Rivals & Rascals
by Maggie (Zevin)
August 8, 1812
Saddle sore and exhausted, Colonel Fitzwilliam dismounted from his horse in front of his friend's townhouse and led his horse to the adjacent stables. He was in an irritable mood, and his stomach was growling from hunger.
"Is Mr. Shelby at home?" He asked the stable hand who was brushing down one of the horses.
"Yes, Sir. Shall I put up your horse?"
The colonel gestured his acquiescence and strode off. He was relieved to find his friend at home. There were many other places he could stay in London, but there was no place he would rather be than Shelby's home. "Except in Elizabeth's arms," he thought smugly.
Porkhost, Shelby's wooden faced butler, nodded stiffly at the colonel and immediately led the colonel to his friend's study. Although it was noon, the colonel was not surprised to see Shelby still in his dressing gown. Shelby had a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigar in another. He leapt to his feet when he spotted the colonel.
"Fitz! I was wondering when you were going to show your face. I was starting to fear you were not going to show up at all. I have got exciting news for you. Deuced exciting!"
"I have some exciting news of my own." The colonel turned to Porkhost who still hovered at the door of the study.
"Tea and toast, Sir?" asked the butler, anticipating the colonel's request.
"You know me too well Porkhost. A bit of ham too, would be appreciated, and anything else you have on hand."
When Porkhost had departed, pulling the door shut behind him, the colonel turned to his friend.
"Out with it, Shel. You tell me your thrilling news and then I will tell you mine."
The colonel sank to a chair opposite Shelby and put his feet up on the desk. Shelby got a good look at him for the first time.
"Good god, what has happened to you? You look bloody knackered."
"I have been riding since before sunrise without rest or refreshment. I will be fine in a moment. Talk to me, while I catch my breath."
"Riding at all hours of the morning, eh? That reminds of a hunting story I recently heard involving Gerald Dixon - he is Lord Seaton now, you know - and his cousins; it is really too funny." Shelby embarked on a rambling tale about people that Fitz had never heard of before and had no interest in whatsoever. He was too tired and hungry to interrupt his friend, however.
Just then, Porkhost, after two sharp knocks, entered the room with a tray bearing a teapot, teacup and a virtual cornucopia of food. The colonel was amazed, as always, at the alacrity with which the poker faced butler fulfilled orders.
The colonel attacked his food with single minded preoccupation, while his friend continued to relate his tedious hunting story. When he had eaten enough to take off the edge of his hunger, and poured himself a cup of tea, the colonel turned to Shelby.
"All right, enough of that. Tell me your bloody interesting news, Shel, or I'll strangle you with my riding crop."
Shelby made a hooting noise and dropped his cigar on the floor. "That's right, my news! I almost forgot. Well, you know how you are always asking around about George Wickham? I have recently made the acquaintance of a lady, well, not quite a lady anymore, perhaps, but a woman, certainly. She knows Wickham intimately; or rather, she did know him intimately. He used her badly it seems and she is out to have revenge on him."
The colonel, who had just taken a large gulp of his tea, sputtered as the burning liquid went down his throat. Shelby leaped up and obligingly pounded on Fitz's back which only managed to add to his physical discomfort. Before he had fully recovered, Fitz noticed a burning smell.
"Bloody hell, Shelby. You dropped your cigar on the floor, again. Pick it up at once or you will burn down the whole house."
Shelby bent down and picked up his cigar, put it out quickly and tossed it on his desk. Then he nonchalantly stomped out the smoking ember on the rug.
"I did start a bit of a fire in here last month, but, luckily, Porkhost was on hand to put it out. He was remarkably peeved with me afterwards, too. You should be glad you have never seen Porkhost when he is peeved. Deuced unpleasant, I can tell you. I do not know, sometimes, how I put up with the man."
The colonel waved a piece of ham frantically at his friend. "Would you get on with the news about Wickham?"
"Yes, well, you remember Digby?"
Colonel Fitzwilliam had no idea who Digby was but he did not dare interrupt his friend lest he go off on some tangent again. He nodded and gestured impatiently for Shelby to continue. Shelby paused to light another cigar.
"Digby has taken up with a new woman, Cecilia Windfield. He is quite smitten with her, too; I've never seen him so wrapped up in anyone besides himself. He is keeping her in a fine manner. Very fine, considering he met her in a brothel - Madame Couchet's, you know the place. She worked there for a bit after she was involved in a scandal. It seems that she eloped with George Wickham, and then he refused to marry her. Her family threw her out and she was left with nothing but the clothes she was wearing, and they were not her best clothes, either. Digby and Miss Windfield are determined to get revenge on Wickham. Do not blame them, terrible thing, you know, ruining a young lady like that."
"When did Wickham run off with Miss Windfield?"
"I have no idea. You can ask her yourself. We can go see them, if you want to. Digby is always having people over to the house he keeps for her. You know how it is with him. They have a plan in mind for Wickham, but Digby has not told me the details yet. We got interrupted in the club, you know, Lord Bilton came in and he was…" Shelby paused for a moment, aware that Fitz was scowling at him. "Well, that's another story. I thought you would want to be in on it, the plan for Wickham, I mean, seeing as you want some revenge on the rascal yourself."
