Rivals & Rascals
by Maggie (Zevin)
August 7, 1812
Elizabeth was not the only one who had slept poorly the night before. Colonel Fitzwilliam had been unaccountably restless the entire night. It was still dark outside when he arose from his bed. He shaved himself and dressed quickly by candlelight. The cocks had just finished crowing when he went down to breakfast. When he entered the breakfast room, Darcy and Bingley were standing by the door engrossed in conversation. The colonel was surprised to see them up so early, but assumed they had risen early to discuss the matter concerning Miss Jane Bennet. Darcy gave his cousin a sharp, inquisitive look, but said nothing to him other "Good morning," spoken with civility, but no warmth. Darcy and Bingley headed off in the direction of Darcy's study leaving the colonel to eat alone.
The colonel quickly disposed of his tea and toast and headed off to the stables. When he arrived at the stables, he called for the stable boy. A burly man, still rubbing the sleep from his eyes, appeared. When the colonel asked him if his horse was saddled and ready, the man nodded in assent. The man called out "Neddy! The gent is here for his horse," The colonel was relieved to see his horse saddled and looking well groomed. He had had his doubts about the abilities of the stable boy, but it seems they were in vain. "Oh course, Darcy would never have anyone in his employ who less than competent," he mused, knowing his cousin was a fair but demanding employer.
Soon, the colonel was galloping across the countryside. It felt wonderful to leave behind him the heavy atmosphere that lately seemed to pervade Pemberley.
When he was within a quarter mile of Lambton, the colonel slowed his horse down to a trot. It occurred to him suddenly that it may be too early to pay a respectable call on Miss Bennet. He toyed with the idea of stopping at a tavern and having a glass of ale and playing a game of draughts to while away the time. Lambton, although a small village, had several taverns that were open at all hours. He decided against this idea, however, fearing that he might make a bad impression upon Elizabeth if he appeared on her doorstep smelling of ale. He knew himself well enough to know that he was not likely to stop at one tankard of ale. "Better to arrive too early, than to arrive in my cups in the morning," he thought with a grin.
It was just after eight o'clock when the colonel arrived at the inn. The young maid who opened the door for him appeared a bit startled to see him, but did not refuse him admittance. The colonel smiled at her disarmingly and asked to see Miss Bennet. "I'll show you up, Sir, " she said in a thick northern accent. The maid led him up two flight of stairs and then knocked on a door at the top of the stairs.
"There be a gentleman to see you, Madam." The girl announced, and then quickly departed down the stairs. The colonel waited outside the door for several minutes. He was beginning to wonder if Elizabeth was within, when she flung open the door. One look at her face instantly informed the colonel that something was wrong. She looked pale and drawn and her eyes had lost their sparkle. She looked directly at the colonel, but seemed not to recognize him. "I thought I heard my uncle. Where is he? I must speak him at once."
"Miss Bennet!" exclaimed the colonel "whatever is the matter? Are you ill?"
"I am quite well, Sir, there is nothing the matter with me," said Miss Bennet. She suddenly broke into sobs and covered her face with hands.
The colonel reacted immediately. He gently clasped Miss Bennet's arm and led her to a small settee in center of the room. He then went to the sideboard and poured her a generous glass of the wine that he saw there in a decanter. He sat down beside her with the glass in his hand.
"I am sorry, Colonel, for not greeting you properly." said Elizabeth between sobs. "I am distressed by some dreadful news which I have just heard from my sister."
The colonel gently took on Elizabeth's hands and wrapped it around the wineglass. Once she clasped the wineglass, he released her hand. "Drink this wine, my dear. It will calm you and then you must tell me everything. I have strong shoulders to cry upon. Most of the men in my regiment have cried upon them at some time or other, although I am sure they would rather die than ever admit it."
Miss Bennet ceased crying gradually. When her tears subsided, she looked up at the colonel. Her gaze was initially guarded, but soon her expression became more trusting. She lifted the glass to her mouth and drank slowly. After she had taken a few sips, she handed the glass to the colonel who reached behind him and set it on the table.
