Part 6 -- The Luck Of The Draw
Darcy located Fitzwilliam in the midst of a group of officers, where he was good-naturedly enduring some ribbing about his unexpected week of leave. Laughing, he denied that he had been given the time off because he had somehow procured a case of French cognac for his superiors. And no, he was not on a "special assignment" for General Mattox's wife, either!
However, Fitzwilliam's merriment vanished as soon as he caught sight of the grim look on his cousin's face. Excusing himself from his friends, he went quickly to Darcy's side. "Whatever is the matter? What has happened?"
Briefly Darcy related his conversation with Miss Lancaster, and then the two gentlemen went immediately to the card room. This was a smaller room off to the side of the main assembly hall, reached by means of a narrow hallway. Here, the atmosphere had become smoky from the quantity of pipes and cigars within the room, and quite loud with the noise of card-players celebrating or deploring their luck. Seated on a chair in the hallway with his head in his hands was an officer of Fitzwilliam's acquaintance, one Major Peters. With his coat unbuttoned and askew, his cravat untied, and a noticeable wine stain on his shirt, he was in poor condition to represent his regiment. He looked up as the two gentlemen approached, and his face brightened as he recognized Fitzwilliam.
"Fitz, ol' f-fellow! Ish...it's good to...to see you. Be a good chaff...chap, will you, and loan me ten p-pounds." The slurred state of his vocabulary indicated the inebriated state of the rest of his person. Peters stood up as he spoke, flung a companionable arm around Fitzwilliam's shoulders, and grinned, blasting him with the full potency of his alcohol-laden breath.
Fitzwilliam, who had inhaled at precisely the wrong moment, coughed and staggered a bit under this assault, but still managed to lower the man back into his chair. "Sorry, Peters, no loans tonight. I haven't got a shilling to spare that you couldn't manage to lose."
Peters, still grinning, waved away Fitzwilliam's excuse. "That'sh...that's all right, Fitz. You're shtill...still a g-good chap. Dash...dashed b-bad luck tonight any...anyway. Too b-busy lish...listening to Re-Reynolds' shtor...stories to have mush...much attention for the cards."
"What stories?" Darcy demanded, stepping forward. Here, perhaps, was the information they needed!
Peters looked up at Darcy, noticing him for the first time, and his bleary eyes went wide. Even in his sodden state, he could recognize a grand gentleman when he saw one. Forgetting he was in a chair, he tried to bow, but he only succeeded in nearly tumbling himself onto the carpet.
Fitzwilliam caught him in time and once again eased him back into his seat. "Never mind him, Peters. What stories?"
"Oh, they're sh...scandalous, Fitz. N-Nothing you proper gents'd care to...to hear." Peters rocked gently on his chair like a boat in a calm swell. He was also smiling happily, careless of the thought that tonight's excesses were likely to produce tomorrow's raging headache.
Fitzwilliam stood ready to catch the man again, should his precarious balance fail. "You'd be surprised what we're looking to hear, my good fellow. Where is Reynolds? Inside?" He indicated the door to the card room.
"He'sh...he's there, all right," Peters replied, yawning. "Prob...prob'ly emptying sh...some poor bloke's pockets, I expect."
Fitzwilliam propped Peters more securely in his chair, since it appeared likely he could collapse again at any moment. Then he and Darcy entered the card room, in pursuit of their next contact.
Unlike Peters, Captain Reynolds was in full command of his faculties, and he was having a very successful night, if the expression on his face was to be trusted. His skill at the card table had earned him the nickname of "Reynard," since everyone suspected him of cheating but he was so sly and foxy that no one had ever been able to prove it. He seemed pleased to see Fitzwilliam, but only when his game was finished and his latest victim had slunk off to another table did he greet his fellow officer.
"Why, Colonel Fitzwilliam! Good evening to you, sir! Have the enticements of the ballroom paled so much that you must try your luck at cards?"
Fitzwilliam smiled conspiratorially. "With a ravenous beauty like Miss Lancaster after me, I thought I'd take refuge in here for a while. Perhaps you and your comrades could protect me in case she appears again?"
"Protect you?" Reynolds roared with laughter and slapped his thigh. "That's a good one, sir! I should like to see another gentleman who ever wants to be 'protected' from a wealthy woman."
