Rivals & Rascals

by Maggie (Zevin)

Chapter 14

August 9, 1812

Colonel Fitzwilliam woke up to a pounding head and the smell of tobacco smoke. He opened one eye and beheld Shelby sitting on the edge of the bed smoking a cigar. The colonel wasted no time in forcibly representing his displeasure at this rude awakening.

Shelby laughed. "Do not bite my head off, Fitz, I come bearing a gift." He waved a piece of paper in the colonel's face.

"Get that object out of my face and allow me to finish my sleep, or you will answer for it later."

"My mistake, old fellow. I thought you would want to read this note straight away. It was delivered this morning by one of Darcy's servants, and is addressed to you in what appears to be a feminine hand."

The colonel opened both of his eyes and grabbed at the letter. He had given Darcy's address to Elizabeth as the best place to reach him, not knowing at the time if Shelby would be home. Darcy's servants were well acquainted with the Colonel's habits and were used to forwarding mail to him at Shelby's house.

Shelby laughed and retreated to the far end of the room, still brandishing the note. "But since you have little interest in anything but sleep, I will not bother you. I just may seize the opportunity and read the letter myself, since it has been a long time since I have received a note that was penned so prettily."

The colonel leapt out of bed and cornered his friend; Shelby promptly hid the note behind his back. After a brief tussle, the colonel succeeded in snatching the note from Shelby's hand. He read the contents quickly and then looked up at Shelby with a rapturous smile.

"Is it good news then, Fitz? Does your betrothed swear eternal love and the like? Gad, I never thought that I would see you so giddy. It almost makes me want to fall in love myself."

The colonel got out of bed and started dressing quickly. "She is here in London and asks to see me straight away. Can I prevail upon your man to shave me? I do not have the head for shaving myself this morning."

"You cannot go see her now. You have an appointment to see Digby in one hour."

Fitz had a dim recollection of making arrangements last night to meet with Digby the following day. He groaned inwardly; he had spent more than enough time with Digby already. Still, he was consoled by the fact that the meeting was likely to put him one step closer to achieving his desired end.

**************************

"I beg your pardon," the colonel asked. "You want me to do what?"

"Disfigure him."

The colonel stared at Digby. "You did not speak of this last night."

"I am speaking of it now. These are my terms; you are to engage George Wickham in a duel and slash his face with your sword deep enough to leave a prominent scar. I will then supply the needed funds to ensure that the scoundrel marries the young lady. We will have a measure of justice and revenge, and the young lady's reputation will be restored."

"And what if Wickham refuses to cross swords with me?"

"He will not refuse. I have it carefully planned. I will see that several of Wickham's friends invite him to Green's gaming house at three o'clock this afternoon. While he is there, you will walk in and challenge him to a duel first blood only. My friend runs the gaming house; he will then take bets who the victor will be and offer to give the winner half of the pot. With such a financial incentive , Wickham will not refuse such a challenge, especially one made in front of his friends. In addition, I will arrange for his second and ensure that he gets to the location of the duel. All you have to do is show up at the appointed time with your sword and your own second."

"Even if I issue a challenge to a duel to first blood only, Wickham may try to deal me a mortal wound," the colonel objected. "He is not known for fair play. I do not know if I care to take mortal risk to assuage your need for revenge."

Digby leaned back in his chair and smiled thinly at the colonel. "You have a regrettable tendency to underestimate me. I assure you that there will be no risk for you. Wickham will be closely watched. If he shows the smallest sign of any trickery or if he manages to relieve you of your weapon, he will be shot before he can harm you. I will also arrange for a medical man to be there."

The colonel pondered this. "What guarantee do I have that your man will assure my safety, or that you will supply the needed funds if I do as you request?"

"You have my word as a gentleman."

The colonel expressed his skepticism with a lift of his brow.

Digby smiled again and stroked his chin. "You also have my word as a businessman, if that inspires more confidence. You may ask your friend Shelby for confirmation of my reputation for keeping my word. If he denies it, you may terminate our agreement without repercussions."

The colonel was silent for a few moments while he weighed his options. While he had little faith in Digby's word as a gentleman, from what he observed the previous evening of the power and wealth that Digby controlled, he felt that it was likely that the word of Digby, the businessman, could be relied on. Besides, he already knew that Shelby felt that Digby could be trusted.

