The smell of the place was repugnant. Fitzwilliam Darcy longed to be gone, away from the stench, the unending moans and countless hollow, hopeless eyes that inevitably turned his way, but he owed it to his father to stay and settle this business with Wickham.
Wickham, or what was left of him, was lying unconscious three feet away on a filthy cot in an overcrowded charity hospital in one of the worst sections of London. What little could be seen of his face beneath the bandages that covered most of his head was swollen beyond recognition; had it not been for a distinctive childhood scar on Wickham's arm, Darcy would not have known the broken body before him to be that of his fatherís godson. Besides the damage to his head, Wickham had sustained a broken hand and collarbone, broken and bruised ribs, a deep gash on his side and numerous other cuts and welts; it was a wonder that he lived at all.
Darcy's attention was brought back to the cot by a low groan followed by an epitaph and a weak cough.
"Wickham," he said softly.
"Darcy?" Wickham gasped, then coughed again.
"Easy, Wickham. Youíre lucky to be alive."
He mumbled something.
"Pardon?" Darcy leaned closer.
"...don't feel lucky," he said with some effort. "Where?"
"St. Mathias in London. You were found three days ago, stabbed, beaten and left for dead behind a pub near Dock Head. Do you know who did this to you?"
He attempted to shake his head, instantly regretted it, and let out a moan. He had never been in so much pain in his life. Darcy summoned the nurse.
"As soon as you are well enough, weíll move you to the Townhouse."
Wickham flinched slightly in surprise, then attempted to nod, an action that ended in another whispered epitaph. The nurse arrived to administer laudanum. Darcy left wondering how anyone could sink so low in so short a time.
The sun was just peaking through the ward window when Wickham awoke the next day. The laudanum had worn off and his entire body screamed for relief, most notably his head and hand, which both throbbed unmercifully. But he was able to think clearly, which despite the pain, was what he desperately wanted to do.
One of the things Wickham was at a loss to understand was why Darcy had ventured into what he must consider a reprehensible part of London. It was totally out of character for him to come to his aid, especially there. True, the late Mr. Darcy would have expected it of him, but he never realized what his son's true opinion of his godson was. Wickham on the other hand, had a fairly good idea, and it was mutual. He wouldn't cross the street to see to Darcy's wounds; Darcy, he was sure, was of the same mind. Yet the man had come to him when he was hurt - and more - intended to take him into his own home. Very perplexing.
They were hardly friends these days. Darcy and his crowd at University had considered themselves above mixing with underlings such as himself. True, he had been tolerated most of first year as an acquaintance of Darcy's, but once it became known that he was merely the son of a steward, Wickham was considered barely worth their notice. So Wickham had found his own livelier group of friends. He could still see Darcy's judgmental glare when he and his mates would return from a night of merrymaking. Darcy could never tolerate anyone enjoying themselves; he disapproved of everyone and everything. Not so Wickham. After the boredom of Pemberley, Cambridge was like a whole new, exciting world to him; drinking, gaming, pleasant & obliging female company - once one knew where to find it. It was heaven on earth. Granted, he had to attend class every now and again for the sake of appearance, but as a whole, it was a good time. He had enjoyed himself at Cambridge immensely and determined that his pleasurable lifestyle would not end with the conclusion of his university days - at least not if he could help it.
The moans of the ward brought Wickham abruptly back to the present. A glance at the nearby cots caused him to grimace in disgust, reminding him of another point of confusion: where Darcy said he had been found. Not that Wickham had never been by the south docks before, but none of the pubs or gaming dens that he frequented were anywhere near that district. He had no idea what could have taken him to that area, nor what he could have done to warrant being beaten so savagely. His easy manners generally recommended him everywhere and he was sure he would not have risked playing less than honestly in such an unsavory part of town. There was always the possibility of a jealous lover of one of his recent conquests seeking revenge, but he could recall none with past or present entanglements to cause him alarm. Perhaps a common robbery?
As the throbbing in his head increased, Wickham reluctantly left off his musings and beckoned a nurse. Some things were best left for later.
Wickham was much improved when Darcy returned a few days later. He was wrapped in considerably fewer bandages and his face was now recognizable. The ward in general was noticeably cleaner than it had been on Darcyís last visit, and there was an additional nurse on duty. Darcy was pleased to see that his recent donation to the hospital had so quickly been put to practical use.
"You are looking better, Wickham."
"Thank you, I feel a bit better; that is, I don't feel quite as awful." They lapsed into an uncomfortable silence.
Eventually Wickham looked as if he were about to speak, paused for a moment, and then looked the other man in the eye. "Darcy, I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but why are you here? How did you know about... this?"
"The constable that found you contacted me. You had been dressed unusually well for that part of town so he inquired at the pub if anyone knew you. The barmaid recalled seeing you earlier that night; she did not know your name but remembered you had made a toast to my father. The constable sought me out hoping I could identify you." Darcy did not add that he almost had not been able to.
"I'm surprised he took the trouble. Or that you did."
"It's no trouble, Wickham," replied Darcy with more ease than he felt. To be honest, he would have preferred to send one of his staff to deal with Wickham's misadventure; but for his father's sake he felt he should see to it himself. Given his university days, Darcy had not been totally surprised by what had happened to Wickham, just that it had happened so soon after his move to London. But it was a moot point; regardless of the circumstances, he knew what was due his father's memory.
"If I may, Darcy, I'd like to ask a favor," Wickham said hesitantly. "Please don't mention any of this in your next letter to my father."
Darcy stared at him with more confusion than disapproval. "Your father?"
"Yes. He hasn't been himself since your father's death. Another tale of my misdeeds would do him more harm than good."
"Your father?" Darcy paused, not sure how or if he should continue. Wickham was perfectly serious, and despite his injuries, his mind seemed well enough, yet such a request indicated otherwise. "George," Darcy said softly, "your father passed away nearly two months ago."
"What?!" Wickham exclaimed in alarm.
"You were in Derbyshire for the funeral, we both were. Do you not remember?"
"If this is your idea of a joke, Darcy..." he was briefly interrupted by a fit of coughing, then continued. "I was in Derbyshire a few months ago for your father's funeral, not mine."
"It has been over a half year since my fatherís death..."
"...in March. It is now July; that can hardly be considered half a year."
"It is September, George. Your father died in July."
"It can't be!" Wickham held the other man's eyes, hoping to see some sign of deceit, but there was none. "He is dead?" He finally whispered.
"If it is any comfort," said Darcy, "he died peacefully, in his sleep."
"I donít remember."
"You came up for the funeral the following week. You returned to London at the beginning of August, after our business was settled."
"You asked for compensation in lieu of the eventual Kympton living."
"I do recall deciding against orders shortly after I moved to London in the spring. I intended to call on you about it the next time you were in town."
"You discussed it with me a few days after your fatherís funeral. You said you decided against taking orders and planned on studying the law."
"We discussed it?" Wickham knew he sounded like an imbecile, but frankly, he felt like one. How could he lose two months? He had no memory of anything Darcy was speaking of.
"More than discussed it, we agreed to it. I had the papers drawn up and wrote you a draft for three thousand pounds."
"Three thousand pounds!"
"You agreed it was fair compensation."
"More than fair, I should think."
"You did at the time," Darcy replied dryly.
"Thatís a tidy sum when added with the legacy your father left me."
"You thought it adequate to live on while pursuing your law studies."
"Four thousand pounds!" Wickham, looking extremely pleased with himself, sat in silence for a time, then stated with a start, "I wonder what I did with it?"
"Donít you know?" said Darcy in alarm.
"I didnít know I had the ruddy fortune Ďtil now Ė how am I to know where it is?" He cringed as the pain in his head got worse. He slumped further down on the cot; he had to stop thinking so much.
"What is the last thing you can remember?" Darcy asked.
Wickham squinted his eyes in thought; it looked painful even to Darcy. After a moment he said, "Elsie."
"Elsie, the new girl at the pub near my flat. " He lowered his voice, "I finally got her to come home with me. She was delightful, promised to meet me after closing time the next night, too."
"And did she?"
"IÖ I donít know. I only recall that one time."
"Do you remember the date?"
"It was the first of the month, the landlord knocked at an ungodly hour that morning demanding the rent. I happened to have it, too, thanks to your father."
Darcy acknowledged it absently, and then leaned closer. "I sent you an express the day your father died, that was the ninth of July. You would have received it by the eleventh, do you remember it?"
"Not at all."
"We know you received it, for you arrived in Derbyshire on the fourteenth."
Wickham squinted painfully once more, and then shook his head slightly.
"Iíll have to take your word for it. The last I remember is going back to bed after Elsie left that morning, then I woke up here, half-dead."