"Well, you might not say that if you were acquainted with the lady." Fitzwilliam sat down in the recently vacated chair and motioned for his cousin to sit in another. "Card playing might be an option tonight, but first I was hoping for your services as a storyteller. There's a tale of an elopement going round that I can't quite credit. You wouldn't happen to know any details, would you?"
"Tis a shameful business, sir, that I can tell you. You'd think some poor lass under the protection of the Colonel of a regiment would be safe, wouldn't you, sir?" Reynolds took a swig from his wine glass, but his bright eyes were fastened on Fitzwilliam. "And what interest would a gentleman like yourself have in such gossip, sir?"
Fitzwilliam ignored both the implied insult and the ending compliment, although he allowed himself to be amused that an impudent rascal like Reynolds could assume such an innocent appearance. With a bland face and the ability to drink any four men under the table, it was no wonder he was such a good card player! "That's none of your affair, but perhaps I want to know so I can prevent it from ever happening to any young ladies I ever have under my protection."
Reynolds was all camaraderie and good nature. "Why, that's terribly thoughtful of you, sir. Planning for the future and all is what makes a right good soldier. Your health, sir." He took another large swallow of his wine.
"That's very decent of you, Reynolds." Fitzwilliam's patience was nearing its end, but he knew guile, not force, was his only hope of securing the information he and Darcy needed. "Now, tell me where you picked up this story."
Reynolds looked with interest from Fitzwilliam to Darcy and back again. He was rapidly conjecturing why these two might want to hear his tale, and what money he could get for it. If it had been that tall fine gentleman alone, Reynolds thought, he could probably walk away with a large sum in his pocket and most of the information yet untold. However, the colonel was a different matter altogether. Fitzwilliam might appear genial and easy-going, but he wouldn't have made his present rank and be rumored to be in line for a higher promotion without more than the usual amount of intelligence and iron determination. He would be quite an opponent, but there was nothing Reynolds liked more than a hard challenge.
"Now, sir," he said at last, doing his best to look injured, "what would the lads think if I spouted off my trap to every passer-by? They'd never trust me again, sir, and rightly so."
"They don't trust you now, Reynolds, and neither do I. What's your price?"
"Why, Colonel! That gets me right here, sir, really it does." He placed a theatrically trembling hand over his heart and considered loudly blowing his nose on his rather dirty handkerchief, but he decided that might be too much. "To think that my own beloved superior officer thinks I can be persuaded to sell information! You pain me deeply, sir."
Fitzwilliam was even more amused at this display of acting ability, but a glance at Darcy showed that his cousin was ready to throttle this annoying little man. "Your 'beloved' superior officer knows that very little persuasion is necessary, since the pain is in your purse, not your chest. Out with it -- if you're going to make us pay for the story, I say again, what's your price?"
Reynolds cast a calculating eye at the two men. "Fifty pounds, sir, seeing as you want it so badly."
"What?" Darcy jerked to his feet. "Why, you greedy little --"
Fitzwilliam silenced him with a look, and Darcy subsided unwillingly into his chair. Fitzwilliam then turned back to the table. "I'll agree to the fifty pounds, but since you're a sporting man, why not let me play you for it?"
"Are you mad, Fitzwilliam?" Darcy cried. Fitzwilliam silenced him again, with a look that pleaded for Darcy's trust.
Reynolds grinned broadly and said, "Ah, you know I can't resist a game, sir. What did you have in mind?"
"Draw a card, and if I draw a lower one, you get the fifty pounds. If I draw equal or better, you answer a question about where you got this elopement story. And we keep drawing until I lose or until you've told me everything I need to know."
Reynolds' grin got even wider. "Done, sir!" he cried. And with an expert flick of his wrist, he spread the entire pack of cards face down on the table. He took his time considering the display, appearing to think hard about his choice. His hand passed back and forth over the line of cards, a few inches above the table, hovering dramatically once or twice. Finally he drew his first card: the jack of clubs.
Fitzwilliam drew only a moment afterwards: the jack of diamonds. "Who told you this story?"
Reynolds scowled. Surely it was just luck. "Chap named Wickham." As Darcy and Fitzwilliam exchanged a significant look, Reynolds repeated his back-and-forth pass, but the theatrical flair was gone. His next card was the king of hearts.
Then it was Fitzwilliam's turn again, and he drew the king of spades. "Where?"
"Over a game of dice, in a boarding-house at Cruikshank Lane." Two in a row was rotten luck, Reynolds thought, but the streak couldn't possibly continue. He drew: the queen of diamonds.