While it might be wiser to walk away than risk life and limb on the word of a virtual stranger, the colonel knew that without money the chances of his quickly achieving success in his negotiations with Wickham were slim. Using his own wits and wiles, the colonel thought he had a fair chance of eventually swaying Wickham, but it would likely take a considerable amount of time. On the other hand, if the man before him were true to his word, the colonel would have to do little more than cross swords with Wickham to bring about the desired marriage of Lydia and Wickham.

While the thought of deliberately slashing Wickham's face to leave a scar was somewhat offensive to the colonel's sense of fair play, he could not deny that the prospect of disfiguring Wickham was an attractive one. Ruining Wickham's good looks by leaving a permanent scar seemed fitting punishment for his ruthless seductions of innocent young ladies. It would also lessen the chance that other young ladies would be seduced by Wickham's looks in the future.

It was the thought of Elizabeth, however, that was the deciding factor; all other considerations gave way before his desire to make her happy. If he agreed to Digby's plan, he could go to Elizabeth today with the news that not only had her sister and Wickham been discovered, but there was every hope that they would soon be wed.

The colonel stood up. "Very well; I will be at Green's at three to issue the challenge." With a cool nod in Digby's direction, the colonel placed his hat on his head and swiftly exited Digby's office.

**************************

Late that afternoon, Colonel Fitzwilliam found himself in the hallway of the Gardiners' home. He was pleasantly surprised by both the exterior and interior of the house; the former was pleasing in proportions, and the latter, at least from what he could observe while standing in the hallway, was furnished in a manner that indicated that the owners possessed more than a modest amount of wealth and taste.

The colonel removed his hat and smoothed down his hair while he waited for the servant to fetch Elizabeth. His heart was racing from a combination of the anticipation of seeing Elizabeth and residual excitement from issuing his challenge to Wickham earlier in the afternoon. Everything had gone according to plan. The colonel had challenged Wickham in front of a small group of his friends. Wickham had looked slightly startled, and had asked the reason for the challenge. "If you need to ask, you are more of a scoundrel than I had thought," the colonel had replied. Wickham had thrown back his head and laughed at this. While his friends looked on uneasily, Wickham had agreed to the duel with an arrogant smirk that had the colonel itching to unleash his sword upon the scoundrel.

The colonel was mentally rehearsing his opening movements in tomorrow's duel, when Elizabeth descended the staircase and smiled graciously at him.

"Colonel, I thank you for replying to my message so quickly."

"I assure you, my dear, the minute that I heard you were in town nothing could delay my visit. I was delighted and amazed to learn that you had arrived in town so quickly. I was concerned that your aunt's illness might cause you a delay of a number of days."

"I ran into Mr. and Miss Darcy and their friend Mr. Bingley, and they kindly offered me a ride to Hertfordshire."

The colonel noticeably stiffened. "Darcy?"

Elizabeth colored slightly. "Yes, it was a most amazing coincidence. They appeared at the ______ Inn not long after you left. My aunt and uncle urged me to travel on ahead of them with the Darcys. We reached Hertfordshire yesterday and I traveled onwards to London with my sister Jane to meet with our father. I was anxious to speak with you straight away, sir."

"I cannot tell you how delighted I am to hear that. I have been longing for your company, as well."

The colonel grasped Elizabeth's hand and bent over to brush a kiss across the back of her hand. Her ungloved hand was soft and slightly fragrant; the colonel turned it over, intending to kiss her palm. To his disappointment, Elizabeth slipped her hand from his grasp.

"Please, sir, come into the parlor. We have much to discuss."

The colonel eagerly followed Elizabeth into the Gardiners' parlor. The kiss on her hand had whet his appetite for more. He assumed that her reluctance for him to kiss her palm in the hallway was due to her fear that they would be discovered. He had hopes that in the privacy of the parlor, he could finally kiss more than her hand.

Once they had sat down, the colonel turned to Elizabeth. "You mentioned that your father is still in town. Is he at home now?"

"No, he is dedicated to searching for my younger sister. He is out looking for her now, but, sadly, his efforts have been unsuccessful."

