Rivals & Rascals
August 10, 1812
It was still dark when Elizabeth slipped quietly out of the Gardiners' front door. She sat on the front stoop and put on her walking boots, having walked down the stairs and across the foyer in her stocking feet in order to make a soundless escape. Once her boot laces were snugly tied, she walked down the street with only one dimly lit streetlamp to guide her.
Elizabeth's throat was constricted with fear; she had walked alone before dawn in Hertfordshire on a number of occasions, but this was different by far. As early as she could remember, she had heard tales of the terrors of London street life. She knew about thieves and cutthroats, and ruthless bespoilers of young ladies' virtue
After she had walked several blocks, Elizabeth saw a dark figure ahead of her; she bit her tongue to keep from crying out. As she got closer, she realized that the figure was an old man in tattered clothing. He was slowly chewing on the end of a piece of bread. When he saw Elizabeth, the man looked up at her and smiled. He broke off the other end of his loaf and held it out to her.
"Want some, Miss? I have plenty."
Elizabeth smiled graciously."I thank you, sir, but I am not hungry." She wished that she had some extra coins to give him. His generosity braced her spirits somewhat, causing her to feel that the streets were not quite so dangerous after all.
After what seemed to be a very long while, but was probably only a few minutes, Elizabeth finally came across a hackney carriage.
When he saw her, the driver jumped down to the ground and approached her. "Carriage, milady?"
Elizabeth gave him the address of her destination, and after a brief negotiation over the price, the driver helped her up into the carriage. Elizabeth sat down on the hard seat with a sigh of relief.
As the open carriage moved swiftly through the streets, Elizabeth leaned forward and peered out into the dim light. She was curious, now that she was in a place of safety, to see what occurred in London in the wee hours of the morning.
The streetlamps were brighter after the carriage moved out of the environs of Cheapside, allowing her to observe the goings-on in the street. There was a surprising number of people about, mainly gentlemen walking in groups of two and three, some of them weaving in a drunken manner. There were a number of peddlers about, as well, hawking all manner of items from hot chestnuts to matches to little nosegays of flowers. Elizabeth also noticed three or four garishly dressed women calling out gaily to the men who walked by. She guessed that they must be prostitutes; she was surprised that, except for their bright clothing and their loud voices, they did not appear to be any different from the women that Elizabeth knew. One of the women looked up and noticed Elizabeth staring at her. She caught Elizabeth's eye and blew her an exaggerated kiss. Elizabeth was both shocked and intrigued by the woman's brazen behavior.
The carriage soon drew up in front of an elegant townhouse. The driver turned towards Elizabeth.
"Here, we are milady. Handsome place, it is. Shall I wait for you? You will have trouble finding another hack in these parts; most of the gents here have their own carriage and the like."
Elizabeth took a deep breath to settle her nerves. The truth was she had not thought far ahead. She had no plan for what to do once she arrived at the colonel's lodgings other than to simply find him and persuade him to give up his plans to fight Wickham. As she stared at the imposing dwelling in front of her, she now realized that talking to the colonel might involve waking up a number of servants and other people as well. She did not want to call more attention to herself than necessary or put herself into a compromising situation.
As Elizabeth sat debating what to do, a large enclosed carriage pulled up behind the cab. The coachman yelled loudly at the hack driver to move along. While her driver was vociferously arguing with the coachman, Elizabeth pulled her bonnet down so as to shield her face. She heard the sound of footsteps and the tap-tap of a walking stick. Then she heard a familiar voice question her driver, and she shivered with the shock of recognition. Oddly, it had never occurred to her that the address the colonel had given her was Darcy's. He was the last person that she wanted to see at the moment, but he was also probably the one person she could rely upon for assistance in this delicate matter. She leaned out of the carriage, trying to appear as composed and sedate as possible.
"Good morning, Mr. Darcy. What a coincidence to find you here. We seem predestined to meet in the most surprising manner."
Darcy stared at Elizabeth with disbelief, his mouth fixed in a tight line."Miss Bennet. I somehow do not think that meeting you in front of my house at this hour of the day could fairly be said to be coincidental. Surely, you do not expect me to believe that you just happen to be stopping in front of my house at five in the morning."