Darcy shook his head at the absurdity of the situation, that the man had had the funds he had always craved, but no memory of having had it. "Leave it for now, Wickham. Perhaps you'll remember more in a day or two."
"And if I don't?"
Although Darcy was loath to get further involved in the man's affairs, he admitted to himself a desire to know, at least for his father's sake, what had become of the bequest. "If you'd like, I can make inquires. Perhaps the money can be traced."
Wickham nodded, reassured by Darcy's words. He trusted Darcy to sort it all out and put things to right.
Four thousand pounds, thought Wickham after Darcy had left, he could barely believe it. Never had he imagined having so much so easily. It meant freedom. He could go where he wished, do what he wished, be with whomever he wished, heedless of disapprobation - from London or Derbyshire. The late Mr. Darcy truly was the best of men. Thanks to his generosity Wickham would be able to move to a more respectable part of town - once he was on his feet again - and hire a manservant to take care of his more mundane needs; he had always wanted his own valet.
To live like a true gentleman; it was what his father had always hoped for him, what his godfather had expected of him. Pity, thought Wickham, that they both had not lived to see him achieve that goal. Granted, his broken body needed to mend before he could truly be an independent gentleman, but until then he had no objection to taking advantage of Darcy's unexpected good will and recovering at that man's expense. No objection at all.
It was more than a week before the Darcy family physician, who had visited the hospital several times, deemed Wickham fit enough to be moved. As it was, the trip to the Townhouse proved to be an extremely painful ordeal which left the patient in no condition to converse with his host until the following day.
Wickham breakfasted in the late morning, with the help of a manservant. The servant was just clearing away the breakfast tray when Darcy entered the room.
"Good morning, Wickham. How are you feeling today?"
"Like I got in the way of His Majesty's Dragoons, but better than yesterday."
"I trust everything is satisfactory?"
"Yes, thank you. This room seems... familiar."
"It is the one you stayed in when Father brought you with us to Town about ten years ago. Mrs. Weatherby thought you would be more comfortable here."
Wickham again was surprised by the unexpected consideration he was being shown. What had gotten into Darcy?
As the servant made to exit with the breakfast tray, Darcy stopped him with a gesture, saying "A moment, Jeffries,"
Wickham glanced at the man. He, too, looked familiar; very like one of the lads he had known as a boy. "Lenny?"
"Mr. Wickham." The servant nodded in acknowledgement.
"You may remember Jeffries from Pemberley," explained Darcy. "He came to London a few years ago to serve as a footman and has been training to be a valet. He will be assisting you during your stay."
"I took the liberty of having some of your things brought from your residence, Mr. Wickham."
"That in itself took a bit longer than anticipated," added Darcy. "We had trouble locating your lodgings."
"You must have had the direction when you sent me the express," Wickham reasoned.
"We did, but you no longer lived there. You moved after returning from Derbyshire last month."
"Apparently. Luckily Jeffries was able to locate Miss Connelly at the pub you had mentioned. She had the direction to your new establishment in Cheapside."
"Miss Elsie Connelly," Jeffries specified.
"Oh, Elsie. I never knew her last name," Wickham said dismissively. So he had moved to a more respectable part of town: Cheapside. It was quite a few steps up from his previous abode. "So I moved to Cheapside," repeated Wickham thoughtfully. And Elsie knew of the move. If she knew that, she likely knew more. "Darcy, Elsie must be able to shed some light on my past few weeks."
"Not entirely, I'm afraid."
"You spoke to her? What could she tell you?"
"Jeffries?" Darcy said, prompting the man to continue.
Jeffries nodded to his employer, then turned to Wickham. "She was a bit upset..."
"Naturally. I must have been missing for over a week; she must have been worried for me, not knowing if I was alive or dead."
"That did not seem to be her concern at the time, sir."
"Why? What did she say?"
"She said as far as she was concerned, you could crawl back to that... ah...um... hell. She said you obviously preferred it to her."
Wickham was near speechless, "Pardon?" he stammered.
"I imagine she was referring to a gaming hell," Darcy said helpfully. Wickham looked to Jeffries to explain.
"Yes, sir, I believe that was Miss Connelly's meaning."
"But Elsie adores me," said Wickham in confusion, "I don't understand."
"I do not believe sir, that you and Miss Connelly parted on the best of terms. She said you returned from Derbyshire in good spirits and quite confident that your fortune had been made. You often bought a round for the pub and toasted the late Mr. Darcy or your father. You had told her that you had had a bit of luck and were moving to a better locale. She said shortly after removing to Cheapside, you began frequenting more exclusive gaming establishments than had been your habit. It was not long after that, she said, that you abandoned her company for that of what Miss Connelly called 'high-priced tarts and floosies'."
"She said that?"
"Actually, she used a few more... colorful and descriptive terms, sir."
"I also spoke to your landlord," Jeffries continued.
"Go on..." Wickham prompted, although he feared what might be coming.
"He said it was not uncommon for you to return in the early morning with a female companion... or two. He had had complaints from your neighbors about the noise and lack of propriety of your... guests. He resolved to speak to you about his concerns, however never had the opportunity before your injury.
"I admit I like a bit of fun as much as the next bloke, but I'm sure I would never..."
"I'm afraid a number of your Cheapside acquaintances have corroborated his description of your recent behavior," said Darcy. "We also spoke to the proprietors of a number of the gaming establishments Miss Connelly mentioned. During your frequent visits you would win on occasion, but lost more often than not, were generous with the... young women... that are employed at such places for the clienteleís amusement, and inevitably left with one of them by morning."
"I wish I could remember," said Wickham with a smile. "Can you tell me anything regarding my funds?"
"Very little. You drew the three thousand from my London account on your return to Town and deposited about half of it in the account that held the balance of your previous 1000 pounds. You withdrew nearly all of it two days before your... accident."
"All of it?" Wickham appeared alarmed for the first time.
"320 pounds remain in your account."
"Good lord - what's become of the rest?" he cried leaning forward, then collapsed in agony as his body rebelled against the sudden movement. Jeffries was quick to his side to help him lay down again.
"What's become of the rest?" Wickham whispered hoarsely.
"I know not," Darcy replied softly.
Despite numerous attempts, Darcy was unable to learn anything more about Wickham's missing funds. They could only assume that he was robbed of them the night of his attack.
Wickham was desolate. Not only had he lost his long desired fortune, but all memory of his enjoyment of it. He did not even derive comfort from the knowledge that a respectable balance remained, for although it was more than someone in his position generally had at his disposal, Wickham was loath to touch it. When he even thought of what remained he would get a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach recalling how much more there once had been.
His depressed mood hindered the healing of his body. He kept to his room the first fortnight, for although he was not totally bedridden, moving his body gave him pain and walking more than a few feet left him dizzy and exhausted. Such a long period confined to one place gave Wickham considerable time to reflect on what little Jeffries and Darcy had discovered about his missing two months. He had lived without restraint, drank and spent freely, gambled to excess, and enjoyed - by all accounts most liberally - the pleasures of the fairer sex. And it had cost him, almost his very life. Prudence had always been a word Wickham abhorred, but perhaps, he thought, he had finally learned its value. He resolved, once he recovered, he would lead a different life. But what that life would entail, he had no idea.
Eventually he was able to manage the stairs and move about the house with a minimum of discomfort. Early one afternoon the fifth week after his arrival at the Townhouse, Wickham approached Darcy in his study.
"I want to thank you again for all you've done for me, Darcy. I've trespassed on your hospitality long enough. As soon as I can make other arrangements, I'll be on my way."
"May I ask what your plans are, Wickham?"
"To be honest, Darcy, I have none. I have a bit to live on until something comes up, but I will admit that at the moment I'm not fit for much."
Darcy could not but agree, although he reminded himself that his father had held great hopes for his godson. With more his father in mind than Wickham, he had made a few inquiries.
"Have you considered keeping to your original plan?" he asked.
"The living?" Wickham replied in confusion.
Darcy cringed. His recent misadventure more than confirmed that Wickham was not cut out for taking orders in the church.
"I was referring to your plans to study law."
"That is no longer possible, you know that. The money I needed to live on is gone."
"That may be an advantage."
"What are you about, Darcy? Are you mad?"
"When we spoke of it at Pemberley you talked of living off the interest. But the whole of it appears to have been too much of a temptation. If you could pursue your law studies without having to worry about your upkeep, would you do it?"
"I don't see how that is possible."
"An associate of my solicitor is in need of some clerical assistance. The salary is not enough to support law studies as well, but I am willing to make up the difference. If you are still interested in that profession..."
"You offer too much, Darcy. We both know I've done nothing to deserve it."
I agree, thought Darcy, But my father thought differently so...
"Consider it a second chance," he replied.