"Now then," he said softly, "tell me what is troubling you, I will do everything in my power to help you." Elizabeth took a deep breath and slowly began telling the colonel the terrible truth that Jane's letters had just revealed to her. The colonel seemed surprised but not at all shocked to learn that her youngest sister, Lydia, had eloped with Mr. Wickham. Elizabeth mentioned to the colonel that she had been aware of Wickham's history with Georgiana and she blamed herself for not doing more to protect Lydia from him. Elizabeth was greatly relieved that the colonel was already familiar with Mr. Wickham's history with Georgiana so that she could speak of it. She knew that he knew of Wickham's propensity to seduction and was thus, less likely to judge her sister harshly. Elizabeth herself judged Lydia harshly for her rash behavior, but she could not bear for anyone outside the family to do so.
Colonel Fitzwilliam listened very carefully while Elizabeth talked. He was astonished to learn that Elizabeth knew of Georgiana and Wickham, Darcy had never told him that he had confided this family secret to Miss Bennet. The colonel did not betray his surprise to Elizabeth, however.
When she finished telling him the story, she concluded, "My father has gone to London, and Jane has written to beg my uncle's immediate assistance, and we shall be off, I hope, in half an hour. But nothing can be done; I know very well that nothing can be done. How is such a man to be worked on? How are they even to be discovered? I have not the slightest hope. It is in every way horrible!"
The colonel reached out and clasped Elizabeth's hand within his own. "I assure you, Miss Bennet, that they can and will be discovered." The colonel's voice was gentle but confident. "I know Wickham. I know his haunts and his habits. And I know his weaknesses. I will find him and I will see that he marries your sister."
The colonel then raised Elizabeth's hand to his lips and kissed it gently before releasing it. Elizabeth showed no reaction to this gallant gesture. She looked at the Colonel with a slightly fevered look in her eyes.
"I promise you, Miss Bennet," the colonel continued. "I will not allow Mr. Wickham to dishonor your sister. "
"It is already too late," Elizabeth thought, "The damage is done and she is surely lost forever." Still, she considered the colonel's words with growing hope. It was true that he knew Wickham well and would likely know in what part of town Wickham had chosen to conceal himself. It was also possible that he understood Wickham's character sufficiently to know how to convince him to marry Lydia. But how could she ask him to leave his family and search out Wickham, a man he must surely despise.
"I appreciate your generous offer, but it is too much to ask of you, Colonel. My family and I must find some way to resolve this affair on our own."
The colonel stood up. "How can you say it is too much to ask of me? You have asked me for nothing. I have volunteered to do this for my own sake. My cousin and I made a decision to tell no one of Wickham's scandalous behavior concerning Georgiana in order to protect her. I do not say we were unwise to do this, but if we had not concealed his actions, the truth about Wickham would be known. He would have been booted out of his regiment long ago and this incident with your sister would never have occurred."
Elizabeth started to speak and the colonel held up his hand. "No, you cannot dissuade me, Miss Bennet. I am determined to deal with Wickham in this. Your family does not have sufficient knowledge of the scoundrel to manage on your own. Do you know when your aunt and uncle will return?"
"I sent for them shortly before you arrived. I expect them at any minute."
The Gardiners picked that very moment to appear. Mrs. Gardiner took one look at Elizabeth's tear stained face and flew to her side. While Elizabeth explained matters to her aunt between renewed tears, the colonel took Mr. Gardiner aside and swiftly explained what had occurred.
Mr. Gardiner was initially disinclined to believe that Wickham could stoop so low as to ruin a young gently bred girl like Lydia and abandon her. "I am strongly inclined to hope for the best," he informed the colonel.
The colonel shook his head and informed Mr. Gardiner that Wickham had previously engaged in behavior similar to that which he was now guilty of with Lydia with another young lady of Lydia's age.
"His character is despicable, I am sad to say. Nothing is beneath him. He would think nothing of ruining a young girl such as your niece just for the sport of it."
Mr. Gardiner shook his head sadly and resigned himself to accept the fact that his niece's good name was in grave danger. In fact, the good name of his sister's entire family and perhaps his own, as well, were compromised. While Mr. Gardiner's mind was reeling from this terrible realization, the colonel informed him of his intentions to search Wickham out and induce him to marry Lydia Bennet. Mr. Gardiner was surprised by this offer. "I am much obliged, Sir, but you need not take this on. It is my family's concern and we will deal with this as best as we can."
