers and her battered body, about the babe she is carrying who will never meet their father. No longer hesitant, I knock on the glass door leading to Papa’s library. He opens it, seeming surprised to see me.
“My daughters, what brings you both to visit me? I rarely view you two outside of mealtimes.” He jokes, but his smile turns into a frown when neither of us answer him.
“Papa, I wish to talk to you about a serious issue.” Tears form in my eyes.
“Come, my dear.” He pulls us inside his room and motions to sit.
Shaking, I begin my story. When I mention Wickham hitting Victoria, I start to cry, recalling the horrific details and how frightened I felt. I feel a hand on my shoulder and gaze up to notice my father standing above me.
“That’s enough, child. You are not required to continue.” His face is stern, his lips white from pressing them tightly together. “You did well telling me, but your responsibility is done. I am going to take care of the rest.”
Getting up too quickly, I cause the chair to fall. “What are you going to do?” I ask.
Donning his hat and gloves, he doesn’t spare me a second glance before answering, “I cannot divulge such a thing in polite company.”
With those final words, he storms through the side entrance and calls for his horse.