Wickham owned that although he had toyed with the idea from time to time, he had never seriously considered taking up law. From what he had been told, once he did have the funds to pursue that line of study, he had moved most decidedly in the other direction. But it had once been his father's profession; perhaps he could do likewise. He certainly had no plans of his own. He could give Darcy's suggestion a try, especially if Darcy was willing to part with his money so easily. With nothing to lose, Wickham agreed.
Three months later found Wickham working as a clerk in a solicitorís office while half-heartedly studying law under Darcyís sponsorship. He was miserable but swore he would make a go of it, if for nothing else than to show Darcy he could succeed at something.
One sunny February day however, Wickham was nearing his breaking point. He was making use of the Darcy library for a bit of research his employer required. Even he had to admit that his eyes were more on the window than the volumes he needed to search through that day. He was just contemplating how long his remaining funds would last if he were to leave his current wretched position when Darcyís cousin Major Fitzwilliam entered the room.
"Excuse me, Wickham, I was hoping to find Darcy."
"No, he had gone out before I arrived."
"So Iíve been told. The butler also mentioned that you were here."
"Darcy sometimes allows me to make use of his library for my studies."
"Yes, uh, very good of him, that."
It was obvious to Wickham that the Majorís opinion of spending a day in the library coincided with his own.
"Your cousin has been very generous. I'm quite indebted to him," Wickham said diffidently.
Something in Wickhamís tone, perhaps a touch of sarcasm, made the Major pause. He did not know Wickham well, but even from their slight acquaintance he could see that the man appeared out of place. Of course it was the Majorís opinion that anyone would be out of place in a library on a day such as this.
"How are you doing, Wickham? You took quite a beating last year. Are you back to your old self again?"
Personally Wickham didnít think he would ever be back to his old self. The man that had squandered his fortune and nearly gotten himself killed with his cavalier ways was gone - and good riddance. He also had a decided dislike for what occupied his current self, but Wickham could not very well say any of that to the Major.
"Nearly good as new, Major. Aside from my hand being a bit stiff, Iím well enough."
"Iíve been stuck this last week writing reports for my commander and am in serious need of some activity. I stopped in to see if Darcy could join me. As he is out, would you be interested?"
Wickham was more than up for it, Fitzwilliam could see it in his eye. Then the manís shoulders slumped considerably as he looked at the table before him.
"Iím afraid I shall have to pass, Major. My time is not my own." No, he thought ruefully, he owed his time, studies, employment, his very existence to Darcy. Nothing was his own.
"Is that something that could, perhaps, be put off for a few hours?"
Wickham weighted what needed to be done against the temptation to be gone from it. The temptation won out.
"I would be happy to accompany you, Major. Lead on."
Darcy noted the disarray in his library with some disgust. He had thought was just a matter of time before Wickham returned to his old habits, and his escape with Fitzwilliam in the face of all this paperwork was a fair indication. Wickham was performing adequately, in his work and his studies, according to the solicitor he worked for, however Darcy suspected the man was reporting what he thought Darcy wanted to hear.
As he heard a commotion in the hallway, Darcy turned to the nearest shelf and pretended to be searching for a book. A moment later Wickham entered the room with Major Fitzwilliam.
"Ö please thank your surgeon again for examining my hand."
"An injury such as yours is quite common in the field. I am glad he gave you some assurance that it should return to full strength in time. Oh," said the Major on seeing his cousin. "Hello, Darcy."
"Fitzwilliam, Wickham," he nodded.
"Sorry to leave the place in such mess, Darcy. Iíll have it put right immediately."
"No need, Wickham. If you are in the middle of somethingÖ"
"I am rather. I've a few more hours ahead of me, but Iím a bit done in for the day. Do you mind if I return to finish tomorrow?"
"Not at all."
After Wickham had bowed his farewells and left, Fitzwilliam noticed Darcy shake his head slightly.
"You donít look too pleased, Darcy," remarked the Major.
"I am more disappointed than displeased. However I can not say I did not expect this of him."
"Expect what of him? Putting off a bit of dull work on the first fair day weíve had in a month?"
"The weather is irrelevant, Fitzwilliam. The man has obligations; he should not have shirked them."
"Gad, you sound more like my father than my younger cousin. If you are going to blame anyone, blame me. Wickham refused to join me at first, but I pestered him into it. I could see the man would rather be elsewhere."
"Where exactly was elsewhere, if I may be so bold as to inquire?"
"A number of places. We did a bit of riding, shooting, sword-play; Wickham did quite well. We had dinner at the mess before returning here."
"I heard you mention a surgeon."
"Yes, our field surgeon was in the mess when we arrived. Wickham had mentioned his bad hand still bothered him, so I asked the surgeon to take a look at it. He recommended some exercises he could do to regain more flexibility"
"I wasnít aware his hand was still amiss."
"There is a lot you arenít aware of."
"It's obvious Wickham is not cut out to be a clerk or a lawyer. His disposition is more suited for an active career. Heís got the makings of a decent soldier. If I were you, Iíd cut my losses and purchase him a lieutenantís commission."
"It was his idea to study law. I am merely assisting him in the endeavor."
"The man is miserable and heís doomed to failure; but thatís just my opinion."
"Finally, something we agree on!"
"You expect him to fail?"
"I know Wickham. Too well. I doubted his intention to study law when he approached me last summer, but I was more than happy to have him relinquish my fatherís preferment. The life he led on his return to London proved my doubts were well founded."
"And now you would rather he suffer through preparing for a career heís ill-suited for instead of one in which he could excel, just so you can be proved right again?"
Darcy didnít answer, but Fitzwilliam could see he was beginning to see reason.
"Just make him the offer. If he refuses, at least you can say you gave him a choice. If he accepts, His Majesty gains another soldier for the realm."
"Yes, but will His Majesty ever forgive me?" asked Darcy.
"It doesnít matter. Wickham wonít be your problem anymore. He will be out of your life."
Given that incentive, Darcy immediately agreed to make the offer to Wickham the following morning.
Wickham was surprised to find Major Fitzwilliam with Darcy in the breakfast room when he arrived at the Townhouse the next day. He was even more surprised when Darcy asked if he had any interest in joining Major Fitzwilliamís regiment.
"Fitzwilliam believes you've some natural inclination towards that profession and is determined that I purchase you a lieutenantís commission."
Wickham didn't know what to say. As anxious as he was to leave his law studies behind, he was nearly as reluctant to admit as much to Darcy. He had never understood why Darcy had been so generous to him these last few months; although he speculated it was mainly due to the late Mr. Darcy's memory, he also suspected the son's expectations for his success were decidedly low.
Now he was being given an opportunity to move on to a more palatable situation. He had to admit that he had enjoyed the glimpse of military life that he had seen the day before. The satisfaction of making a well aimed shot was infinitely preferable to struggling all day over a legal draft that one's employer barely acknowledged. Though he was more indebted to Darcy than he could ever repay, he saw nothing wrong with accepting the commission he offered. Wickham would consider himself more than entitled to accept it from his godfather had he lived, why not his son?
But something inside him did not feel quite right about it. The compensation for the living had come to him easily, and just as easily slipped through his fingers and right out of his memory. Perhaps if he had a more personal stake in this opportunity, he would be better able to retain it.
While Wickham was considering these things, the Major addressed him. "I'm sure you know not all days in the Army are spent as we did yesterday. There is arms training and drilling of course, but there is also a good bit of more mundane yet critical tasks, such as seeing to the needs of the men under one's command, maintaining equipment and, regrettably, paperwork. Not to mention the dangers of war, both on and off the field. We lose more men to disease during a campaign than we do in battle. It is not an easy life, but I think it's one you're well suited for, Wickham. What do you say?"
"You expect him to accept after that recommendation?" asked Darcy incredulously. "I thought you actually wanted him to consider it?"
"I do," replied the Major, in an offended tone. "But he has to know that it's not all excitement and glory. There is a down side, too."
Darcy shook his head at his cousin, then turning, said, "Wickham?"
"I accept," he said, "On one condition."
"That you allow me to pay for half of the commission myself."
Now it was Darcy's turn to be surprised. He had never seen Wickham offer anything at his own expense before, especially when it was totally unnecessary. Fitzwilliam was right, there was more to Wickham than he was aware of. Perhaps he had been underestimating the man. This seemed a decided improvement.
"Very well, Wickham," he said extending his hand. "Agreed."
It was nearly four years before Darcy saw Wickham again. Although the two had corresponded briefly early in Wickham's career, most of Darcy's knowledge of the man's military exploits had come through Major Fitzwilliam. Darcy had been pleased to learn that his cousin had been correct about Wickham; he had indeed excelled in the Army. His fellow officers had no complaint of him and he was firm but fair with men under his command. He acquitted himself well in battle and his men knew they could count on him to do his part, even in the worst of times. He behaved respectably in his off duty hours as well; he was discrete where women were concerned, avoided gaming, and did not drink to excess. Fitzwilliam recalled seeing him drunk only twice while they served together, though one of those times Fitzwilliam admitted that he had been drunk as well.