Elizabeth was embarrassed to be challenged so openly. She was also chagrined to discover that the hack driver had twisted around to face her and was avidly observing the interaction between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.
"Please, sir, can you assist me down so that we can discuss this matter in relative privacy."
Darcy looked at her severely for a moment and then helped her down from the hack. Before Elizabeth could say anything further, he handed a fistful of coins to the hackney driver and then dismissed him with an authoritative wave of his hand. Darcy firmly grasped Elizabeth's elbow and walked her inside the ornate gated fence protecting his home from the street. As they passed his carriage, Darcy signaled to his coachman to keep the carriage waiting.
Darcy glared at Elizabeth with his arms crossed over his chest. "Well then, Madam, I believe that you owe me an explanation."
Elizabeth drew herself up to her full height. "I came here to find Colonel Fitzwilliam. This was the address that he gave me to reach him."
"You traveled the streets of London alone at this ungodly hour to speak to my cousin?" Darcy's voice shook with fury.
She had never seen him so angry, not even just after she had refused him at Hunsford.
"I need to speak to him about something very important; indeed, it is a matter of life and death."
Darcy looked at Elizabeth skeptically and gestured for her to continue with an imperious wave of his hand.
Although Elizabeth had not wanted to burden Darcy with the details, she felt that she had no choice but to provide them. "Colonel Fitzwilliam has recently located my sister and Wickham. My sister, Lydia, has just written me that the colonel has challenged Wickham to a duel. I came here to persuade him to abandon the idea. Please, Mr. Darcy, do you not see that we must stop him? Wickham is not to be trusted; your cousin could well be killed."
"I believe that my cousin is well able to take care of himself; but you are right, Wickham is not one to fight fair." Darcy seemed to have his anger under some regulation, but the thin line of his mouth still betrayed his displeasure. "That in no way justifies the danger you put yourself in coming here alone. I am surprised at you, Miss Bennet; I thought you were a woman of good sense. I will see you safely back to your aunt's house and then I will do my best to put a stop to the duel."
Elizabeth clutched Mr. Darcy's arm. "No, I will not go back. You must allow me to go with you. I believe that I have a better chance than you of talking the colonel out of this duel. And I will not rest until I know that he is unharmed. After all, he is taking this risk for my sake."
Darcy clenched his jaw; he did not care to be reminded of the understanding between Elizabeth and his cousin. It was hard enough to know that she had come here to see Fitzwilliam, not him.
Noting Darcy's hesitation, Elizabeth pressed on. "You offered once to assist me in any way I desired, and this is all that I ask."
Darcy's voice dropped low. "I believe your response to that offer was that all you required from me was that I forget that certain occurrences occurred, and that I refrain from proposing to you ever again." Both pain and anger were evident in Mr. Darcy's voice.
"I was wrong, sir. Please do not throw my words in my face at a time like this. I need your immediate assistance. I would not ask it of you if there was any other recourse."
"Very well," Darcy said tersely. "But you must follow my lead in this. I will not have you putting yourself in further danger."
Darcy quickly consulted with his coachman and then assisted Elizabeth into his carriage. To her surprise, he stumbled slightly as he got in. She had never before seen him move with anything less than perfect grace. He sat in the corner furthest from her, as if uncomfortable to sit too close. She was glad of the distance; being alone with him in the dim carriage made it hard enough for Elizabeth to keep her wits about her. She glanced over at him out of the corner of her eye, and saw that he had his head thrown back and his eyes closed. In the confines of the carriage, she now clearly smelled the strong odor of brandy
"Mr. Darcy, I believe you are in your cups!"
Mr. Darcy grimaced slightly at this bold statement. "I am hardly in my cups. I was, perhaps, mildly intoxicated until the sight of you standing in the street alone in the middle of the night sobered me completely."
"I was not standing in the street, sir, I was sitting in a carriage."
Mr. Darcy made an inarticulate noise that expressed his opinion of this distinction. "Do you intend to argue with me during the entire ride, madam?"
"Perhaps if you tell me where we are going and how long it will take to get there, I can better advise you whether I intend to quarrel with you the whole way or not."
Darcy's lips quirked into a half-smile at this arch reply, but his face quickly regained its severe aspect.