"I do indeed want to meet Miss Larkin, and I am anxious to hear about this plan; the sooner the better." The colonel took one last sip of his tea and then pushed the tray aside. He leaned further back in his chair and grinned at his friend.
"Shall I tell you my news now, Shel?"
"By all means, I have been wondering what you have been up to. I have not heard a word from you in weeks, most unusual, really. I was just saying so to Chesterfield the other day. Well, get on with it, tell me your news."
"Hold on to your cigar, my dear Shelby. I have fallen in love and I am engaged to marry the lady. All I have to do to accomplish this is to get her sister to marry George Wickham. Wickham has run off with the sister and they are believed to be hiding out here in London."
Not sure which of these astonishing bits of news to react to first, Shelby jumped up and thumped the colonel on the shoulder. "Good god, Fitz! Your news out trumps mine. It is a deuce of a coincidence, too, if you ask me. I think this calls for some brandy. Now, if I can only get Porkhost to tell me where he hid the brandy dispenser."
After a few more slaps on the colonel's already sore shoulders, Shelby dashed off to find Porkhost. The colonel poured himself another cup of tea. He was feeling remarkably better.
The house was full of people. The colonel knew several of them by sight, but none of them particularly well. His attention was immediately drawn to a woman in the center of the room who was wearing a brilliant canary yellow gown. While not exactly pretty, she had the type of dramatically curvaceous figure that most men found irresistible. But it was her jewels, not her figure, that drew the colonel's eye. He knew that it was fashionable to give one's mistress baubles, the value of which served to flaunt a man's wealth as well to please his woman. Judging from the heft and sparkle of diamonds dangling from the ears and surrounding her long neck, this woman's patron was both excessively wealthy and eager to please his mistress.
He stood for a while watching the woman and the people that gathered around her. Glasses of champagne and punch and other refreshments circled around the room, and most people at the party were well on the road to complete inebriation. The colonel observed one man deliberately pouring champagne down the front of a woman's dress. To the uproarious laughter of those around him and the woman herself, the man then plucked one of the woman's breasts out of her low cut gown and proceeded to lick champagne off of it. Although, he had been to this type of party before, and enjoyed himself, tonight he found these antics distasteful. Perhaps, he was too exhausted this evening to be amused; or maybe, he thought wryly, being in love had changed him.
In any event, the colonel was too preoccupied to pay close attention to his surroundings. He had spent the whole afternoon tracking down George Wickham. Using all of the information that he had gathered on Wickham during the past year, he had made a tour of all of Wickham's London haunts. After three hours of trudging from one gaming hell or tavern to another asking if anyone had seen his "old friend, George Wickham", he had gotten information that Wickham was staying in a rooming house on Barrow Alley, one of the roughest parts of town. He had spent the past hour wandering down Barrow Alley striking up conversations with the various denizens who approached him for a hand out. He had thus learned that a man answering Wickham's description and a pretty young gel had moved into the largest and shabbiest rooming house on the street six days earlier.
After a brief, and rather expensive, conversation with the woman who ran the rooming house, the colonel was convinced that he had indeed located Wickham and Lydia Bennet. Finding Wickham had been easier even than the colonel had anticipated. Now, came the hard part, convincing Wickham to marry Elizabeth's sister. The colonel knew he would need all the help he could get with this endeavor, which is why he was here at the house of Digby and his mistress.
Colonel Fitzwilliam eyes returned to the woman in yellow. The men who swarmed around her appeared to treat her with great deference and respect. He guessed that she was Digby's mistress. Shelby suddenly appeared beside him with two large glasses of punch and handed one to him. The colonel took a long drink. The punch was one of the smoothest and most potent he had ever tasted; he could feel the effects of it after only one drought.
"I presume that the woman in yellow is our hostess?"
Shelby confirmed that she was.
"And Digby? Which one is he?"
After expressing surprise that Fitz didn't already know Digby, Shelby gestured quickly towards a group of men in the back room. "Digby is the tall one with the eyes."
The colonel started to remind his friend that every person in the room had eyes, but then he noticed the eyes of the tall, thin man who was in the group that Shelby had indicated. The man had blue eyes that were so pale that they were almost colorless. His hair was long and straight and equally colorless. The colonel knew at once that this man was Digby. He looked younger than the colonel had expected, no more than twenty-five. As if aware that he was being observed, Digby looked across the room directly at the colonel. He and the colonel stared unwaveringly at each other, and after a moment Digby beckoned insolently to the colonel. Something in the colonel rebelled at the idea of responding to Digby's summons, but he had come to this party for the express purpose of talking to this man. The colonel and Shelby pushed their way through the crowded room to Digby's side. Shelby introduced the two men, and Digby looked piercingly at the colonel for a moment.
"I hear that you are looking for George Wickham." Digby's voice was flat and toneless.
Digby raised an eyebrow.
"I have found him," continued the colonel.