Wickham was a model officer who served with distinction in a number of campaigns on the Continent, eventually returning to England to recover from some minor injuries before being reassigned. He and Darcy met again, quite unexpectedly, at a dinner being held by his new commander in the town of Meryton in Hertfordshire.
Darcy was able to take Wickham aside after dinner for some private conversation.
"I hear congratulations are in order, Captain Wickham; a field promotion for both you and Fitzwilliam, and well earned I'm told."
"Thank you, Darcy. Though Colonel Fitzwilliam tends to exaggerate in the retelling, it truly could have gone either way. I'm just glad we were able to make it a success with minimal casualties."
"You being one of the casualties."
Wickham shrugged, "A scratch on my leg and a graze to my arm, nothing compared to the docks. Both healed nicely within a month. The marquis who was the principle owner in the valley we secured was very grateful to my men. He made sure our wounded were well cared for and gave each of us a substantial gift. Your cousin joked that we no longer had to seek rich wives."
"Are you seeking a wife then?" asked Darcy drolly. The idea of Wickham as a settled family man would never have crossed his mind.
"I wouldn't say that," Wickham laughed. "Although a quiet life is beginning to look more appealing than it once did. However, due to the kindness of the marquis, I am able to repay what you put up for my commission and the law study expense as well."
"I, on the other hand, see no need to accept it. Keep your reward, Wickham. It was well earned."
"You are too kind," he bowed. He knew better than to argue the point in such a setting. Changing the subject he asked, "How is your sister? I haven't seen Miss Darcy since your father's funeral."
Darcy noted that Wickham did not recall seeing Georgiana at Pemberley the summer he had returned for his own fatherís funeral, but was thoughtful enough not to correct him. It seemed Wickham had not regained his memory of that time.
"She is well and no longer in school. Aunt Catherine treated her and my cousin Anne to a trip to the seaside this summer. It was a fortuitous arrangement as the companion we engaged for Georgiana was not free to accept the position until September."
"And Miss Darcy weathered your auntís company well? As I recall the woman could be rather intimidating."
"My sister had been hoping for a trip to the seaside for some time so was willing to brave my aunt. She enjoyed herself quite well, possibly because Anne retained most of my auntís attention.
"Ah yes, your cousin Miss de Bourgh. Has Lady Catherine gotten her wish and am I to wish you joy?" asked Wickham, referring to that lady's conviction that Darcy and her daughter were destined to wed.
"No, but I will pass those sentiments on to my cousin. Anne is engaged to a gentleman she met in Sanditon, a Mr. Parker. As he is a younger son, Aunt Catherine wouldn't hear of it at first, but I'm proud to say my cousin held her ground. Anne is of age and determined to have him, so my aunt finally had to agree to the match. They will marry in the spring"
"And the gentleman?"
"Arthur is a pleasant enough chap, the youngest son of the prominent family in the area. I met him when I joined them to escort Georgiana to Town. He is a bit mild mannered but was beginning to exert himself more towards the end of my visit, especially when his sister and Lady Catherine were together. Miss Parker considers herself an expert in all manner of health remedies. It was amusing to watch the conversations she had with my aunt; each was determined that her own position on any topic was correct. Conflict was inevitable. Arthur acquitted himself admirably in the role of piece maker where they were concerned. He has the potential to be an excellent diplomat."
"And what of Lenny, is he still with you?"
"Jeffries? Heís with me, yes. He became my personal valet when Hughes retired two years ago. He will be returning to London in a few weeks, however. His wife is due to give birth to their second child in December."
"He has married? Who is the lucky girl? One of the Pemberley staff?"
"No, he met his wife in London. An acquaintance of yours, if I recall: Miss Connelly that was."
"Connelly? I donít know anyÖ"
"Miss Elsie Connelly," Darcy reminded him.
"Elsie? Really? Well, good for them both! Heís a luckyÖ" Remembering the company he was in, Wickham caught himself before a crude word could escape. "And children, too?" he added.
Darcy nodded affirmation but was prevented from answering further by the approach of two gentlemen. He introduced them as his friend Mr. Bingley, at whose home he was staying, and Bingley's brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst. Bingley lost no time in inviting Wickham to join them for sport at Netherfield. Wickham agreed, stating he would as soon as his duties allowed.
Unfortunately, his duties did not allow. The next day he was required to make a trip to London on military business and was not able to return to Meryton until the following week.
Wickham could not believe that he had been with his new regiment for nearly a fortnight and was still missing some of the most basic items required by an officer. He had been many years abroad and much of his gear was worn and in need of repair or replacement. He had hoped to make most of the required purchases while in London, but his off-duty hours had been short. On his return to Meryton Lieutenant Denny, a young man in his regiment who had accompanied him from Town, offered to take Wickham around and introduce him to the local tradesmen with whom he was acquainted.
On exiting one of the shops, Denny's attention was called to a pair of young ladies, girls really, who he introduced to Wickham as the Misses Catherine and Lydia Bennet. They were soon joined by their older sisters, Jane, Elizabeth, and Mary. The ladies in turn introduced the officers to their cousin, a Mr. Collins. They were all agreeably engaged in conversation when the partyís attention was drawn by the approach of two gentlemen on horseback.
Earlier that day, when Bingley suggested that they ride to Longbourn, Darcy knew it was a mistake. He should have tried harder to discourage Bingley from going, or at least declined to join him. Granted it was common courtesy to inquire on Miss Bennet's health once she had returned home, especially after her illness, but Darcy was loath to see her sister Elizabeth again. Or rather, he longed to see her again, which was why he knew he should not. He liked her entirely too well.
They were just passing through Meryton when Bingley noticed Miss Bennet and her sisters standing in front of a shop. He quickly dismounted and joined the eldest Miss Bennet in conversation. Darcy, following suit at a more leisurely pace, had just determined not to fix his eyes on Miss Elizabeth, when they were suddenly arrested by the sight of Wickham in conversation with that very lady.
Darcy's first thought was concern for Elizabeth; the opinion he had held of Wickham for so long was one of a womanizing wastrel. His second, after reminding himself that Wickham was now considered an officer and a gentleman, was one of alarm. Elizabeth appeared to be enjoying their conversation and was smiling quite agreeably at the captain. Darcy quickly collected himself and approached the two with as credible a composed expression as he could muster.
Wickham noted the serious look that briefly passed over Darcyís face, but assumed it was merely surprise at seeing him in town. The two men nodded politely at one another, then Darcy turned to Elizabeth.
"I trust you found everyone well on your return home, Miss Bennet."
"Thank you, yes," was her short reply.
He stood awkwardly before them for a moment, thinking of nothing more to say. She did not feel inclined to speak further to him and he did not want to give her, or Wickham for that matter, the impression that he had intentions of any sort toward Elizabeth. Small talk was never his forte and the other manís presence added considerably to his discomfort. For his part, Wickham thought it odd that Darcy would greet them cordially, then just stand there like a stick.
"Please extend my apologies to your friend for not calling last week," Wickham said, breaking the silence. "I was prevented by duty."
Darcy, responding that he would, unconsciously smiled at the thought of the Wickham of old having any concern about duty. The brief brightening of the normally dour manís face was not lost on Elizabeth. She could almost imagine him agreeable. It was a pity he smiled so rarely.
After gaining Bingleyís attention, Darcy bowed his farewells and the two gentlemen rode off again, leaving Elizabeth to wonder how the captain and Mr. Darcy were acquainted and Wickham to wonder why Darcy had behaved like such a dolt.
Duty nearly prevented Captain Wickham from attending a supper party the next day. Happily between him and his fellow officer Captain Carter, they were able to sort most matters out to their commanderís satisfaction, allowing the two to arrive only a half hour late to the function.
The party took place at the home of a local attorney, Mr. Philips, who was an uncle of the Bennet sisters, the ladies Mr. Denny had introduced Wickham to the day before. All the sisters were quite pretty, particularly the eldest, and Wickham was hoping to become better acquainted with them. Miss Bennet however was busy playing whist at one of the card tables so Wickham took a seat next to the second eldest, Miss Elizabeth. Although she was already engaged in playing at lottery tickets, she was not so engrossed in the game that it prevented conversation.
At first they spoke of the weather, it being a wet night, and on the probability of a rainy season. Then recollecting his invitation from Mr. Bingley, Wickham inquired how far Netherfield was from Meryton; and, after receiving her answer, asked how long Mr. Darcy had been staying there.