"We are going to a deserted corner of a park on the edge of London where duels are commonly fought. I cannot assure you that we will arrive at the right place or at the right time, as my ignorance of my cousin's plans has made me resort to guessing. With few other carriages on the streets, we will probably arrive there in fifteen minutes."
"I believe I can manage not to quarrel with you for a quarter-hour, sir, but you will have to distract me with pleasant conversation."
"What do you wish to speak about?"
Darcy looked rather surprised, and then nodded his head slowly. "What do you wish to know about my sister?"
"Many things. I would like to know what she was like as a child, what her studies have been, and what are your plans for her future."
Darcy spoke at length about Georgiana. Talking of his sister seemed to relax him. His face lost its tense look and he even smiled slightly several times. Most of the information he revealed was not news to Elizabeth, but he did provide some new information. Among other things, Darcy revealed that he wished Georgiana to marry someone she cared for, but he also had expectations that she would marry well. Elizabeth listened to this with an increasing sense of sadness. It confirmed what she already knew; she must not marry Darcy. No matter how Lydia's situation was resolved, a close connection with her family would clearly lessen Georgiana's chances of marrying someone from a high station.
The carriage came to an abrupt sudden stop. Elizabeth looked out the window and saw they were in a deserted area of the park. There were no streetlamps, but streaks of light were just starting to brighten the sky. Darcy immediately stepped out and then handed Elizabeth down.
"Please remain behind me, Miss Bennet, at least until we can determine what is happening."
Two men came into view carrying what appeared to be a man's body laid on a board. Elizabeth picked up her skirts and ran towards the men. Darcy shook his head in exasperation and loped off after Elizabeth. Elizabeth stared down at the figure on the board and gasped. The man's face was covered in blood and bandages; it was impossible to make out his identity. He appeared to be still alive, judging from the faint groans that emanated from him.
"Who is this man?" Elizabeth asked, her voice shaking.
"Move along, young lady," one of the men said. "This is no place for you."
Darcy stepped forward. "Is one of you a medical man?"A tall, gaunt man with thinning hair stepped forward. "I am a doctor, sir."
"Tell me the identity of this man at once, or I will see that you lose your license." Darcy spoke in his most authoritative manner, and the doctor responded to him in the tone of deference reserved for men of wealth or title.
"I have heard him referred to as Wickham. I know nothing else about him."
"And his condition?"
"He will live, sir. His face has been deeply slashed during a duel, but I have sewn him up, and most of the bleeding has stopped. He will have a nasty scar, however. I do fine stitching, if I say so myself, but due to the nature of his wound, there was no way to prevent thick scarring."
"And the man who did this to him, what is his condition?"
"He is unscathed, sir. Not a hair on his head is harmed." The doctor looked suddenly anxious to be on his way. "Now, if you will allow me, I will get my patient to a bed."
Darcy nodded, and the doctor and his assistant proceeded to carry their burden to a waiting carriage. Elizabeth ran after the men, anxious to know where they were taking Wickham. If they were taking him to the place he was staying with Lydia, she wanted to go with them. She did not want her sister to be alone when she saw Wickham's bloodied face and prone form.
Darcy started to follow Elizabeth to the carriage, but a horse and rider rode up and stopped in front of him, blocking his path. Darcy looked up and saw his cousin. "Fitz," he said dryly. "It seems that you have not been idle since I last saw you.
"Darcy, what in hell's name are you doing here?"
"I escorted Miss Bennet here. Please move your horse out of my path. I must stay with her."
The colonel looked over towards the carriage into which Wickham was just now being lifted. Hovering near the carriage was a small woman, simply dressed in a bonnet and light cape. All he could see was the back of her. "Miss Bennet? Lydia Bennet?"
Darcy had already turned and skirted around the colonel's horse, and was rapidly walking toward the woman. The colonel jumped off of his horse and quickly followed. The colonel came right up next to Elizabeth before he could see her clearly enough to recognize her. He gasped with surprise.
"Elizabeth! Why are you here?"
She looked closely at the colonel in order to reassure herself that he was unharmed. "I came to prevent you from fighting George Wickham, but I see I was too late."
"You came here with my cousin without a chaperone?"