The colonel made it clear to Mr. Gardiner that his mind was made up. "Your family requires assistance in this from someone such as myself who knows Wickham well; and I offer such assistance willingly. I have already informed Miss Elizabeth of my intentions in this and I have convinced her of my usefulness. It is settled between us. "
Mr. Gardiner looked over at his niece who was enfolded within Mrs. Gardiner's arms. Elizabeth gently detached herself from her aunt's embrace and moved to stand beside her uncle.
"Colonel Fitzwilliam is right, Uncle. His assistance will be invaluable to us in locating Lydia. I believe that we should accept his generous offer." Mr. Gardiner exchanges fleeting glances with his wife, who nodded her head in assent.
"Well then, Colonel Fitzwilliam. You have made us an offer that we cannot refuse. We accept your offer with gratitude, Sir. We only need to finalize our plans for departure. Do you propose to depart with us, or meet up with us in London?"
The colonel informed him that he thought it was best if he departed with the Gardiners and Miss Bennet that day as it was imperative to begin the search for Wickham and Lydia quickly. The two men soon came up with a plan for their departure. The Gardiners would remain in Lambton, while the colonel traveled to Pemberley to gather his belongings and bid his family farewell. The colonel assured Mr. Gardiner that he would travel quickly and rejoin the Gardiners and Miss Bennet so that they could depart for Herefordshire by noon.
As the colonel was taking his leave, Miss Bennet laid a hand on his arm. "Thank you, Colonel for everything. You cannot know how your offer of assistance has relieved my mind." She hesitated. "And please be so kind as to apologize for us to Mr. and Miss Darcy. Please tell them that we must cancel our plans for tomorrow. Say that urgent business calls us home as soon immediately."
She looked away, realizing that, despite everything, she could not bear the thought of Mr. Darcy learning of her sister's shameful behavior. She then looked directly at the colonel. "Conceal the truth as long as possible. I know it cannot be long." The colonel assured Miss Bennet of his secrecy and swiftly departed.
After the colonel departed, Mrs. Gardiner sent her husband out to inform her several friends and relations in town that they must leave Lambton earlier than expected due to urgent family business. Mrs. Gardiner was anxious to know what had passed between the colonel and Elizabeth this morning, but she did not wish to question Elizabeth concerning the colonel in Elizabeth's fragile condition. Instead, she turned her full attentions to consoling her niece. Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner pored over the letters together. Elizabeth started weeping again as she read again of Jane's great distress over Lydia's circumstances.
Mrs. Gardiner took the letters gently from Elizabeth and suggested that she lie down for a while. "We have a long journey ahead of us, my dear. You should get some rest now while you may." Elizabeth lay down to humor her aunt and, after all the misery of the morning, soon fell sound asleep.
Darcy spent a good part of the morning confessing everything to Bingley, including his own deceit in concealing Jane's presence in London from Bingley last winter. Bingley had been justifiably angry, but his anger was soon been replaced by buoyant happiness when Darcy told him that Elizabeth had indicated last spring that Jane cared for him.
Bingley quickly fixated on the idea that he must visit Elizabeth immediately and assure her of his continued devotion to Jane. Darcy was concerned about this impulsive visit. Although he was now convinced that Jane had once cared for Bingley, he did not know the current state of her feelings; it was not a subject he had broached with Elizabeth since Hunsford. He was concerned that his friend would be hurt once more if Elizabeth could not, or would not, assure Bingley that Jane still loved him. He was determined, however, to stop imposing his own opinions on his friend. If Bingley wanted to ride to Lambton and appeal to Elizabeth Bennet, then Darcy would not stand in his way. Mr. Darcy offered to ride with Mr. Bingley to the outskirts of Lambton as he had some business with the vicar there.
And so it happened that as Colonel Fitzwilliam was rushing from Lambton towards Pemberley to take his leave of the Darcys and their company, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley were on their way to Lambton. They were spared the discomfiture of meeting each other in passing due to the fact that they took separate routes.
