Pride and Prejudice: A Hobbit's Tale Part XII
by Lillian C.
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Círdan was waiting anxiously for Elizabeth when she and Darcë returned, though his anxiety did not proceed from fear for her safety. Of course, Elizabeth was not aware of this, so when she noticed the tense manner in which he received her, she immediately began to apologize for returning at a late hour.
"Your apologies are unnecessary, Child. You are free to enter and leave my house as you please, for I trust your prudence. I am only disturbed at the urgency with which this letter was brought hither," Círdan said as he handed Elizabeth a folded and sealed parchment.
Elizabeth turned the parchment over in her hands and recognized the elegant script in which her name was written. "It is from my sister, Jane! She must have sent this but a few days from my departure. By what hand was it carried?"
"One of my own people carried it. Your father was fortunate to have so swiftly found someone who could bring a message to Mithlond," Círdan replied.
Elizabeth nodded wordlessly and, with trembling fingers, broke the letter's seal. Círdan left the room to give her privacy. Darcë followed suit but not before taking Elizabeth's hand and giving her a reassuring smile.
As much as I deplore the thought of disrupting your pleasant journey and the last happy moments you will have with your friends, I cannot help but hope that this letter reaches you as soon as possible. Be not excessively alarmed however. Know that we are all alive and as well as can be expected. The tidings I have to relate concern poor Lydia.
The very day after you left for Mithlond, Kitty and Lydia came home from an outing in Bree with the news that Wickham had returned and had taken lodgings at The Prancing Pony. Though I sorely regret it now, I chose not to reveal what you and I have heard of Wickham's history. I had no wish to malign a character whose taint may very well have proceeded from a misunderstanding. Mother received Wickham in our home the following day for tea. I noticed then that Wickham and Lydia conversed together with great animation, but I could discern no particular regard, at least on Wickham's side, that would lead me to suspect what was to come.
Thus we were all in utter shock when a letter was found on Lydia's bed the next morning declaring her intentions to run away with Wickham on what she describes as a "grand adventure." You may imagine our distress upon the discovery. Mother at once took to hysterics, and Father left the house presumably to make inquiries and did not return until nightfall. He left again the next morning to search for them.
Thus far, Father's efforts have been in vain. Mother has hopes that we might be able to consider Lydia married but is quite disturbed that "the affair was not done properly" and I believe thinks overmuch on the subject of wedding clothes.
But Elizabeth, I now think the affair much more grave than I had believed. Since Lydia's disappearance, our uncle Butterbur has told us of strange things that have been seen in Bree. Black horsemen have ridden through the town and caused great fear and uproar among the people. Our uncle himself was quite shaken when he described it and hinted that the recent events might not be unrelated. The tale of fearsome black riders brought clearly to my mind Darcë's letter, and I keenly felt the blame for my silence on the matter.
Elizabeth, I cannot bear this burden alone, and your presence would be a great comfort to Father and me. Please come to Longbourn as soon as you can.
"Oh Lydia!" Elizabeth cried. "You cannot possible realize into whose hands you have thrown yourself!"
Darcë was alone in the hall just outside of the room where Elizabeth was still reading her letter, and he paced anxiously along the length of the passage. He was not prone to nervous habits, but some unknown weight had settled on his heart the moment Círdan placed the folded parchment into Elizabeth's hands. Darcë knew not how, but he was certain that the letter's contents bore some connection to him and was quickly becoming impatient to discover it.
A sound at the door stayed his movements, and he turned to see a weeping and trembling Elizabeth burst into the hall crying out, "Lord Círdan! I must see Lord Círdan at once!"
Darcë was immediately at her side and endeavored to lead her back to the room where she could be seated. "Elizabeth! What has happened?" he demanded.
"Please do not hinder me! I must find Lord Círdan this moment!"
"You are too unwell to go seek him on your own!" Darcë insisted. "Stay here, and I will send someone to fetch him."
Darcë left Elizabeth for a few minutes while he hailed a servant. When he returned, he found that she was weeping silently over her letter. He knelt before her and said, "Círdan will be here soon. He suspected that the message contained urgent tidings. Is there anything I can get for you?"
Elizabeth shook her head. When she was able to stifle her sobs, she raised her eyes to him and said, "Forgive me. The tidings are indeed urgent and are of a nature that requires me to leave Mithlond this very night."
"Oh Elbereth! What evil has come to pass?" Darcë pressed.
Tears returned to Elizabeth's eyes, and she bowed her head and covered her face to hide them. Darcë reached up and gently pulled her hands from her face and kissed them. "You can tell me, Elizabeth. I vow I will do whatever I can to aid you."