"Ah, then I have welcome news," the colonel smiled broadly. "Wonderful news. I have located your sister and Wickham. They are here in London."

Elizabeth eyes widened. "You amaze me, sir; I can hardly credit that you could have found them so soon. Why, you must have barely reached London yourself."

"I wasted no time in beginning my search. I was fortunate to find them after searching no more than half a day. I must admit that while it did not take long to locate them, it was not a particularly pleasant task. I had to wander through many of the most unsavory parts of town before I located the rooming house where Wickham is staying with your sister. I was lucky to escape with both my purse and my life."

Elizabeth looked uncomfortable. "I am sorry, colonel, that you have had to go to so much trouble and jeopardize your safety for my sister's sake."

The colonel smiled at Elizabeth. "I did not do it for your sister's sake, but for my own. I must remind you that you agreed me to marry me if your sister and Wickham wed. With such an inducement, I would face twenty times the trouble and danger that finding Wickham entailed."

He was tempted to tell Elizabeth about tomorrow's duel, but was concerned that it would cause her undue anxiety on his behalf, and that she might try to dissuade him from it.

"That is exactly what I wished to speak to you about, sir. I have given much thought to our situation and I do not "

"Yes, as have I. Soon, we may do more than think about it, my dear." The colonel grinned broadly, not realizing that he had, once again, interrupted Elizabeth. "I have put some plans in place. I am confident that Wickham can be convinced to marry your sister within the week, and then there will be no impediment to our own marriage."

Elizabeth looked startled. "They can be married so soon? I am overwhelmed. You have not only located my sister, but also arranged for her marriage in less than two days. I can scarce believe it."

The colonel smiled at Elizabeth in an indulgent matter. "It is not very felicitous to enter into an engagement doubting your future husband, but I can hardly blame you, my dear; I can scarce believe it myself."

Elizabeth was trying to gather her nerve to confess to the colonel her inability to marry him, when Jane entered the room. She halted in surprise when she saw the colonel.

"I beg your pardon, Lizzy, I did not know you had company."

Lizzy made the introductions, hoping that her sister would depart, so she could finish the unpleasant task before her. She was also worried that the colonel would reveal his feelings for her to Jane. Lizzy had given Jane a version of the events of the last two weeks that was accurate except for its omissions. From Lizzy, Jane knew that the colonel was familiar with Lydia's situation and had offered to put his knowledge of Wickham to use, but Jane knew nothing of the more intimate affairs concerning Lizzy, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and Darcy.

Although part of Lizzy had longed to tell Jane about everything that had occurred during the past week, various considerations prevented her from fully confiding in Jane. First, now that Lizzy had had the opportunity to observe the real state of Jane's spirits, it was clear that Jane was close to being ill with anxiety over Lydia's situation. Lizzy did not want to give Jane confidences that could add to her distress, and it was certain that Jane would be distressed by news that Elizabeth was practically engaged to the colonel while finding herself with a strong attachment to his cousin. There was another darker motive lurking behind Elizabeth's silence. She feared that Jane would not wholly approve of her intention of breaking off her conditional arrangement with the colonel. Thus, as she done most of her life when she had done or contemplated doing something that might shock Jane's notion of goodness, Lizzy kept her own counsel on the subject.

Lizzy looked on somewhat warily, while the colonel greeted Jane with his customary ease and friendliness. Jane, who tended to be rather shy upon first acquaintance, said little but smiled upon the colonel warmly and thanked him for his great kindness in offering to assist her family in searching for Lydia. The colonel responded by repeating the astounding news that he had not only located Wickham and Lydia, but was confident of an imminent wedding between the two. Jane looked at the colonel in wonderment.

"Lizzy, is this not wonderful news! I cannot wait to tell Papa. We must go see Lydia immediately; could you tell us where to find her, sir?"

"I do not advise you to enter the part of town where your sister is staying. It would be much better for her to come to you. I have sent word to your sister that you are here in town and, hopefully, she will soon come to you. It would be best, of course, if she were to be married from this house."

Jane leaned toward her sister and took her hand. "Can you believe it is possible, Lizzy! I must admit I am worried about Lydia's future happiness in such a marriage, but I comfort myself with thinking that Wickham would not marry Lydia without true regard for her."