Digby remained perfectly still and expressionless for a moment; then he smiled slightly. "I salute you, Colonel Fitzwilliam, you have managed to do in a few hours what I have not been able to accomplish in almost a week. Come with me."
Without waiting for a response, Digby glided through the crowds and entered an adjoining room. The colonel reluctantly followed him, wondering how Digby knew that it had only taken him a few hours to locate Wickham.
Digby closed and locked the door behind the colonel and Shelby.
"Where is he?"
The colonel folded his arms and faced Digby. "We have just met. I do not yet see a good reason to tell you what it has taken me some effort to find out."
"We may have just become acquainted, but we have a mutual friend," Digby paused and nodded at Shelby. "And a mutual cause, I believe."
"Ah, I do not know if that is correct. Your cause, I believe, is revenge. Mine is to save the reputation of a young lady."
"Perhaps if he is made to marry this girl, we will both accomplish what we want. I shall have my revenge and you shall preserve the reputation of the girl in question."
"I was not aware that you knew the young lady."
"I do not."
"Then how can you be sure that your desire for revenge would be satisfied if Wickham married her?"
Digby smiled broadly this time, exposing a mouthful of yellow teeth. "Come, Colonel Fitzwilliam. You must give me some credit. I, too, have informants in Brighton. I know that the young lady he is consorting with lacks brains, fortune, and virtue. What few charms she has now will soon fade."
The colonel stiffened; he did not like to hear Elizabeth's sister spoken of in this manner. His instinctive dislike of Digby had increased markedly during the few minutes he had spent in his company.
"I can assure you," Digby continued, "if it was up to me, I would seek revenge in more dramatic fashion than a forced marriage; but it is my mistress who is to be avenged and she has a soft heart. She cannot bear to see another young girl suffer as she has suffered because of Wickham. She wants him to marry the girl, and I promised her that it would be done."
"How do you intend to accomplish that?"
"There are many ways to accomplish an unwanted marriage, most of them violent in nature, but the most effective way, and the one that is most considerate of the young lady's welfare, is to bribe the blackard."
"How much are you prepared to pay? Wickham has many gambling debts and expensive tastes. I imagine he will accept nothing less than ten thousand pounds."
"Once again, you underestimate me. I am well aware of Wickham's price. Although I have excellent powers of negotiation and am confident I can bring him down in price, I am willing to pay ten thousand pounds or more, if I must. So, what do you say, Colonel? Between your knowledge of his whereabouts and my money, we can have Wickham married by the end of the week."
Colonel Fitzwilliam hesitated. He did not trust Digby, and he felt uneasy about the entire situation. It hardly seemed credible that a man would be willing to part with such a large sum to indulge the compassionate impulse of his mistress. On the other hand, judging from the diamonds draped around his mistress' neck, the loss of even as large a sum as ten thousand pounds was not likely to make a noticeable dent in Digby's accounting book. The colonel was curious and even somewhat suspicious about the source of Digby's wealth since he did not have the appearance or comportment of a well-bred gentleman.
Still, despite his unease and suspicions, it was hard to turn down Digby's offer since it would allow him to accomplish his goal with little additional effort or expense on his own part. "Wickham would be wed in a week and I could start planning my own nuptials." The colonel imagined his wedding day; he would be dressed in full regimentals, red and gold, with his sword by his side. He would watch Elizabeth walk down the aisle of his family's chapel. She would stand beside him and look up to him, her face flushed with excitement. They would not stay long at the wedding breakfast, just long enough to be civil to their guests. He wondered for a moment if Darcy would be among their guests. He wanted Darcy to be there, but he did not like the idea of Darcy staring at Elizabeth as she walked down the aisle. Darcy stared at her entirely too much. He would speak to Darcy about this as soon as he announced his engagement to Elizabeth. "Yes," thought the colonel, "Wickham's marriage cannot take place soon enough."
The colonel brought his mind back to the present and looked squarely at Digby. He held out his hand to him. "I say yes, by all means. Let us work together and get Wickham married as soon as possible."
An hour or so later, Fitzwilliam and Shelby stumbled out of Digby's house. They had had numerous glasses of fine champagne followed by more punch. The colonel felt sicker than he had felt in years. Shelby hailed a passing hack cab, and he and Shelby threw themselves gratefully into the carriage.
The colonel leaned back in the carriage and clutched his head. "I have never seen anyone pour champagne so freely before. We must have drank pounds worth of the stuff, and that punch! What the hell was in it?"
Digby closed one eye and frowned at his friend. "Don't you know, Fitz? I thought everybody knew. Digby trades in opium; mixes up the laudanum himself. That is how he so deuced wealthy. He is famous for his laudanum punch. We were lucky to get it free of charge. Most people have to pay to go to Digby's parties."
The colonel looked at Shelby in disbelief. He started to chastise his friend for not telling him about any of this earlier, but a great wave of nausea overtook him and prevented him from talking. Then, to his chagrin and Shelby's great amusement, Colonel Fitzwilliam leaned out of the hack and vomited up the entire contents of his stomach.
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