"About a month," said Elizabeth; and then, unwilling to let the subject drop, added, "He is a man of very large property in Derbyshire, I understand."
"Yes," replied Wickham; "his estate there is a noble one. You could not have met with a person more capable of giving you certain information on that head than myself, for I have been connected with his family in a particular manner from my infancy."
Elizabeth could not but look surprised.
"You may well be surprised, Miss Bennet, after participating in our very brief exchange yesterday. Although he does not talk to excess, Darcy is rarely at a loss for words."
Wickham was suddenly struck with a possible answer for Darcy's unusual behavior. She was before him.
"Are you much acquainted with Mr. Darcy?" he asked.
"As much as I ever wish to be," cried Elizabeth, "I have recently spent four days in the same house with him. Iím sorry to say, I think him very disagreeable."
Poor Darcy. If Wickham's suspicions were correct, he was in for a difficult time of it. Granted, a man like Darcy was probably overdue for a difficult time, but he had been particularly kind to him in his hour of need. Perhaps Wickham could do him a good turn now and soften the blow a little.
"Disagreeable? As did I at one time," replied Wickham with a laugh. "And at that time, I am sure he had a thorough, determined dislike of me as well. Although we grew up together, by the time we reached university we moved in quite different circles. The fact is, we were very different sort of men. I found his companions arrogant and conceited; I know he found mine imprudent rabble rousers. But I have found people and opinions change with time."
"You no longer find him so? Upon my word, he is not at all liked in Hertfordshire. Every body is disgusted with his pride."
"It is wonderful," replied Wickham, "for almost all his actions may be traced to pride; and pride has often been his best friend, and mine. Although his pride never deserts him, it has often led him to be liberal and generous, to give his money freely, to display hospitality, and relieve the poor. No, Miss Bennet, I no longer find him disagreeable; not at all."
When Elizabeth seemed skeptical, Wickham added, "I owe my very life to him. Shall I tell you the story?" At her nod he began.
"The late Mr. Darcy was one of the best men that ever breathed, and the truest friend I ever had; he was my godfather, and excessively attached to me. I cannot do justice to his kindness. He meant to provide for me amply, and thought he had done so. You see, a military life is not what I was intended for, but circumstances eventually made it eligible. My godfather wished for the church to be my profession; I was brought up for the church, and I could at this time have been in possession of a most valuable living. However shortly after his death I thought it more practical to give up my claim to the living for monetary compensation; Darcy had no objections and readily complied with my request."
"Agreeing to an equitable exchange hardly qualifies Mr. Darcy for acclaim."
"Granted, but there is more to the story. I had barely received the promised compensation when, through my own stupidity, lost all; I was robbed, beaten, and left for dead in one of the worst sections of London." Miss Bennet was shocked indeed.
"I have no doubt that were it not for the kindness of the present Mr. Darcy, I would not be alive today. Although he owed me nothing, when he was told what had happened, he personally came to my aid, brought me into his own home, and provided me with the very best of care."
"More than your due, I am sure, as his father's favorite and godson. But how terrible it was for you, to be set upon so! It must have been awful!"
"In truth, I remember nothing of that night, nor much of the weeks before. I lost more than my fortune that night."
"Your very inheritance. What did you do?"
"I reflected, mostly on how foolish I had been; I could do very little else. And though I cannot commend myself of having really done any thing to deserve it, Darcy continued to support me during my recovery and even arranged for employment in my field of study. Later when I desired a change to a military career, he arranged for a commission for me in his cousin's regiment. His father was the best of men, Miss Bennet, but the son is no less so."
"This is such a different account of that man than we have witnessed here; your story puzzles me exceedingly, Captain. He himself was boasting one day, at Netherfield, of the implacability of his resentments, of his having an unforgiving temper. I had supposed him to be despising his fellow-creatures in general, so would never suspect him of such solicitude as you claim. Can we be speaking of the same man?"
"We are. I fear we are none of us consistent; Mr. Darcy can please where he chuses. He does not want abilities. He can be a conversible companion with those he knows well."
"Apparently he knows few well in Hertfordshire."
"So it would seem. He can be a very different man among those with whom he is familiar. He can be liberal-minded, just, sincere, rational, honourable, and perhaps even agreeable. He is a very kind and careful guardian of his sister; and you will hear him generally cried up as the most attentive and best of brothers."
"What sort of a girl is Miss Darcy?"
"As a child, she was affectionate and pleasing, and extremely fond of me; and I devoted hours and hours to her amusement. I have not seen her since her father's death, but I understand she is a handsome girl, about fifteen or sixteen, and highly accomplished."
"So I have heard, from her friend Miss Bingley."
They continued talking together with mutual satisfaction till supper put an end to cards; and gave the rest of the ladies their share of Captain Wickham's attentions. Elizabeth allowed that he had given a very rational account of it all, and soon began to ponder how a man attributed by Captain Wickham with as much goodness as Mr. Darcy could have so little appearance of it.
The next few days brought continuous rain and precluded any thought of Wickham joining the Netherfield gentlemen for sport, but he was content to know he would see the place soon enough; Mr. Bingley had invited the officers of the regiment to a ball to be held there the following Tuesday.
The rain did not stop the captain from procuring the last of his required purchases, however. Thus he was confident on the night of the ball that his uniform, complete with the requisite buckles and bangles, were all in proper order and he looked just as dashing as any of his compatriots. These last three weeks he had worked hard to establish himself in the regiment and in his new rank, he was more than ready for some amusement. He had seen many attractive ladies in Meryton, and even met a few. This was to be his first formal affair since his return to England and he intended to make the most of it.
Meanwhile Darcy was having mixed feelings about the impending ball. He would have to tolerate the inferior society of the neighborhood and the inane small talk that went with it; and he would, for Bingley's sake. Miss Bingley would inevitably whisper a stream of snide remarks about fine eyes into his ear, but thankfully she would be too busy acting as hostess to tease him much. It would be a long, tedious evening. However, he was looking forward to seeing Elizabeth Bennet again. Undoubtedly she would be at her best; she would be stunning, pert, vivacious. Perfect. And totally unacceptable.
Most of the officers arrived at Netherfield early, anxious for merry making. After greeting his guests, Mr. Bingley singled Wickham out to bring to his sistersí attention.
"Louisa, Caroline, Captain Wickham has just joined Colonel Forsterís regiment. He is also Darcy's oldest friend."
This information seemed to impress Caroline Bingley, the younger of the sisters, a great deal. She was a lovely, elegant young woman, dressed in the height of London fashion. Although they had never met, there was something vaguely familiar about her; Wickham could not place it but it intrigued him. Taking advantage of the opportunity, he requested a dance of her and was happy to receive a promise of the second set. From the way she occasionally glanced at Darcy, who was speaking to some of the officers nearby, he had a feeling she was reserving the first set for him.
In the drawing-room, Denny wasted no time in pointing out to Wickham each young lady as she arrived, noting who her family was and what their worth was estimated to be. Wickham was astonished that in many cases Denny even knew the amount of the lady's dowry.
"The dark haired one standing next to Pratt is Miss Clarke. She's a respectable 8,000. The Colonel fancied her before he met Miss Watson. She's a bit less, but her other attributes are... shall we say... ample. The wager is he will be wed before the year's out. Then there are the oldest Lucas girls; they are pleasant enough and have a bit of a dowry, but with so many younger sisters, it wonít go far. Same with the Bennets. It's a shame there, as they are the real beauties of the neighborhood, and more enjoyable ladies you'll not find. Just coming in with their aunt are the cousins Miss Newman and Miss Long. They are a bit on the dim side, but I've heard they've over 4,000 between them."
"How do you know all this?"
"Lydia told me. She has a wealth of information and is more than willing to share it."
"Miss Lydia Bennet seems a bit on the young side. I wonder that sheís out in company."
"Iíll tell you why, she wouldnít have it any other way!" laughed Denny. "Once her sister Kitty was out, there was no way Lydia would willingly stay at home - not while her sisters were out enjoying themselves. She bellowed to her mother and her mother bellowed to her father. Simple as that, sheís out in society."
"A rather strong willed girl."
"But lively and quite entertaining."
Wickham caught the eye of a petite, auburn haired young lady of about 20 standing near the door. She blushed when she realized he saw her, but she did not turn away. She smiled and held his eye until approached by another officer.
"And who is the young lady in the green gown, speaking with Carter?"
"The freckled one? That is Miss Mary King. Her family is nothing out of the ordinary, though rumor has it that she may soon be coming into a bit of money." Denny nodded toward the reception line. "The big fish here is Miss Bingley. She has a tongue could cut glass, but it would be well worth putting up with; I've heard she's a dowry of 20,000. Now she is the woman to set your sights on - if she'll give you the time of day."
