When the first person fell to the ground, Mr. Darcy had just finished a solitary ride across the countryside that ended in Lambton. He had planned to stop at the pub and have a drink, one of his ways of knowing what was going on in his county. But when the second person sank, he turned his steed around and kicked him into a gallop towards Pemberley.
He thought hard on the ride back to his home. Both had bright red rashes. There had been no sign or sound of Napoleon’s forces, and this far inland he would not believe the French to be the source of the illness. Besides, a malady would be hard to use in an attack. That left that it was a fast sickness, one that showed no symptoms until the person was well and truly ill.
His heart sped up as he thought of his sister, Georgiana, who loved to be out in the flower gardens. He would force everyone inside Pemberley and not let them out. Deliveries would be made by doorsteps without anyone coming into contact with someone from the outside. He would have to let his sister’s masters leave, they had traveled from London to teach Georgiana for three months in Latin and oil painting.
Mr. Darcy pulled back on the reins to slow his horse to a canter. Should he even go to Pemberley? Would he infect everyone there? He did not know what else came with the illness after the rash and fainting, but if death was a possibility, he would not put his sister at risk. Nor the faithful servants of Pemberley.
He entered the stable yard, pulling his horse back from approaching a stable hand as they usually did. “Get away! I may be ill with a disease that has afflicted several in Lambton just now!”
The stable hands stood and stared, unsure of what to do or what to make of what their master said.
“After you take care of my horse, wash your hands and faces thoroughly. I do not want that illness here.”
Mr. Darcy spied a footman having a break in the yard. “Mr. Allen, inform Mrs. Reynolds that I will be staying in the old gamekeeper’s lodge until either I get the illness and it passes or a se’ennight. Have food delivered by hamper left outside.”
He dismounted then quickly backed away from everyone, pulled his scarf over his nose and mouth, and walked out of the stable yard in the direction of the old lodge. Shouting had him turn around to see Mrs. Reynolds trying to get his attention.
“Mr. Darcy? What has happened?”
He felt uncouth yelling from afar, but he did not know anything about this new illness. “Several people fell to the ground in Lambton in the space of a minute with a rash. I do not know what the illness is, but I am taking all precautions.”
Mrs. Reynolds blanched, and the stable hands took several steps backwards.
“I do not want anyone to come Pemberley with deliveries. They must place their deliveries outside. Everything from outside must be washed with soap and water. If anyone leaves, they cannot come back until the illness is gone from the county. Please tell Georgiana not to worry, that I am well but I will isolate myself so that no one catches this.”
Mrs. Reynolds still looked stricken but nodded to Mr. Darcy.
He continued to walk to the old lodge wondering what illness had just arrived in Derbyshire. He could not remember one such as this nor having heard of it before. He was quite parched and hoped the well outside the lodge still had the bucket.
A basket was soon delivered with pebbles thrown by the footman at the lodge to let him know it was there. Mr. Darcy was careful to cover his mouth and nose with a scarf when he picked up the basket and took care to wash his hands after handling it.
“I bet I am just as fastidious as a surgeon!”
Georgiana had sent a letter with the basket of food. She was scared and upset that her brother had abandoned her though she understood he did not want to infect all of them. She could not understand that he might not yet have symptoms but develop them later. It hurt his heart but knew he was doing what was best for all of them.
Elizabeth had been in Meryton with her sisters looking at the shop windows and passing time. They had just smiled and nodded to a well dressed and handsome newcomer, he had to be a wealthy gentleman with how fine his clothes were, when the first person collapsed in the street. It was an elderly woman, and a good deal of townspeople rushed to help her stand up and pick up her purchases until one screamed and ran.
At that everyone looked closer at the old woman and then scattered. She had bumps on her head with a bright vermillion rash. During the rush to get away another person fell, a child of not more than two and ten. He too had a bright countenance with bumps as well. Then another child fell down.
It was absolute pandemonium with screams and accusations of witches, the French attacking and curses. Elizabeth had backed up to a shop window with her mouth agape. Lydia was screaming and pulling at her hair. Jane wanted to rush to help but Elizabeth held her back.
“Lydia, calm down and behave yourself.” Elizabeth turned to Jane who still stared at the stricken children and looked up at the gentleman whose name she did not know.
“Do you need my help travelling to your home? I could probably fit one on my horse with me-“
The offer was too late as Lydia and Kitty broke away running and screaming for Longbourn. Elizabeth sighed as it would now be impossible to stop them before they made the entire house ill.
She turned back to the gentleman, looking up at him on his horse. “I am sorry but we need to catch my sisters before they reach home, but thank you.”
The gentleman’s eyes were focused on Jane, but he tipped his beaver hat and kicked his horse into a fast walk.
Elizabeth walked as quickly until she was out of Meryton and then she too started running. She had more strength and endurance than anyone else in her family as she would often run when there was no one else about. She caught up to her sisters bent over panting not far from Meryton.
“Kitty and Lydia, you should not have run out-of-town like that. You are the daughters of a gentleman.”
Lydia still bent over with her hands on her legs, looked up at her sister. “This is no time for your lectures, Lizzy. We did not want to fall over and die, did we Kitty?”
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes. Her younger sister was ever obstinate and never learned any lesson they tried to teach her. “Be that as it may, word will get out how you two behaved. And we cannot go directly home as we need to wash first so that we do not bring whatever it— “
Lydia stood upright with her usual disdainful countenance directed at Elizabeth. “Not go home? There is something killing people in Meryton! We have to warn them!”
Lydia and Kitty briskly walked on the path back towards Longbourn. When they were close Kitty and Lydia ran the rest of the way taking Elizabeth by surprise. She shook her head. Whatever the illness was, the entire house would have it now.
“Do you think the illness could spread that easily? Perhaps they all came in contact with the same sick animal?”
Jane was ever seeing the best in everyone, but today it only irritated Elizabeth. She pursed her lips and did not answer, as she could not think of anything to say.
They reached Longbourn just in time to see Lizzy and Kitty run out of the front door. “Hill is sick! She has the rash and her skin is so hot! Mama has sent a messenger to her home but nobody has come for her.”
“No one probably will either!” said Kitty. “They are all falling down in Meryton!”
Elizabeth frowned. It was too late, the illness was already here.
“Do you think this could be something from Napoleon?” Jane asked. “Could he be attacking with illnesses?”
Jane really did look quite frightened, which was why Elizabeth took pity on her. “I do not see how Napoleon could have captured an illness, brought it across the channel and this far into England without anyone seeing them. I do not think anybody knows how to do that and I certainly do not believe our town in Hertfordshire would be one of the targets in a war.”
Elizabeth was gratified to see some tension leave Jane’s countenance.
They all walked inside Longbourn and provided what help they were able with Hill and calming Mrs. Bennet. She was sure they were all going to die and thrown out of their house by the odious Mr. Collins. They were so busy putting cool clothes on Hill’s face and soothing their mother that no one thought of Mr. Bennet until supper. He was found collapsed on the floor of his study with a bright rash and bumps.