Jane turned back towards the colonel, her eyes clouded by tears. "I must thank you again, Colonel, for all you have done for our family; you are kindness itself."

The colonel could think of no modest reply to this remark, so he merely smiled at Jane. He looked over at Elizabeth and noticed that she lacked her usual composure. Knowing nothing of her true feelings, he assumed that she, like himself, regretted the fact that Jane's presence deprived them of the opportunity for further intimacy. Realizing that he would not likely have another opportunity to see Elizabeth alone on this visit, the colonel stood up and announced his intention to depart. Jane announced her regret that he was leaving so soon. Elizabeth was silent, but the colonel was gratified by the look of misery of her face.

As the sisters accompanied him to the door, the colonel managed to whisper in Elizabeth's ear. "Do not despair, my dear, I will see you tomorrow. All will be well."

**************************

Shortly after eight that evening, there was a loud knock on the Gardiners' door; Lizzy ran to open it, expecting their father. A boy was standing at the door with a letter in his hand. It was addressed to Miss Lizzy Bennet and was in Lydia's careless handwriting. Lizzy tore the letter open and beheld the following:

Dearest Lizzy,

Lord, I am glad that you are in town! I wanted someone to come to my wedding, although I would have preferred to have Mama and Kitty. Wickham has not worked out all of the details, but he says that we will be married soon.

I know you are anxious for an account of everything that has happened since we left Brighton, but I am too agitated to recount it all because the most exciting thing just happened! My Wickham just came back from meeting a friend and told me he is going to fight a duel for me tomorrow. Can you believe it! It will happen at dawn, at a park on the edge of London. Wickham is polishing his sword even now. Oh, how I wish that Kitty were here to see all of this! No one has ever fought a duel for her, and I am sure that they never will. You must tell her all about it Lizzy as soon as you go home. She will be so jealous!

When Wickham first told me about the duel, I thought it might be Papa who challenged him. Oh Lord, that would be a laugh! Can you imagine Papa fighting Wickham? But no, it is much more exciting than that. A colonel has challenged my Wicky, and there is money at stake. Is it not romantic!

I will be glad when it is all over because the thought of someone pointing a blade at my sweet Wickham's throat puts my nerves in a dreadful state. I have no real fear for Wickham's welfare, however, because I know that he is the best swordsman in all of England; he has told me so himself many times. I will see you soon at my wedding.

Your loving sister,

Lydia Bennet (soon to be Wickham)

Lizzy blanched as she read the letter. She was glad that Jane was bathing and that their father was still out. She did not want either one of them to learn of the duel. There was no doubt in her mind that it was Colonel Fitzwilliam who had challenged Wickham. She had come to London to stop him from endangering himself for her sake, and stop him she must.

She was tempted to go now to look for the colonel, but she knew that her father would be home soon and would notice her absence. She contemplated the idea of going to the colonel before dawn and begging him to withdraw his challenge to Wickham. She had just enough coins to pay for a hack cab to the address the colonel had given her. She was aware that traveling across London before dawn to an unfamiliar address would involve some degree of danger both to her person and to her reputation; she had no choice in the matter, however. If the colonel was killed or even injured for her sake, she would never be able to live with herself.

Mr. Bennet soon arrived home and Jane, rushing down the stairs to greet her father, immediately informed him of the visit from the colonel and of the news that Lydia had been located. Mr. Bennet seemed both gladdened and disturbed by the news that Lydia was staying with Wickham in London. He and Jane both talked with much more animation than they had the night before. Lizzy, however, felt herself unequal to take part in the conversation. She recalled the last words that the colonel had spoken to her that afternoon, and repeated these words over and over to herself in order to mentally prepare for the events of tomorrow: "All will be well, all will be well, all will be well."

Later that evening, as Lizzy bid Jane goodnight, Jane put her arms around her sister and kissed her cheek.

"Oh, Lizzy" Jane sighed. "I must confess that I had almost given up hope, but now I feel that everything will turn out well."

Lizzy closed her eyes and laid her cheek against Jane's. "Yes, sweet Jane," she murmured. "All will be well."



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