When Darcy and Bingley approached the vicarage, Darcy parted with his friend. To Darcy's relief, Bingley had not asked Darcy to join him in visiting Miss Bennet. Darcy felt that his presence would only complicate Mr. Bingley's mission. In addition, he had leaned from his stable hand that his cousin had ridden out in the direction of Lambton and he wished to be spared the awkwardness of interrupting a visit between his cousin and Miss Bennet. He was anxious to talk to Miss Bennet, but he wanted to do so in relative privacy, not in a small parlor in front of both Bingley and Fitzwilliam.
Bingley arrived at the Lambton Inn fifteen minutes later. He greeted the innkeeper with a dazzling smile and was soon escorted upstairs to the Gardiner's quarters. He knocked once smartly upon the door; it was immediately flung open by Mrs. Gardiner. She greeted Mr. Bingley warmly but with a distracted manner that belied her agitation.
Mr. Bingley bowed energetically. "Good morning, Madam. I hope that you are in good health." After Mrs. Gardiner assured him of the excellence of her health, he immediately inquired if he could see Miss Bennet.
"I am afraid not, Sir. She is sleeping."
Mr. Bingley appeared quite alarmed at this news. "Is she unwell?"
Mrs. Gardiner was momentarily at a loss as to how to answer. "She is well, but she is distressed at news she has lately received from home. I am afraid, Sir, that we must depart for Hertfordshire sooner than expected."
"Sooner than expected?" cried Bingley.
"Yes, we must depart today. We have already informed Colonel Fitzwilliam of this and asked that he give our regrets to the Darcys that we cannot join them on tomorrow's outing." Mrs. Gardiner debated for a moment as to whether to inform Mr. Bingley that Colonel Fitzwilliam would be joining her family in their journey to Hertfordshire. She decided against it because to do so would risk being asked to reveal the reasons that the colonel chose to accompany them. She knew that Elizabeth wished to conceal the truth as long as possible, and Mrs. Gardiner herself had no desire to reveal her youngest niece's indiscretion.
Mr. Bingley took the news of their premature departure quite hard. His face blanched clean of all color and his hands trembled as he clutched his hat. "Miss Elizabeth is distressed by news she has lately received from home?" Bingley was momentarily robbed of all ability to frame an original thought.
"Yes, Mr. Bingley. I am sorry that I cannot reveal more, but it is news of a most private nature. I am afraid that I cannot offer you much in the way of hospitality as I must concentrate on packing our belongings and settling our affairs here so that we can depart shortly."
Mr. Bingley could tell that his continued presence was unwelcome but he was loath to leave without getting more assurances that his angel was unharmed. "Pray, Madam, can you tell me if Miss Jane Bennet is well?"
"Yes, I believe that she is tolerably well under the circumstances. She is in need of consolation, however, which is one reason behind our hasty departure. "
Although Mrs. Gardiner had meant to provide some consolation to Mr. Bingley with this news, her statement only seemed to increase his sense of agitation.
"She is tolerably well," he repeated, "only tolerably well, you say, under the circumstances. Oh, I am sorry," he sputtered. "So very sorry to hear that she may be in some distress. Please convey to her my heartfelt wishes that she will be more than tolerably well soon, Mrs. Gardiner."
Mrs. Gardiner looked at him with sympathy, but decided that for his own sake, as well as hers, she must be firm. "Yes, I will, Sir. Now I am afraid that I must bid you good day."
With that the good lady held out her hand. Bingley grasped her hand passionately before bowing and bidding her, reluctantly, good day.
When Colonel Fitzwilliam arrived back at Pemberley, he was informed that Darcy and Bingley had gone out riding. He was both disappointed and relieved to hear this. He did not want to part on poor terms with Darcy, but he did not know what to say to improve things between them, and he suspected Darcy would be angry at him for leaving at the same time as Miss Bennet.
He spied Georgiana and Bingley's sisters walking in the garden and approached them. He smiled and greeted the three ladies with an elegant bow. None of them appeared particularly happy to see him.
The colonel looked pointedly at Georgiana. "Georgiana, may I speak to you privately, please; for a moment. It is urgent."