"You vow? Have you not learned after all this time to beware of oaths?" Elizabeth asked, surprising Darcë with a soft laugh amidst her tears. She shook her head, and her smile vanished. "Forgive me."
"There is nothing to be forgiven," Darcë said solemnly. "Oaths born of hatred, such as the one that brought the downfall of my kindred, are indeed to be avoided, but surely you do not think my oath proceeded from such a sentiment?"
Elizabeth looked him in the eye and read there all the earnestness of his words. With grave resignation she began, "My youngest sister, Lydia, has left her home and has disappeared into the country in the company of Wickham."
Darcë gasped and rose from his position with a single, sharp movement. Any traces of warmth and kindness had vanished and were replaced by the seemingly cold demeanor with which Elizabeth had formerly associated him. She felt struck to the heart by the change.
"What has been attempted to recover her?" he asked.
"My father has attempted a search, but no traces of them have been found."
"And it is certain that she is with Wickham?"
"Yes, Lydia left a letter explaining her intentions, but I expect she did not include their destination."
Darcë turned away towards the window and stood there silently for some time. As Elizabeth watched him, a startling realization fell upon her: he was lost to her, and she regretted it, deeply. To imagine Darcë would connect himself with her family now, when Lydia had willfully run away with his greatest enemy, was impossible, and Darcë's behavior seemed proof of this. Elizabeth severely berated herself for not having come to a better understanding of her feelings sooner, especially when the situation had called for that understanding. With depressing certainty, she knew that she would have been happy with him and that, though he was of the elder race, she would find no one else better suited for her. And in truth, she had no desire to do so.
"I must take leave of you now, Miss Bennet," Darcë said from the window. "I am certain Círdan will provide everything you need." With a last parting glance, he hurriedly left the room, shutting the door behind him.
As much as Círdan tried to persuade Elizabeth to wait until morning to leave for Longbourn, Elizabeth remained obstinate. She would leave that night, alone if necessary. Fearful that she would indeed do such a thing, Círdan granted her wish and even went so far as to provide horses for her and her escort. So Elizabeth, with three companions, hastened from Mithlond under the cover of a starless night.
Elizabeth never would recall much of that frenzied ride from Mithlond to Longbourn; but beneath the fevered pulse of thoughts that screamed for home, she was aware of a new sadness and uncertainty that took root and grew within her heart: she might never see Darcë again.
It was very late in the evening when Elizabeth and her escort drew near her home. As they passed Bree, they found the town deathly quiet, and not a light could be seen from any window. Longbourn seemed as devoid of life as Bree when they reached it. An unknown fear or dread hung heavily in the air that made even the elves uneasy, and they were anxious to continue on to Rivendell.
Elizabeth bade farewell to her companions and entered the house as silently as she could. The ride from Mithlond to Longbourn had been very difficult, not least because Elizabeth had scarcely allowed her and her escort an hour's rest at a time; so once she reached her room, she fell senselessly onto her bed into a deep sleep. Elizabeth perhaps would have remained thus till late the following day if left undisturbed, but it was not meant to be.
Since the disappearance of her youngest daughter and the recent reports of mysterious dark riders, Mrs. Bennet's nerves had been in such a state that she was not allowed any respite from fits and palpitations (or so she often asserts). Thus, she was fully awake when Elizabeth arrived and clearly heard her creep up the stairs and into her bedroom (which she thought a remarkable feat considering the dreadful pounding of her heart). Unfortunately, it did not occur to Mrs. Bennet that her daughter might have returned. Instead, she convinced herself that a conspiracy had been made among a band of dark riders to raid Longbourn in Mr. Bennet's absence.
Arming herself with a hairbrush and a hand mirror, Mrs. Bennet opened her bedroom door and peeked into the hall. When she found it to be empty, she proceeded to scurry downstairs and cry out, "UNDERHILL! MRS. UNDERHILL!!! YOU MUST AWAKEN AT ONCE! Oh, where is Mr. Bennet when he could make himself useful? UNDERHILL! ARE YOU AWAKE YET?"
When a rather rumpled and bleary-eyed Mrs. Underhill managed to pull on her robe and hasten out of her room, she found her mistress sunk into a chair just outside her door and violently fanning herself with a handkerchief.
"Ah Underhill!" Mrs. Bennet whimpered. "You must go upstairs and see what is in Miss Elizabeth's bedroom! You must go make certain it is not one of those black-garbed ruffians!"
