Rivals & Rascals
by Maggie (Zevin)
August 7, 1812
After the carriage passed Darcy, Elizabeth folded her hands in her lap and closed her eyes. The others were careful to converse quietly so as not to disturb her. The Gardiners and the colonel spoke for a while, but there seemed little to say that had not already been said earlier in the morning. Conversation soon ceased and everyone was left to his or her own reveries.
Colonel Fitzwilliam's thoughts centered largely on the woman sitting across from him. He had started out wanting to win her love; but he had been determined to win it fairly, which is why he had gone to lengths to get Miss Bingley to loosen her tight grip on his cousin. Now, after watching Elizabeth Bennet, pale and silent in her grief, he cared nothing about winning or losing. His thoughts were focused on his love for her and his hope that she would love him in return. She had been lovely when she sparkled with life and wit; but now, in her delicate, grieving state, she unwittingly drew him even further under her spell. He barely knew himself anymore in her presence.
Hours later, when the sky began to darken, the travelers stopped at a prosperous looking inn. There was only one room available. The colonel volunteered to sleep in the service quarters in the attic while Elizabeth shared a bedroom with her aunt and uncle. Mrs. Gardiner was horrified at the thought of the colonel sleeping in such base conditions, but the colonel assured her that he had slept in much worse quarters; indeed, he assured them that any bed under a roof was a real luxury for a military man. After a light supper, everyone retired early.
August 8, 1812
Elizabeth woke the next morning before dawn. The night before, she had ordered some water to be drawn and warmed for her at six o'clock so that she could bathe and wash her hair before resuming their journey. The water was ready promptly at six, but was barely warm. Elizabeth had been longing for a hot bath, but did not wish to complain. She bathed, and rinsed and soaped her hair quickly in the lukewarm water. She got dressed and covered her shoulders in a towel so as not to get her clothes damp. Thus attired, she entered the small parlor off of the bedroom so as not to wake her aunt and uncle who were still sleeping soundly.
She was relieved to see a small fire burning in the parlor. Early mornings in the north were chilly even during the hottest days of the summer. Elizabeth set a cushion from the settee before the fire and sat on it, alternately rubbing her long hair with the towel and brushing it out. She closed her eyes, trying to shut out all thoughts and emotions while she basked in the warmth of the fire.
The colonel entered the parlor quietly, wondering if anyone was yet awake. He saw Elizabeth kneeling by the fire with her eyes closed, her long hair was spread out around her like a rich cloak. His breath caught in his throat. She was beautiful, almost unbearably so. Colonel Fitzwilliam approached the fireplace and knelt behind Elizabeth. She seemed totally unaware of his presence. He leaned near her and spoke softly so as not to startle her.
"Good morning, Miss Bennet."
Elizabeth still did not respond, and he wondered if she was asleep. Suddenly, her hand relaxed its grip on the brush she was holding, and it dropped beside her on the cushion. The colonel picked up the brush and proceeded to gently swipe it down the length of her hair with light movements. His closeness to her and the scent from her hair so enchanted him that he lost track of time and place. He forgot about the Gardiners and the other inhabitants of the inn. Elizabeth, too, seemed aware of nothing outside of the colonel's gentle attentions to her hair. When her hair started to thicken and curl from the absence of moisture, the colonel swiftly divided the thick tresses into three segments and slowly, but expertly, plaited it.
Elizabeth opened her eyes and turned until she could look at him face to face. She gazed at him as if from a far distance. "Colonel," she said, "Did you sleep well?"
The colonel smiled at her. It seemed an odd question for her to ask after the intimacy of the preceding moments. "Yes, I did."
"How did you learn to braid hair so well?"
"I leaned that skill where I learned everything else, in the military."
Elizabeth blushed then, and leaned forward and away from the colonel. It was as if, for the first time, she was aware of the impropriety of their situation.
The colonel immediately sensed her unease. "I was teasing, Miss Bennet. I have often braided Georgiana's hair when I was younger and I still provide that service to my young nieces from time to time. They find it very relaxing. I was hoping to give you some small comfort as well."
Elizabeth relaxed a bit and smiled tremulously. Her guard seemed to slip once more. "You are very kind to wish to comfort me. I fear, however, there is little comfort to be had in my situation. I feel quite alone and I am tired," she added. "So tired of misery and worry and there is more of both ahead."
The colonel reached his hand out and gently stroked the back of Elizabeth's neck under her thick braid. Her muscles tensed momentarily and then relaxed as the colonel gently caressed her neck.