"I'm to dance the second set with her," commented Wickham with a smile.
"And that," said Denny, "is why you are a captain, and I am not."
When Miss King looked his way again, Wickham excused himself and requested an introduction through his friend Carter, who readily complied.
After a deep bow, Wickham asked, "Miss King, might I have the honor of your hand for the first set?"
"I am sorry, Captain, I have already promised those dances to Captain Carter. But I would be happy to dance any other set with you."
"The third, perhaps?"
"Very well. I shall look forward to dancing the third set with you, Captain Wickham." she said, curtseying prettily. She gave him a coy smile, which Wickham returned; anticipating their dance all the more. He took his leave and returned to Denny.
In his absence the Bennet family had come in; Lydia and Elizabeth Bennet were in conversation with the lieutenant.
After greeting each lady, Wickham said, "Miss Elizabeth, I wouldnít dream of dancing the first set with any lady but you. I hope I am not too late."
"Iím afraid you are, sir," she answered with deep regret. "I am obliged to dance the first with Mr. Collins."
"And I am dancing them with Denny," giggled Lydia.
"I fear I am unlucky tonight," sighed Wickham. "Miss Elizabeth, if you are free for the fourth set, perhaps my luck will change."
Elizabeth was disappointed he had not asked her for the second set, but she reminded herself that he had been saving the first for her.
"I would be happy to dance the fourth with you, Captain."
"And if I could have the second, Miss ElizabethÖ" began Denny.
"You may, sir," she replied.
Kitty Bennet soon joined the group. Wickham requested and was granted the pleasure of dancing the first set with her. Kitty was thrilled. She would have the first dance with the captain that evening, and made plans to remind her little sister of it often in the future.
Darcy saw Bingley welcome the Bennet family as they entered the house, then watched Elizabeth as she and one of her sisters spoke to an officer in the drawing-room. When they were soon after joined by Wickham, Darcy felt a tightening in his stomach that he preferred to ignore.
A few minutes later Elizabeth continued further into the room, Darcy moved in her direction. He approached her and inquired politely after her family; she answered in kind. She could not help but notice how well he looked in his fine clothes, so tall and dignified. She even thought he seemed less severe than formerly. The kindness he had shown to Captain Wickham came to her mind and she graced him with a smile.
Darcy was stunned, so much so he could do little more than watch her move off to greet one of her friends. The tight feeling was gone, replaced by another which was light and heady. He had been right about this night, Miss Elizabeth Bennet was perfect.
For Elizabeth, the first two dances were dances of mortification. Mr. Collins was awkward, solemn, and often moved wrong without being aware of it. On the contrary, aside from an apology or two for being a bit out of practice, Mr. Collins thought he was quite the thing. Dancing with his beautiful cousin, how could he be else? Lydia and Denny enjoyed the intimacy of the dance and were pleased with the picture they presented, as they knew they moved well together. But then, they were no strangers as dance partners. Kitty was happily imagining the jealous looks she must be getting from the other young ladies as she danced with Wickham. She found him completely charming. He found her an able and pleasant partner - for his first set. The night was still young.
And to one side of the room, Darcy watched. He was offended on Elizabeth's behalf that her oaf of a cousin would even stand up with her. But she handled the situation with dignity and good humor, even thanking her partner at the end of the dances. Personally, Darcy would have liked to throttle the man.
The officer that had been dancing with the youngest Bennet girl was the next to dance with Elizabeth. He saw them glance at Wickham when he stood up with...Miss Bingley? Darcy thought it an odd paring, though had he heard their conversation, he would have been amused.
"I understand you are from Derbyshire, Captain Wickham."
"Yes, I am."
"I visited Pemberley in the spring this year, it was beautiful. I've never seen the like. Does your home compare?"
"I can assure you, Miss Bingley, that the estate where I grew up is every bit Pemberley's equal."
"But I find Hertfordshire is also lovely, especially in the autumn. Donít you agree?"
"Uh, yes. I have found many pretty prospects here, the grounds at Netherfield are the best in the neighborhood. But I find I do miss the superior society of London. I imagine you do as well, being such an old friend of Mr. Darcy. Did you meet at school?"
"No, we grew up together."
"Truly? You must have lived quite close. Does your familyís estate border Mr. Darcy's?"
"In a way. You could say that the estate of my youth does share Pemberley's borders."
"With such property, I am surprised I have not heard of your family before. Have you many brothers?"
The remark was not out of the ordinary, but the glint in her eye as she said it revealed to Wickham why her air had seemed so familiar. He had seen it often enough at university gatherings, with some of Darcy's friends and the ladies they escorted. Miss Bingley clearly was above the company she kept tonight, or at least she believed she was, and had hopes of rising higher. He gave her his most charming smile.
"I'm sorry to say I have no brothers. I am the only son, the only child, in fact. An only person now, as both my parents have passed on."
"Ohhh," said the lady. Wickham could almost hear the numbers being calculated in her head. Recollecting herself, Miss Bingley added in a more subdued tone, "I am sorry."
The set was nearing its end by this time, Wickham thought it best to end the deception as well. He offered to get Miss Bingley some refreshment and commented as they left the floor, "It was a long time ago. My father served Mr. Darcy for many years."
"Pardon?" exclaimed Miss Bingley. So shocked was she that she stopped in mid-stride.
"My father. He served Mr. Darcy, both Mr. Darcys really, for a number of years. He was their steward."
"Their steward? He was their steward?" Miss Bingley sputtered.
"And a finer man has never lived," came a voice from behind her. She turned to see Mr. Darcy. "Mr. Wickham shall always be highly esteemed for the years of exemplary care he gave to all the Pemberley estates."
"Thank you, Darcy. That means a great deal to me," said Wickham earnestly.
Darcy met his eye. "I speak only the truth."
The two men quietly acknowledged each other as Miss Bingley, forgetting her desire for refreshment, quickly excused herself citing her hostessing duties. Wickham then chuckled to himself as he went off to collect Miss King for the third set.
Nearby Miss Lucas was in conversation with Elizabeth. Darcy gathered his courage and applied to the latter for her hand for the next set. Taken completely by surprise, she accepted him before she knew what she did. She had never met a man who bewildered her so.
He was a puzzlement: before they had even been introduced, she had overheard him make a rude comment about her, something that those who knew him best would think out of character. Tonight he appeared every bit the gentleman. She wondered if she might get a glimpse of the man Captain Wickham had described.
"I dare say you will find him very agreeable," said Charlotte after Darcy had walked away.
"Perhaps I would, had anyone else of our acquaintance found him agreeable. But I have heard peculiar reports concerning him of late. I hardly know how to act."
The music soon started again. As Mr. Darcy approached to claim Elizabeth's hand for the set, Charlotte whispered to her, "Don't be a simpleton. One should be as agreeable as may be with a man of his consequence."
Elizabeth made no answer. She herself was astonished by the amazement on her neighbors' faces as she and her partner took their place in the set. Dancing with Mr. Darcy apparently was quite an accomplishment.
They danced in silence for a time until Elizabeth teased him into speaking a little: on the dance, the number of couples, and the merits of talking while dancing. She gave him a pert smile with each retort, prodding him gently into conversation. Eventually he obliged by starting a new topic.
"Do you and your sisters often walk in to Meryton?"
"Yes. When you met us there the other day, we had just been forming a new acquaintance."
"Captain Wickham." Darcy felt his stomach tighten again.
"I understand he has been very lucky in your friendship, sir."
Darcy did not answer at first, uncomfortable with praise he felt he ill deserved. Granted he had done for Wickham what his own father would have done, but his attitude toward the man at the time was hardly laudable. He also would have preferred not to speak of Wickham, or any other man, especially when he had Elizabeth all to himself.
"The captain has more than repaid any service I've rendered by his own excellent service to the kingdom," he said shortly.
It appeared, thought Elizabeth archly, that the proud Mr. Darcy could also be modest.
"Come now, sir. He said that you saved his life."
He met her eye in confusion. Darcy would never claim such a thing for himself so could not understand why Wickham would make such a statement.
At that moment Sir William Lucas passed near them and complimented Mr. Darcy on his dancing and in his choice of partner. He continued speaking about superior dancing and how he hoped to have the pleasure of seeing it again soon, at a certain desirable event, indicating Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennet, who were dancing nearby.
Sir William's allusion to his friend struck Darcy forcibly, as his eyes were directed with a very serious expression towards him and his partner. Recovering himself shortly, he turned to Elizabeth and said,
"Sir William's interruption has made me forget what we were talking of."
"We were speaking of your rescue of Captain Wickham."
"The captain is too kind. I did nothing remarkable."