"Mr. Darcy was kind enough to escort me here, yes.""I doubt kindness had much to do with it. We will discuss this later. Right now, I want to take you home. Come, you can ride with me on my horse." The colonel gripped Elizabeth's arm tightly and started to pull her in the direction of his horse.
Elizabeth wrenched her arm from his grasp and moved out of his reach. "No, sir, I prefer to ride in the carriage with Mr. Wickham. I want to be with my sister when she sees his condition."
"I will take you to the establishment where your sister is staying. You will get there much faster riding with me."
The colonel advanced upon Elizabeth again. Darcy quickly stepped between them.
"It is unpardonable of you to demand that Miss Bennet ride with you on horseback through town at this hour." Darcy gestured at the lightening sky. "You will make a public spectacle of her and ruin her reputation."
The colonel glared at Darcy. "Stay out of this, Darcy. You know nothing of the situation. I would do nothing to harm Miss Bennet and she is well aware of that."
"I know enough to realize that you have already put her in a position that no honorable man would have put her in."
As the two men stood there arguing, the carriage into which Wickham's body had been placed started moving away. Elizabeth looked at the disappearing carriage, and shook her head despairingly. How would she find Lydia now?
The colonel turned to Elizabeth. "Well, my dear, you have no choice now but to return with either me or Darcy. Which course do you choose?" He wore a complacent look on his face, as if there was no question but that her choice would be to his liking.
Elizabeth hesitated for only a moment. She knew that if she rode in public with the colonel on his mount, she would have no choice but to marry him. "I choose to return with Mr. Darcy."
The colonel scowled. He took Elizabeth's arm and drew her aside. "Elizabeth, more is at stake here than your transportation home. It would be most improper for you to ride in a carriage alone with Darcy." He lowered his voice. "Especially, in light of your understanding with me. Your place is with me now and I will take care of you. Any damage to your reputation by riding with me will be fully repaired upon our marriage. I ask you again Elizabeth, do you choose to ride with me or travel alone with Darcy in his carriage?"
Elizabeth darted a look at Mr. Darcy. He was staring at her intently, waiting for her answer. She returned her gaze to the colonel. "I am sorry, sir, but I choose to travel with Mr. Darcy."
Darcy stepped forward and lightly placed his hand on Elizabeth's arm. "Miss Bennet has made her choice, cousin. I will see her home in safety. Do not press her any further."
The colonel raised his right hand and crashed his fist into Darcy's jaw just under his chin. The punch was quick and furious; Darcy staggered backgrounds but he remained on his feet. While Elizabeth and Darcy were both reeling from the shock of the assault on Darcy, the colonel advanced upon Darcy again and punched him in the eye. This second punch was so forceful that it knocked Darcy to the ground.
Elizabeth screamed and grabbed the colonel's right arm. "Do not dare hit him again." She then fell on her knees beside Darcy.
The colonel turned and quickly mounted his horse. He then looked down at Elizabeth. "You will regret this choice, Miss Bennet." He spat out the last two words as if they were distasteful and rode away.
A few moments later, after Elizabeth gave the coachman directions to her aunt's neighborhood in Cheapside, she and Darcy were sitting across from each other in his carriage. Darcy's left eye was swollen and a large ugly bruise was starting to bloom on his jaw. He looked as if he was having difficulty holding his head upright.
"I believe you would be more comfortable lying down, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth said softly.
"I will wait until I can get home and prop my head on some pillows. I do not believe that lying on a flat surface will help the pounding in my head."
Before she could reconsider her actions, Elizabeth stood up and swiftly moved to the other side of the carriage. "Please lay your head in my lap, you will be much more comfortable."
With a soft sigh, Darcy lay down until his head was cushioned on Elizabeth's lap. She bent over him and gently brushed his hair away from his eyes.
"I am afraid that your left eye is swollen shut completely. You will have to see out of one eye for a while."
"I would far rather look at you with one eye than look at anyone else with both eyes."
Elizabeth laughed softly and continued to gently stroke Mt. Darcy's hair. "That is a very pretty sentiment, sir, but I am sure your eye and jaw must be quite painful. You would be wise to rest quietly until we get you back home."
"I assure you that I am not suffering. Indeed, I cannot recall when I have felt happier."