Fitzwilliam began his next question before he had finished turning over his next card: the queen of spades. "Is that where Wickham is living?"
Reynolds' eyes bulged a bit, and he looked tense. What was going on here? What were the chances of matching three in a row? Surely a fourth draw must win for him. "No, he just came in for the game." He grabbed desperately for his next card: the ace of clubs.
Fitzwilliam touched a card and paused a moment, either considering his choice or thinking of his next question. He knew Reynolds was openly staring, hoping for his incredible luck to run out. It didn't: Fitzwilliam overturned the ace of hearts. "Who runs the boarding-house?"
"Some woman called Younge." Reynolds buried his head in his hands. Impossible he could have lost!
Fitzwilliam stood up and smiled. "Thank you, Reynolds. You've told me everything I need to know." He turned to Darcy, who was quite ready to leave. At the last moment, Fitzwilliam turned back to the table. "And next time, play with someone who doesn't know you mark your cards."
Part 7 -- Hunting And Fishing
Fitzwilliam lay back in the steaming bath with a sigh of relief, letting the warmth soak into him. He and Darcy had stood out in the blasted rain for hours, waiting in the dark alley across from Mrs. Younge's boarding-house and hoping for a glimpse of Wickham. They had waited for several hours, with no success. There had been many men entering and leaving the house, but their target had not been one of them.
The two gentlemen had remained in the shadows for as long as they could endure the weather, but the rain had eventually driven them home. They had agreed that their best course was to return to their observation post the following night. Wickham might still be living off his winnings from the evening when Reynolds had encountered him, but sooner or later his funds must run low, and he would return to gamble again. And when he did, he would find a meeting he had not bargained for! Fitzwilliam sincerely hoped either that the weather would improve or that Wickham would prove to be a complete spendthrift, so that their period of watching would become either drier or shorter, or hopefully both.
There had been no conversation while they waited in concealment, since they dared not be overheard and discovered, and they were too tired for speech by the time they returned to the Fitzwilliam townhouse. Each man had kept his thoughts to himself. However, Fitzwilliam could well imagine what -- or rather, whom -- was the focus of Darcy's imaginings. Fitzwilliam found himself thinking of her as well. He had pleasant memories of Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and his previous good opinion of her was only improved by observing the effect she had upon his cousin: an effect of which she might still be unaware of being the source. It would take a splendid woman indeed to shake Darcy out of his habits of pride and self-consciousness! Yet he had made no qualms about getting soaked to the skin on a blustery London evening, for no other reason than to preserve the reputation of Miss Bennet's sister and her family. And somehow Miss Bennet had caused this alteration in Darcy without resorting to the imperious commands used by his aunt, Lady Catherine, and without stooping to the petty schemes used by Caroline Bingley. Beauty, wit, intelligence, and on Darcy's side at least, love, wrought such immense changes far more deftly. Fitzwilliam had smiled, ignoring the rain dripping down his neck: the declaration he had made in Kent, that Miss Bennet was the only woman who could possibly suit his cousin, was proving to be more prophetic than he had imagined.
The only remaining uncertainty was the extent of Miss Bennet's regard for his cousin: according to Darcy, her behavior had become more favorable in Derbyshire, but the current crisis had forced him to leave before he was sure of her affection. Surely if she knew of Darcy's actions here on behalf of her sister, any wavering in her feelings would be removed? Fitzwilliam understood Darcy's fear that Miss Bennet might only accept him out of a sense of obligation if she knew of his intervention, but he did not agree with it. From his knowledge of Miss Bennet, he doubted whether she would ever feel obliged to do anything she did not truly wish to do! No, somehow Miss Bennet must be informed of Darcy's role in her sister's rescue, but if Darcy would not do it himself, then Fitzwilliam did not know how it would be accomplished. He was sworn to secrecy about the affair, and he intended to keep his word.
The rain was still pelting down, as Fitzwilliam could see when he turned his head to look towards the window. The candle on the sill cast watery reflections on the glass. It was strange how the rain made such a soothing sound when one was inside, but became such a bloody nuisance when one was out in it! Really, it would be quite easy to doze off, if only for a moment...