"Perhaps," she said unconvinced, "Although Captain Wickham believes otherwise. He said he would not be alive today were it not for your kindness."
What on earth has Wickham been telling her and why? thought Darcy. Was it not it enough that all ended well? Can't he leave it be? It easily could have gone another way. Then for the third time in that set, Darcy was caught off guard: Yes, it very easily could have gone another way. He had never before considered what might have happened to Wickham had Darcy never been made aware of the attack, or if he had chosen not to intervene. Wickham might well have died in that hospital, unknown and among strangers.
Elizabeth, noting his thoughtfulness, added, "Or perhaps you did do something remarkable."
Darcy shrugged. He could not have acted differently so there was little point in claiming merit. "Tíwas normal Christian charity, nothing more. You were more actively involved in the care of your sister than anything I did for Wickham."
"Jane is my sister and I love her dearly, and who would not," she gave a glance to her sister and Bingley. "But I understand that you and the captain did not always get on."
"That is true."
"I remember hearing you once say, Mr. Darcy, that you hardly ever forgave, that your resentment once created was unappeasable."
"Also true. May I ask to what these questions tend?"
"Merely to the illustration of your character," said she, "I am trying to make it out."
"And what is your success?"
She shook her head. "I do not get on at all. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly."
"I could wish, Miss Bennet, that you not sketch my character at the present moment, I fear that the performance would reflect no credit on either."
"But if I do not take your likeness now, I may never have another opportunity."
"I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours," he replied with a bow of his head.
She said no more, and they went down the other dance and parted in silence; on each side dissatisfied, though not to an equal degree. Elizabeth was even more puzzled by Mr. Darcy than she had been before their set. On his part, dancing with Elizabeth had begun as everything Darcy had hoped, and ended, thanks to Sir William and Wickham, with him disconcerted and disturbed.
Further down the set another conversation had been taking place, between Miss King and Captain Wickham.
"Did you enjoy your dance with Captain Carter, Miss King."
"Yes, thank you. But I am afraid I did not attend as I should have, my mind was occupied with other things."
"Might I inquire what had you preoccupied?"
"Anticipating this very dance, sir. I had been very anxious to make your acquaintance."
"I am flattered to be the cause, though somewhat baffled where you could have learned of me."
"From my friend, Mary Bennet. She told me her sisters have talked of nothing else since they met you."
"I wonder they found enough to speak of; I should think myself a very dull topic."
"Not at all! Mary told me that you had been all over the Continent, fought in the war, captured a province, and were wounded saving your entire regiment!"
"The entire regiment?"
"Well," she blushed, "I assumed you had some help."
"Yes, I did have a bit of help," he smiled at her naivety. "Perhaps I can clarify a few facts, which you may then relay to Miss Mary. As a soldier, I naturally have traveled a bit, but am afraid I have not been all over the Continent. I spent most of my time in Portugal, and aside from a month or two in Italy, I never left the Iberian Peninsula. I did indeed fight in the war and was slightly wounded in my last battle. Although my men and I secured a rather strategic area, we can not claim to have saved the regiment nor captured a province; we did however liberate a good number of grateful townspeople from the French. Perhaps it is not as exciting a tale to tell, but it is an honest one."
"Oh, it is infinitely more interesting than what Mary told me."
"And now I am grateful to be back in our beloved England, where I am sure you have had adventures of your own. I should very much like to hear of them."
"Me? Iíve not done anything. I have never even been to London. Oh, I did visit my uncle in Liverpool two years ago, but did not see much beyond the shipyard, though I did get to wade in the surf. I understand you are from the north. I heard the country is beautiful there."
"It is. I was born in Derbyshire. The peaks are a wonder to behold."
"I should like to see them someday."
"Perhaps you shall."
The smile Wickham gave her left Miss King feeling that maybe she did have more to look forward to than a wish of future travel.
At the end of the set, Wickham escorted Miss King to her friend Mary Bennet. As she was anxious to speak to her friend after the dance, she declined Wickham's offer of refreshment. He, however, obtained a promise of a dance later in the evening with her friend. While getting himself a glass of wine, he noticed a familiar face posted by the dining room entryway.
"Lenny! Darcy told me you were here with him. I hear congratulations are in order, and soon to be again."
Still standing at attention, Jeffries stood even straighter and his chest seemed to puff out a bit more. "Thank you, Captain Wickham."
As Jeffries was obviously on duty, Wickham faced the main room so it would not appear as if they were in conversation. It would not do to have Miss Bingley think a mere servant was on familiar terms with one of her guests.
"Darcy didn't say, have you a boy or a girl?"
"A girl, sir. A daughter, and sheís beautiful. Elise is a miniature of her mother, and nearly two years old now."
"I envy you, to be settled and with a family. Please convey my best wishes to Els...Mrs. Jeffries. She could not have found a better man."
"Thank you, sir."
"I see you've been demoted back to footman for the evening."
"Miss Bingley was in need of an extra man and requested my services from Mr. Darcy. It's not so bad, I get a prime view of the festivities. The master offered to let me return to Town a few days early so I could avoid it, but given the ball, I thought it best to stay.
"Didn't think Darcy could manage on his own?"
"It's not that, sir; he has plenty of times before, but tonight I didn't feel right leaving him in the care of Bingley's man. He's fine enough for Mr. Bingley, but for the master... "
"You wanted him to be especially well-groomed tonight."
Jeffries didn't answer, but Wickham saw his eyes stray to Miss Elizabeth. She was speaking to Miss Bingley across the room and the ladies did not appear to be getting on. Wickham glanced at Darcy, who was also observing the women.
"You've a right to be proud, Lenny; you've outdone yourself tonight. She seems quite taken with him."
Although he remained silent, Jeffries stiffened a bit.
"Oh, I'll keep his secret. Lord knows he's doing his best to keep it even from himself. You and I are probably the only ones can see his interest. I understand she stayed here for a time."
"Yes, sir. She tended her sister when she was ill. Quality she is; kind and considerate, courteous to the staff. Not one to put on airs and be waited on hand and foot."
"I agree, she's a rare find among the gentry. She's a woman that can make a man consider her worth as more than what capital she can bring into a marriage."
Jeffries stiffened again.
"Don't worry, I'll respect Darcy's prior claim." Wickham took a sip of wine and added, more to himself, "However, he need not know that."
When the music began again, Wickham and Elizabeth took their place for the fourth set. It was not long before the dance allowed for some conversation.
"How did you enjoy your dance with Mr. Darcy?" Wickham asked.
"Well, thank you. And yours with Miss King and Miss Bingley?"
"Enlightening. I saw you and our hostess speaking before this set. She did not look happy."
"She was giving me a bit of advice, insolent girl, and was irritated when I told her I did not choose to heed it."
"It seems you are not a man to be trusted. Did you know," she dropped her voice to a whisper, "That you are merely the son of a steward?"
"Definitely not to be trusted, although I probably deserve her indignation. I did tease her a bit during our dance."
"Couldn't help it, I'm a steward's son."
Elizabeth laughed lightly, turning toward where she had last seen Miss Bingley. Instead she met eyes with a solemn Mr. Darcy. He acknowledged her with a nod of his head, but his somber look continued.
On turning back to her partner she said, "I spoke of you to Mr. Darcy, too."
"He seemed quite surprised that you said he saved your life. He claimed he did nothing extraordinary on your behalf."
"To Darcy's eyes, it may not have seemed much. As I said, I'm sure he was only doing what was expected of him, but it was a pivotal time for me."
"We spoke of pride before, but I believe a worse fault may be striving to live up to expectations."
"Do you not consider that a virtue, living up to one's expectations?"
"That, Miss Bennet, depends on whose expectations they are. Could you see yourself happy by living up to the expectations your mother has set for you?"
Elizabeth glanced at Mr. Collins sitting out with Charlotte and cringed.
"I see your point."
"Although I benefited from that tendency in Darcy, I fear it may cost him dearly one day."
"But a man in Mr. Darcy's position may do as he pleases, free of censure from any quarter."
"Ah, you have not met his aunt, Lady Catherine, nor his uncle the Earl."
"Formidable are they?"
"Let's just say Darcy likely got his pride from the Fitzwilliam side of the family."
Elizabeth pictured a more severe, older version of Darcy standing with the image of Lady Catherine that Mr. Collins had inspired. She shuddered.
"But there is hope for him yet. Lady Catherine would never have approved of his continued assistance to me, especially after I lost all. Iím sure she would consider it throwing pearls before swine."
"Yet Mr. Darcy continued to help you."
"He did, to my amazement. I was completely surprised that he offered to assist with my commission after he had already supported me in my law studies, though I suspect his cousin had a hand it. Fitzwilliam could see I wasn't cut out for the law."