"I am wrong to allow this," thought Elizabeth fleetingly and then she gave in to the overwhelming temptation to be touched, to be bathed in soft caresses.
After a few moments, the colonel's caresses on her neck took a definite shape. Elizabeth realized with a start that he was tracing letters on her skin. She sat up straight and pulled away from him. "What are you doing?" she cried.
The colonel stood up instantly and stepped away from her. "Please forgive me. I did not wish to alarm you. I was only writing your name."
The colonel looked uncharacteristically grave. "Yes. Elizabeth. You have not permitted to call you by your Christian name, but I felt that I could not soothe you properly without using your name in some way, so I wrote your name to give you comfort. Forgive me, it was insensitive of me."
Elizabeth hesitated, but she could find no real offense in his conduct. He had been forward, it was true, but he was patient and generous, as well. He had listened to her complaints and provided reassurance. His soft caresses had soothed her nerves greatly, and even now the feeling of his cool fingers tracing the letters of her name on her neck gave her an odd sense of peace.
"There is nothing to forgive. But I must now go and wake up my aunt and uncle and prepare for the day. They were adamant that we be on the road by half past seven." Elizabeth rose to her feet, and with a brief parting smile for the colonel, she left the parlor.
The colonel sat down and stared into the fire for some time after she left the room. He could still feel the sensation of her skin under his fingertips. "Elizabeth," he said her name softly, wishing to speak it out loud, if only to himself. He loved her name. "Elizabeth," he said again, smiling wistfully into the fire. Then he stood up, stretched, and went in search of tea and toast.
It was an unusually hot and humid day. Colonel Fitzwilliam felt the sweat trickling down his back as he rode alongside the Gardiners' carriage. He would have preferred to travel in the carriage with Elizabeth, but he had chosen to travel by horseback instead so he could formulate a strategy for dealing with George Wickham. He knew that he could not think clearly in Elizabeth's presence.
Wickham and Fitzwilliam had disliked each other since they were boys. Since last summer when Wickham had tried to seduce Georgiana into eloping with him, the colonel's dislike of Wickham had grown into deeply set animosity. With the motto "know thy enemy" firmly in mind, the colonel had set about gathering as much intelligence on Wickham as possible. Because the colonel's easy manners had won him friends from every walk of life, it was not difficult for him to recruit informants from within Wickham's regiment and social circle. Wickham was prone to wagging his tongue when in his cups, and as a result, the colonel's informants were able to supply him with a regular stream of information about Wickham. Among the many nuggets of information that the colonel had gathered about Wickham were the names of gaming hells, taverns, inns and moneylenders that Wickham frequented in London. Thus, the colonel had good reason to believe that he could easily locate Wickham if the cad was in London, and considering that Wickham's debts had made him destitute and his only friends outside his regiment resided in London, it was unlikely that Wickham would be anywhere other than London.
The weightier problem was what to do with Wickham after he found him and Elizabeth's sister. The Colonel furrowed his brow as he pondered this. He regretted that he was unable to play chess just now; it was hard enough to think in this heat, even without a chessboard. He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his face. Money was the only guaranteed way to get George Wickham to do something he did not want to do; and the colonel had no intention of lining Wickham's palms. "The bastard would take nothing less than ten thousand pounds, and I'll be damned if I give him a shilling, even if I had a few to spare," the colonel muttered. No, he would have to think of a plan other than bribery. Blackmail, for instance.
There was a possibility that he could coerce Wickham to marry Lydia Bennet by blackmailing him with some of the nastier tidbits that he had gathered. The colonel had a list of several violent tempered military men who Wickham had cuckolded in the past two years. Wickham would be anxious, he knew, to avoid having these men find out about his dalliances with their wives. The problem was that Wickham's main method of avoidance was to disappear. He wouldn't put it past Wickham to flee to some savage land like America if threatened with exposure of his adulterous behavior, rather than marry against his interest. The colonel sat up straighter on his horse at this thought. He would be damned if he let Wickham get away from him; he would find a way to outsmart the lowdown cur if it was the last thing he did.
The air inside the carriage was hot and dense. Elizabeth felt oppressed by the heat and the staleness of the air. She held her head up stiffly, trying to avoid coming in contact with the carriage cushion, now sticky with sweat. Her sole consolation was that it was too hot for conversation. She did not want to talk anymore about Lydia and Wickham; she did not even wish to think about them anymore.