Miss Bingley pointed her parasol at the Colonel with a peeved expression on her face. "I do not know what you could have to say to Miss Georgiana that you could not say to my sister and I, Colonel. We are practically family, after all."
The colonel was unfazed by Miss Bingley's petulant posturing. "Please excuse us, Miss Bingley. This is something that I must speak to my cousin alone about."
The colonel clasped Georgiana's arm and guided her towards the house. When they were no longer in hearing range of the other ladies, he spoke. "Georgiana, I am sorry, but I must part company with you now, my plans have changed quite suddenly." Georgiana's eyes widened when she heard this news.
"I also have a message for you and Darcy from Miss Bennet. She asked me to inform you that sudden business called them away quite unexpectedly and she has to return home immediately. They are very sorry not be able to join you and the others to see the air balloon launch tomorrow. I am sorry to miss it, as well. But I am sure you will enjoy it, Georgie." Georgiana could not conceal her distress at this news.
The colonel's face softened and he reached out tenderly and tucked one of Georgiana's curls behind her ear.
"I know that you liked Miss Bennet very much, Georgie, and I hope you will have the opportunity in the future to renew your friendship with her. Take care of yourself, Sweetpea. You know where to write me if you should need me."
He paused for a moment and looked uneasy. "Please tell Darcy that I am sorry not to have said goodbye to him in person and convey the news of my departure and Miss Bennet's departure to him right away. I hope to see you and him before too much time has passed." BR>
With that, the colonel kissed Georgiana on the cheek and ran up the stairs to gather up his belongings. Georgiana stood in the hallway blinking back her tears.
A few moments later, the colonel headed briskly back to the stables. A footman followed him carrying his saddlebag. 'Bring that to the stables and arrange to have it secured on my horse. I will be there shortly," he directed.
He then walked towards the garden where Caroline Bingley and her sister were still strolling. "Ladies, I must bid you farewell. I need to return to London on sudden business."
Mrs. Hurst looked entirely uninterested in this news, but Miss Bingley's eyes bulged open. "You can not leave us now at this juncture."
"I have no alternative, " the colonel said. "Would you care to accompany me in the direction of the stables, Miss Bingley? I would like to have a word with you."
"Well, I appear to be a persona non gratis," sniffed Mrs. Hurst. She walked away for the other two, twirling her parasol.
"How could you leave now?" said Miss Bennet in a penetrating whisper, as her sister walked away. "I thought you were determined to court Miss Bennet. If you are not there tomorrow during this ridiculous balloon launch, who knows what will occur."
"You will be relieved to know that Miss Bennet is also leaving on unexpected business. We are traveling towards London together, in fact."
This news had a miraculous effect on Miss Bingley. Her entire countenance relaxed and her eyes lit up. "Well, that is good news, Colonel for both of us. Are congratulations in order or is it still premature?"
"It is a bit premature, Miss Bingley, if you are referring to a betrothal between Miss Bennet and me. As to the removal of Miss Bennet being good news for you, I must tell you that I doubt Miss Bennet's absence will have much affect on your success in inducing Mr. Darcy to marry you. I have been observing him closely in your presence these past two days and I am convinced that he cares nothing for you and never shall. I am sorry if I mistakenly gave you the opposite impression. Good day, Miss Bingley, I wish you all of the best." With one quick look at Miss Bingley's infuriated expression, the colonel gave a sketchy bow and walked quickly to the stables.
Shortly, thereafter, the Gardiner's carriage was nearing the outskirts of Lambton. The Gardiners had entreated Colonel Fitzwilliam to join them and Miss Bennet in their carriage rather than riding alongside them as the colonel initially proposed. With very little protest, the colonel had accepted this offer. He was sitting across from Miss Bennet gazing into her lovely face when she let out a small gasp. The colonel glanced outside the window and was startled to see Darcy mounting his horse in front of the vicarage.
Once astride his horse, Darcy glanced at the passing carriage. His eyes met Miss Bennet's through the carriage window and they held each other's gaze for an instant until Miss Bennet looked away. Darcy then glanced to the other window and his expression hardened when he espied his cousin. He remained there motionless until the carriage had passed completely by.
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