"It was fortunate that Mr. Darcy agreed," she said, unconsciously turning her eyes again toward Darcy. As he had been watching her, their eyes locked, sending a warm shiver down Elizabeth's spine. In that instant she thought she was close to understanding the man; but it was lost to her when the dance required a change in direction.
Turning to Wickham she said with a blush, "What a strange creature I am; I dance with him and speak only of you, then dance with you and speak only of him. What must you think of me?"
"Only the best, I assure you," replied Wickham with bow of his head. He was quite satisfied with the progress of the dance.
It seemed like an eternity to Darcy, but eventually the set ended. He didn't know why, but it had disturbed him a great deal. Elizabeth appeared to have enjoyed her dance with Wickham, more than Darcy liked. She had even laughed once or twice in the beginning, although toward the end the partners had become rather serious in their conversation.
And she had seen him watching. Darcy could not help it. He tried to observe her sister, to determine if that lady's feelings toward his friend Bingley reflected the same expectation as that of the neighborhood, but his eyes kept being drawn back to Elizabeth. The first time their eyes met, she had seemed startled that he was there, but she had smiled at his acknowledgment, and for all too brief a moment, it had given him peace.
The second time was different; although their eye contact had lasted but an instant, she touched him, deeply. He felt she saw past his carefully maintained demeanor and saw him as he truly was, the man he dare not show. He was no fool, he realized he preferred her to any other woman of his acquaintance - to any other woman in creation. But to let her or anyone know, could mean disaster. He would not subject her to the same speculation and common gossip that her sister and Bingley now suffered under.
Not long after these thoughts, Miss Bingley came to asked how Darcy was enduring the evening. When he answered in a few monosyllables, she did her best to draw him out, inquiring after his sister, his cousins, even his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. As he was in no mood of humoring Miss Bingley, Darcy kept his answers short until Colonel Forster joined them. The two men were soon discussing the latest news from the Continent, while Miss Bingley, bored and a bit put out, wandered off to find a more appreciative guest.
The gentlemen were engaged in an interesting conversation when they were interrupted, rather rudely, by the Bennets' cousin, who introduced himself after an eternity of trivial nonsense, as Mr. Collins. Darcy did not catch half of what the peculiar man was saying, but he gathered that he was a minion of his Aunt Catherine and was determined to talk Darcy to death. Eventually the man stopped to take a breath. Darcy briefly acknowledged him in a futile attempt to dismiss him. Unfortunately, he began again with an even longer speech singing the praises of his patroness, and this time he apparently did not need to stop for air. By and by, Mr. Collins paused long enough for Darcy to give a slight bow and move determinedly away. It was fortunate that Miss Bingley did not choose that moment to inquire after Darcy's evening.
Elizabeth was thoroughly mortified when Mr. Collins returned. His assurances to her of how pleased he was with the reception Mr. Darcy had given him only served to humble her more. What must Mr. Darcy think of them all? At that moment Charlotte proved what a good friend she was by asking Mr. Collins to get her a cup of punch, sending the man away at least for a few minutes.
Scanning the room for Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth found him on the far side of the room, near the windows. He was looking out into the darkness, appearing deep in thought.
"Excuse me, Mr. Darcy, may I have a moment of your time?" she asked.
He turned toward her, perhaps more solemn than she had ever seen him.
"Miss Elizabeth," he said with a bow.
"Please accept my apology for the way my cousin inflicted himself on you, sir. I tried to persuade him to wait for a proper introduction, but he was very anxious to assure you of your aunt's health."
"No apology is necessary, Miss Elizabeth. Your cousin's impatience is no reflection on your own excellent sense and disposition. Think no more of it."
"You are too kind," she said, then added pertly, "And all politeness."
He smiled, remembering those same words when she declined to dance with him at Lucas Lodge. "And with more reason, as you finally consented to dance with me."
Blushing, she said archly, "I could hardly refuse, sir; not when you were finally in humor to give me consequence."
Confused by the obvious reference to another conversation, Darcy searched his memory for what she could be referring to, and paled when he found it: the reproach he had given Bingley at that first assembly. If she had heard that, she also must have heard his insult.
"Now I find the tables have turned, Miss Elizabeth," he said in complete contrition. "The ill humor I was in that evening is no excuse for my intolerable behavior. Please accept my apology for being a total bore, and a blind one at that. You are a most becoming woman and I was a fool to say otherwise."
"It appears, Mr. Darcy, that we have just exchanged apologies. Perhaps it would prove politic to declare a draw and begin again."
"Agreed, Miss Elizabeth," he bowed. "Agreed."
Later that evening, feeling he was entitled to sit out a dance or two, Wickham retrieved two glasses of wine from the refreshment table and approached Darcy, who had resumed his station at the side of the room. He was observing the three eldest Miss Bennets, who were not far off speaking with Mr. Bingley and Miss King. Darcy acknowledged Wickham with a nod and thanked him for the wine.
"You look like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders, Darcy. This is a ball, you know, not a funeral. At least try to appear like you are enjoying yourself."
"I can see that you are."
"I am, considerably. You have no idea what a pleasure it is to finally be able to have a rational conversation with oneís dance partner."
No, I donít, thought Darcy ruefully, recalling his rather confounding set with Elizabeth. He did take comfort in the fact that their brief conversation later had been most satisfactory.
Wickham continued, "I managed to attend a few balls while on the Continent, but not many of the young ladies present spoke English; and while my Spanish is passable, my Portuguese is abysmal. One could barely converse with oneís partner beyond simple flirting; and even that could be easily misconstrued. I know more than one lad that found himself looking down the barrel of an angry fatherís musket."
"The hazards of war I suppose," remarked Darcy drolly.
"Yes," he agreed, "But we've no such worries tonight. I have enjoyed all my dances immensely, especially my set with Miss Elizabeth Bennet." Darcyís eyes narrowed as Wickham continued. "She is an exceptional young woman. I am still hoping to get a dance in with the eldest Miss Bennet, if I can manage to get her away from your friend. If I were still a betting man, I'd wager that she is the most beautiful woman in Hertfordshire."
"You would probably win." Darcy was relieved that Wickham had moved on to another sister.
"Bingley seems quite taken with her."
"He is. The lady, however, may not be quite as taken with him,"
"How so? She seems happy with his attentions."
"And just as happy with those of anyone else."
"Perhaps. Or perhaps she can maintain her reserve while in society as well as someone else I know."
Darcy glared at him. "I don't know what you mean."
"The lady may be just as adept at keeping her thoughts to herself as you are, Darcy. Donít give me that look; weíve attended enough of the same functions throughout the years that I am quite familiar with the face you put on for the general population. As soon as your eligibility becomes known you become inscrutable. I am merely saying that Miss Bennet may be equally proficient. Anyway, why do you even care?"
"I simply would hate to see my friend get into a situation he may regret."
"Bingley is set up in this fine house, it is only natural for him to want to take the next step. Marrying an amiable local girl makes perfect sense."
"Iíve seen too many marriages of unequal affection than to wish that on my friend."
"As I said, I do not believe we have established an inequity of affection, but even supposing it is not a love match on one side or the other, their affection could grow to be equal over time."
"I am not so optimistic. Besides, there is also the inequity of their place in society to consider."
"Ah, you mean he being part of the nouveau rich, and she being from the old, established gentry. I do not think Bingley need worry about that, Darcy. Her family seems quite pleased with the match, they are very accepting of him."
Darcy raised an eye at Wickham, unable to determine if the man was being serious or not. He dropped his voice so as not to be overheard. "I was speaking of the ladyís inferiority. Her familyÖ" Darcy let the sentence drop, but shook his head to complete his meaning.
"Same old Darcy," Wickham laughed, drawing attention to them from more than one quarter. His companion gave him a dark look and would have walked away if Wickham had not drawn him back.
"I donít mean to offend, Darcy," he said in a low voice, "but from what little I know of the eldest Bennet sisters, they are both extremely eligible, and who their relations are is irrelevant. Not everyone is as discerning as you. I fully expect both young ladies to be made offers before the year is out."
"If there is one thing that war has taught me, it is not to tarry in matters of the heart. If you delay too long you may find that the object of your affection is gone when you return, sometimes beyond recall."
Darcy was struck by the meaning of Wickhamís words. "You?" he asked.
"No, a friend. He was devastated. But it served as a warning to the rest of us. A loss like that puts things in perspective as nothing else will." Wickham became more serious than Darcy had ever seen him. "Thanks to you, my friend, I lived to be a cautious man, but that is one thing for which I am willing to throw caution to the wind."
Wickham raised his eyes to the group they had been watching earlier, causing Darcy more alarm than he had heretofore felt.
"Yes," Wickham continued, "In matters of the heart, one can not afford to delay."
to be continued...