Elizabeth glanced outside the open carriage window at the colonel on his horse. She did not care for horseback riding; still, she envied the colonel the freedom to ride outside of the suffocating confines of the carriage. After reassuring herself that he did not notice her looking at him, Elizabeth studied him quietly. She had to admit that he was a fine figure of a man. His posture was erect and stately, yet he moved in the saddle with a natural ease. The heat did not seem affect him at all.
She had always held a high opinion of the colonel as a gentleman, but before today, Elizabeth had thought little of him as a man. She realized now, that not only was he a man in all senses of the word, he was a man on whom she could depend. In truth, she hardly knew what she would have done without him these past two days. Her thoughts turned involuntarily to Mr. Darcy. She thought of the ardent expression on his face when their eyes had met briefly yesterday as she was leaving Lambton. There was no doubt that he stirred her senses. Whether he was a man on whom she could count on was less certain. She could certainly depend on his increased disdain for her family when he finds out about Lydia's elopement, she thought wryly. She felt such a strong sense of both anger and loss at this thought that she let out an audible sigh.
The colonel immediately turned his head towards the carriage as if he had heard Elizabeth's sigh; his eyes met Elizabeth's. He absolutely started, but soon recovered his poise and tipped his hat to her with a smile. Elizabeth was embarrassed to be caught staring, but she did not immediately look away. She allowed his eyes to hold hers for a moment while she pondered why looking into his eyes did not inspire the same emotion in her that looking into Mr. Darcy's dark eyes had done. "Perhaps, it is just the heat," she thought, "even Mr. Darcy could not possibly evoke a passionate response in me today."
When Elizabeth finally turned away from the window, she focused her attention on her aunt. Her aunt had looked pale and wan all morning; now, her skin looked clammy and she sat motionless with her eyes closed. Elizabeth had suspected for almost a week that her aunt was increasing and she had initially attributed Aunt Gardiner's pallor to her condition. Elizabeth knew from past experience that her aunt tended to have fleeting bouts of nausea in the early stages of a pregnancy. She realized now with growing alarm that her aunt looked more ill than pregnancy itself would account for.
Her uncle must have observed her alarm, because he leaned over towards Elizabeth and said softly, "I do not believe she is seriously ill, Lizzy. It is just the heat and …" he hesitated for a moment, "her condition. She does not fare well in excessive heat during times such as this." He looked over at his wife. "I believe she will be fine if we can get her out of the heat. There is an inn, I recall, a few miles up the road and I intend to stop there. Perhaps, with a few hours rest, she will feel able to travel a little further today. I am sorry, Lizzy, I know you are anxious to get home."
"Of course, we must stop, Uncle. We must stop for as long as necessary. A delay of another day or two will make no difference." Even as she said this, Elizabeth felt a pang in her chest at the idea of a prolonged separation from her family at a time when her presence must be sorely missed, at least by Jane; her father, too, would be more easy during his ordeal in London when he knew she had returned safely home. For her aunt and uncle's sake, Elizabeth concealed as best she could her feelings of dismay at the idea of an indefinite delay.
The colonel was soon apprised that Mrs. Gardiner was unwell and of the party's intentions of stopping at the next Inn. He offered to ride ahead and apprise the innkeepers of their expected arrival so they could prepare a room for Mrs. Gardiner and cool refreshments for everyone. Mr. Gardiner accepted his offer with gratitude, and Elizabeth thought, once again, what an excellent man the colonel was.
After they arrived at the Inn, Elizabeth was completely preoccupied with making her aunt comfortable. She bathed her aunt's warm forehead in cool water and held a basin for her aunt when she indicated with a feeble wave of her hand that she was going to be sick. Her aunt apologized profusely for all of the inconvenience she caused and Elizabeth insisted that it was her pleasure to be of assistance to her aunt. Indeed, much as she hated to see her aunt in physical distress, Elizabeth was glad of the distraction that caring for her aunt provided.
Finally, several hours later, when her aunt had drifted off to sleep, with her husband sitting vigilantly by her side, Elizabeth slipped outside. It was still almost unbearably hot, but she felt a need to be on her own and hoped to find a relatively cool spot in the shade to sit in. She had walked about a quarter mile from the inn and was starting to regret walking out in the heat, when she spotted a lovely pair of shade trees set off slightly from the road. The trees offered shade and solitude, the two things that Elizabeth yearned for at that moment. She sat down under the largest tree and untied the strings of her bonnet.