Elizabeth tried to keep her voice light. "It's a wonder, sir, that such things as being knocked to the ground by your cousin and being saddled for the morning with a troublesome woman would cause you such happiness."
Darcy reached out and grabbed Elizabeth's hand and held it in both of his. "You know very well what the source of my happiness is. As my cousin said, there was more involved in your choice than your means of transportation. Perhaps it is my dazed condition, but I am confident now that you care for me. Please do not deny it. If you did, you would cause me suffering far beyond anything that my cousin's fist has caused."
Elizabeth allowed her hand to remain between Darcy's two hands. "I will not deny it. My feelings for you have grown considerably. We must not speak of our feelings now, however, as this is not the place or the time." She pulled her hand from Darcy's grasp and resumed stroking his hair back from his face. The expression in her eyes filled him with hope."I disagree. I must speak of my feelings; my heart, as well as my head, is pounding now, and if I do not express my love for you now, there may be dire consequences to my health." Darcy paused. "I love you, ardently and completely. I am delighted that your feelings for me have improved, but what I need to know is whether you believe that you will ever come to love me."
Elizabeth's eyes did not waver from his face. She slowly stroked a line down his face, stopping before she reached the bruised part of his jaw. "I love you now," she responded, her voice so low it was almost inaudible.
Darcy sat up suddenly and moved so close to Elizabeth that their thighs were touching.
Elizabeth gasped. "Sir, you must not exert yourself."
Darcy laughed fully, and his one good eye expressed his excellent humor. He slid next to Elizabeth and kissed the soft skin next to her eye. "Your lovely eyes will ease the pain in mine."
He untied Elizabeth's bonnet and removed it. He gently put his arms around Elizabeth and kissed her just under left eyebrow; he repeatedly kissed that spot and then turned his attentions to the spot below her right eyebrow. Her eyes drifted close, and he brushed her eyelids with light kisses. Just as before, Elizabeth's eyes flew open and soon their lips were touching. Darcy kissed her softly and chastely at first, and then his kiss grew more demanding. Elizabeth instinctively parted her lips and Darcy's tongue soon penetrated her mouth. Elizabeth went rigid with shock; she had never suspected that Mr. Darcy, of all people, would do anything so uncivilized. She did not pull away, however, and she soon found herself shyly caressing his tongue with her own. Darcy responded with a moan.
Elizabeth immediately sprang away from Darcy. "I hurt you, I am so sorry. I forgot about your injuries."
Darcy smiled sweetly at Elizabeth. "I forgot all about them, too, but I am glad you brought us back to earth." Darcy lightly touched the curls at the nape of her neck. "We must discuss the future, Elizabeth. Please say that you will marry me. I will do everything in my power to ensure that you never regret it."
"It pains me to say this, but I mustů"
Darcy distracted Elizabeth from completing her sentence, by pulling her back into his arms. "Then do not say it. There has been enough pain today. I see we are nearing the spot in Cheapside where you requested my coachman to take you. I do not want to spend the next few moments quarreling with you. Let us reserve this discussion for another day."
Elizabeth nodded her head slightly against Darcy's chest and placed her own arms around his neck. She did not want to add to his present distress by telling him she could not marry him; as he said, it could wait for another day. She would enjoy this sweet interlude for as long as it lasted.
They remained in each others' embrace until the carriage came to a stop. Darcy and Elizabeth reluctantly released each other and Darcy silently put Elizabeth's bonnet on her head. He tied the ribbons around her neck and then kissed her lightly on the lips.
"Are you sure you will be safe here, my love?"
Elizabeth's voice was unsteady when she answered. "Quite sure. My aunt's house is only one block from here and it is full daylight now."
Darcy knocked on the ceiling of the carriage with his walking stick and within moments, the coachman opened the door and assisted Elizabeth down. Elizabeth immediately headed down the street without looking back. When she reached the corner, she saw the same elderly man that she had encountered earlier that morning, still crouching on the same corner. Glad that she had something to give him after all, she approached him and offered him the coins that she had meant to spend on the hack carriage.
"Here you are, sir. Please take these coins with my blessing."
The old man looked at Elizabeth in amazement and shook his head vehemently. "Oh no, I have everything I need." He tipped his battered hat and grinned at Elizabeth. "I wish you the same, love. God bless you."
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