"Nay, my lady!" Mrs. Underhill protested. "I shan't go upstairs! I certainly will not go if there are black ruffians waiting for me!"
"Do not be silly!" Mrs. Bennet scolded as she rose and attempted to usher the hobbit toward the stairs. "I will be waiting at the foot of the stairs and will be able to hear if something is amiss."
"A small comfort that is!" Mrs. Underhill muttered as she started up the stairs. When she reached the second floor, she made the mistake of looking down towards her mistress and, seeing the distance between them, began to whimper and tremble violently.
"Hush Underhill!" Mrs. Bennet cried. "Or else the thing will hear you coming and make ready to pounce on you!"
Though poor Mrs. Underhill was far from able to calm herself after Mrs. Bennet's reproach, she continued until she reached Elizabeth's bedroom door. A dim, golden light outlined the door, and the hobbit thought she could hear the soft hum of female voices within. With a stealth of which only a hobbit is capable, she pushed the door open just enough so that she could peek through. To her infinite relief, she saw the two eldest Miss Bennets (who had been aroused by their mother's screams) seated on Elizabeth's bed, speaking together in excited but hushed tones. Mrs. Underhill closed the door and happily returned to the ground floor where her mistress was pacing and fretfully wringing her hands.
When Mrs. Bennet saw Mrs. Underhill stepping cautiously down the stairs, she immediately ran to her and demanded, "What did you see? Oh do not keep me in suspense! Should we vacate the house? Oh, that Mr. Bennet was here! What will we do outside without a protector?"
Mrs. Underhill chose to ignore her mistress's exclamations and said with all calmness, "All is well, my lady. Miss Elizabeth is returned and has retired for the evening."
"What?! Has she no respect for my poor nerves? Can she not imagine how they torment me without her stealing into the house like a thief! Oh, the insensitivity of the young! I am off to bed!"
With that, Mrs. Bennet swept past her bewildered housekeeper and stalked up the stairs to her room.
Lydia gazed sleepily into the small campfire, her chin resting in one hand and her legs stretched behind her. Every once in a while, a discontented sigh escaped her lips, and her pout became more pronounced.
Wickham and she had been traveling for days without encountering anything of significance. At first it had all been quite diverting, seeing new country and travelling with a handsome, reckless Ranger; but after a while Lydia began to feel the monotony of the landscape and grew weary of their isolation. Where Wickham was headed and what he was searching for he never disclosed, and he often left Lydia at their camp for hours on end. Then, to Lydia's great annoyance, he decided to head back towards Bree to "report to his contacts." Supposedly, Wickham had ventured forth alone that evening to meet with those mysterious "contacts", but his absence had been longer than usual.
"It is most unfair!" Lydia whined to the trees. "Walks to town with Kitty are far more agreeable than this! Wickham is probably out keeping all the fun and adventure to himself!"
Lydia listened idly into the night, but she heard no reply to her complaint. In fact, she could hear nothing besides an occasional crackle from her dying fire. She sat up and looked around anxiously, straining to hear the night sounds that had previously almost lulled her to sleep. However, nothing stirred. Not even the trees would console her with a rustle of their leaves. It was then that she noticed that the sky was without stars that evening and that the moon had covered her face. It probably need not be said that any desire for danger and adventure became then as fleeting as the light from the campfire.
Then Lydia heard a noise behind her. A footfall perhaps. The noise was soft, but in that silence, it shook the air and was as loud as a thunderclap. She peered behind her, and her eyes attempted in vain to sift through the sylvan shadows to find the source of the sound.
"Wickham?" she called out uncertainly.
No answer came, but a sudden tension proceeding either from her own fears or some outside force seized her body and stilled her breath. Without a sound or even a movement, the light from her fire vanished, and Lydia was shaken from her frozen state. She turned back to where the fire once burned and saw...emptiness.
After sixteen years of lighthearted gaiety, Lydia met horror for the first time, and it held her so mercilessly that she was not allowed to scream or even sink into the refuge of unconsciousness.
The chilling sound of metal drawn across metal reached Lydia's ears. An invisible hand unveiled a long, sickeningly cold light and pushed it towards her. But it was not Lydia's fate to fall prey to that darkness. At that moment, a gleaming figure tore threw the shadows and planted itself as a shield between Lydia and what waited beyond. The sudden contrast of light and dark was so brilliant that Lydia was forced to shield her eyes. When she was able to open them again, she could have laughed out loud despite everything!
So he is to be my rescuer? Lydia thought incredulously as her mind slid gently into restful oblivion. What a joke!