Colonel Fitzwilliam had been whiling away his time in the Inn's tavern while he waited to hear news of Mrs. Gardiner's condition. The tavern was too noisy to resume his strategic planning regarding Wickham. He had spent this time, instead, reliving the few moments of this morning, including the sensation of Elizabeth's soft skin under his fingers and the thrill he felt when her beautiful eyes looked directly into his for a few wonderful moments. These recollections, although delightful in themselves, were a source of extra satisfaction to him because they signified to him that Elizabeth returned his affections. Indeed, he reasoned that even a forthright young lady such as Elizabeth would not have held his gaze in such a brazen fashion, much less permitted him to stroke her neck as he had done this morning, unless she felt there was an understanding between them. Although the thought that Elizabeth tacitly acknowledged their understanding made him happy, it was not enough. He was eager to formalize their engagement, as soon as possible. Especially, since dealing with Wickham would take up most of the precious little time he had left during the remainder of his leave.
He glanced at his pocket watch and realized that he had been waiting in the tavern for almost two hours. He beckoned to the friendly barmaid and asked her if she could send someone to inquire upstairs as to how the lady that arrived this morning was faring.
The maid smiled toothsomely. "If it be the pretty young leddy that you are wanting to know about, she walked outside a few minutes ago."
Upon the colonel's inquiry, the maid pointed out the direction that the young lady had taken. He strode outside in the direction the maid had indicated, delighted with the notion that he would soon have the opportunity to talk to Elizabeth in private.
Elizabeth had stretched out beneath the largest of the shade trees. She fanned her self with her straw bonnet, while she reread the most recent letter from Jane. She had already read this letter many times during the past twenty-four hours, but reading it made her feel closer to Jane and less alone in her own anxiety about her sister's fate and that of her entire family. She was reaching the end of the letter when a shadow fell upon her, momentarily dimming the bright sunlight that danced upon the page. She looked up and was startled to see the colonel standing directly above her. She had been so absorbed in Jane's letter that she had not been aware of his approach.
Elizabeth immediately sat up and placed her bonnet on her head. She started to rise and the colonel silently held out his hand to assist her up. The colonel did not release her hand even after Elizabeth was on her feet. She started to slip her hand out of his grasp, but the colonel held onto her hand, gently but firmly.
"Because of the circumstances we find ourselves, I will be direct." Both the expression on his face and timber of his voice were uncharacteristically grave.
Feeling suddenly timid in his presence, Elizabeth looked towards the ground, avoiding his gaze. Colonel released the grip on her hand and, grasping her chin gently in his hand raised it up so he could see her face. Before she could react to this, he spoke again. "Elizabeth, will you marry me?"
Elizabeth was too startled to speak. She had known for some time that he was partial to her and she had always enjoyed his company immensely. Indeed, he was beyond comparison the pleasantest man she knew. But never, despite her friend Charlotte's occasional matrimonial scheming regarding herself and the colonel, had she contemplated marriage to him. It was true that only this morning she had considered what an excellent man he was; and, she recollected with a blush, she had permitted him to touch her in a way that was not generally acceptable outside of marriage or betrothal. She had not felt compromised by his actions, however, merely comforted. Despite his intimate actions earlier in the day, she had never imagined that he desired to marry her. She specifically remembered, in fact, him informing her only a few months ago that he was not free to marry without consideration of money.
Not only did the proposal itself catch her by surprise, Elizabeth was also disconcerted by the brevity of the colonel's proposal. The proposals she had received from Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy, although as different in content as the two men who had made them were, were both extremely circumlocutory. In light of her past experience, it hardly seemed possible that a man could make an offer of marriage in so few words and without any condescension at all.
She realized that he was waiting patiently for her to respond and she blushed deeper still. "Sir, you have caught me by surprise. I do not know how to respond."
Colonel Fitzwilliam smiled his most winning smile. "I can scarce believe that you are surprised. I have made no attempt to hide my affections."
"Perhaps not your affections, Sir, but you must recall that you made it clear in Kent that you could not marry where you liked without consideration of fortune. As you know, I have no fortune. I fear, that you feel obliged to offer marriage to me after what occurred this morning. I assure you there is no need; I understand that you intended only to console me and I am grateful."
The colonel looked slightly embarrassed at the reminder of his words in Kent. "I may have said then that I could not marry where I liked; but now I am convinced that I must marry where I love. I care nothing about your lack of fortune. I care only for you." He paused for a moment and looked intently into her face. "It is not obligation which has led me to offer for you, Elizabeth, it is love. Surely, you know that." With that the colonel stepped forward and enveloped Elizabeth in a close embrace. His embrace, like his hold on her hand earlier, was gentle but firm.
Elizabeth was shocked to speechlessness; shocked not solely due to the liberty the colonel was taking, but by how much pleasure she took in his embrace. He was so much taller and broader than she was, that she felt sheltered from everything in arms. Sheltered from everything, that is, but the man himself; she could feel his heart pumping slightly against her cheek and could hear the slightly ragged sound of his breathing. Her sense of modesty soon asserted itself and she took a step backwards away from him. The colonel immediately dropped his arms, releasing her from his embrace. He did not relinquish his intense scrutiny of her face; however. Even without looking directly at him, she could feel him watching her, waiting for her answer. She could not bring herself to make a response.
"Will you not give me your answer, Elizabeth?" She was silent still, not daring to speak until she knew her mind.
"Do you hesitate because of my own lack of fortune? I am not a wealthy man, by any means. My income is large to support us quite comfortably, however, and children as well, as long as we do not have more than five or six," he said with a half-hearted laugh. Elizabeth's prolonged silence was starting to worry him.
Finally, her eyes shyly met his and she spoke, but she did not say the words that he wanted to hear. "I am honored, Sir, and more moved than I can say by your proposal. I cannot marry you, however, you must realize that."
Colonel Fitzwilliam steeled himself to remain composed. "I can think of no impediment, if you are not adverse to my modest station in life."
"You forget my sister's situation. My whole family will share the shame of her situation. Surely, even if you yourself do not shrink from such a connection, your family would object to such scandalous connections."
The colonel nodded gravely. "It is true, my family will likely have some objection. Certainly, my Aunt Catherine will disapprove, and my parents and brother to a lesser extent. But my parents will accept you once they know the strength of my feelings." He added in a softer voice, "and once they know you, they cannot help but love you. In any event, I have been largely independent of them for many years. I can live without their approbation as long as I have you as my wife."
Elizabeth was overcome by the graciousness of his proposal, and the tenderness of his sentiments. She knew it would be unwise to accept his proposal due both to the uncertainty of the strength her own feelings towards him and due to the gravity of her family's situation. Yet, she could not find it in her heart to refuse him. His words, his expression, even his embrace, were sweetness itself and she could do nothing to cause him pain. Yet, surely it would cause him more pain, through the censure of society and his own family, if she did marry him.
She looked up at him. "Please, do not press me for a reply now. I do not wish to refuse you, but I feel that I cannot accept you when my sister's reputation is so blackened."
The colonel was so relieved, he almost laughed out loud. "Why, of course, you would not wish to be formally engaged, until your sister's situation is satisfactorily resolved. I assure you, I am determined to do what is necessary to ensure that her reputation is restored. I will see that Wickham marries her. That is what you wish is it not?"
"Well, of course, that is what I wish, if it were possible. Much as I despise George Wickham, the only way that Lydia can be made respectable again is for him to marry her."
"Then the solution is simple. We will condition our engagement on Wickham marrying your sister. I will see that Wickham marries your sister, and when that is accomplished, we will announce our own engagement. " He smiled. "Do you agree, my dear?"
Elizabeth hesitated. As capable as she knew the colonel to be, she could not believe it was likely that he or anyone could convince Wickham to marry her sister. Therefore, she risked little by entering into a conditional engagement with him. She felt reluctant, however, to agree to anything while her feelings were in such turmoil. On the other hand, she could not bear to disappoint him. She was so distressed by the quandary she found herself in that tears sprung to her eyes.
Observing her distress, the colonel brushed his hand softly over the tears on her cheek. "I am sorry, Elizabeth. I fear I have pressed you too much today. We will not discuss this anymore further today. I can wait for your answer."
Elizabeth searched his face with her eyes. His hopeful expression of a moment ago had disappeared, replaced by a look of profound disappointment. She reacted immediately based on compassion and affection, not reason. She stretched out her hand and slipped it inside his.
"No. I do not wish to delay. I will marry you if and when Wickham marries Lydia, if that is what you truly wish." The colonel's answering smile was so radiant that she could not regret her impetuous reply.
Return to Rascals and Rivals page
Return to Austen Interlude
© Maggie 2005-2006