"Fitz, hurry up! I won't wait for you, and then I'll catch that big trout before you do!" Young Master Fitzwilliam shouted over his shoulder to his cousin, the younger Master Darcy. Hoisting his fishing rod, he trotted towards the lake. Pemberley in high summer was beautiful, and Fitzwilliam was very glad his parents had allowed him to spend his vacation from school here. Bees sang between the wildflowers, oblivious to the heat, and the intoxicating smell of the grass became stronger as one went farther from the house, into areas where the gardeners' control was less strict.
When Fitzwilliam reached the water's edge, his cousin was still nowhere in sight. Darcy had turned back and run towards the door of the kitchen, yelling something incomprehensible about cheese and a piece of string that would make the perfect trout bait. There was plenty of time for Fitzwilliam to prepare his hook and line before the younger boy arrived. However, the dense stand of bushes just off the edge of the path put another idea into his head.
In an instant, he had ducked into the leafy cover, taking care to pull his fishing rod out of sight after him. He settled down to wait, peering out between the branches to wait for his cousin. In only a few minutes he heard running steps.
"Fitz? Wait for me! Where are you?" The boy came puffing up towards the lake, looking around for his cousin. It was their joke to call each other by the same name, since one's Christian name matched the other's surname. Darcy seemed pleased that, but for himself, the lake shore was empty. "Ha - beat him here after all!"
The boy was obviously full of all the satisfaction of a ten-year-old who has just outraced his twelve-year-old cousin. Fitzwilliam smiled to himself and thought that Darcy's smugness would be quenched soon enough. He waited until Darcy was concentrating only on baiting the hook. Then he carefully crept out of the bushes and tiptoed behind his cousin, arms outstretched to give the final push...
Fitzwilliam shouted in outrage and sat up, pushing his sopping hair out of his eyes. Darcy stood by the door, laughing, an empty pitcher in his hand.
"I'm sorry, Fitzwilliam." Darcy tried unsuccessfully to choke back the laughs that still bubbled up from his chest. "I came upstairs to look for you, and your valet directed me here. You presented such a perfect target that I just couldn't resist."
Fitzwilliam scowled at his cousin and reached for a towel, which he used to scrub his hair and wipe away the water that was still streaming down his face. "You are an impudent puppy, Darcy. However, I must admit I probably would have done the same to you. Be a good fellow and bring me my dressing gown, will you? It's on the chair behind you."
Darcy obligingly turned to look for the garment. As soon as his back was turned, Fitzwilliam quickly dunked the towel in the tub, then hurled it across the room. Whack! It landed squarely around Darcy's shoulders. Now it was Darcy who cried out in surprise, as he whirled to face his cousin and threw the towel to the floor.
Fitzwilliam had leaned back in the tub again and was smiling angelically. "I'm so sorry, Darcy, but I was mistaken. The dressing gown is in my bedroom." He winked. "You presented such a perfect target that I just couldn't resist."
Darcy stomped wetly into Fitzwilliam's bedroom, but his smile had returned by the time he did, carrying the dressing gown. After he helped his cousin into it, he found a dry towel and ruefully rubbed his own neck. "And a stupid target, at that. If nothing else, the events of the past few days should have taught me never to turn my back on you. You always manage to do something unexpected while I am looking elsewhere."
Fitzwilliam belted the robe securely, then sat down in a convenient chair and continued to dry his hair. Darcy, noticing a glass on the side table, marveled that his cousin always managed to be within arm's length of the most comfortable furniture and the best spirits in the house. He smiled - Fitzwilliam was hardly ostentatious in his taste for worldly pleasures, but he never settled for less than the best. This preference extended into his friendships as well, for although he had a large acquaintance, there were very few people who could say they truly knew him. Darcy considered it quite a privilege to be counted among this select circle.
And he still continually surprises that lucky few, Darcy thought, even myself, and I have known him almost my entire life. Gentleman, soldier, card sharp -- what new skill will he display next? Darcy felt quite relieved to know Fitzwilliam was working with him instead of against him; it made their success all the more possible.
Fitzwilliam was insensible to Darcy's reflections, since he was leaning back in the opposite chair, keeping his eyes closed. His damp hair curled about his forehead, making him look younger than his thirty years. A small smile played on his lips, but it was impossible for an observer to tell whether the cause was some happy memory or the anticipation of another glass of his brother's excellent brandy. He was very satisfied with himself for having outwitted Reynolds, since he had known for months the reason for the man's uncanny success at cards. There had simply never been, before last evening, any reason or opportunity to use this knowledge. He was also unperturbed by tonight's damp and fruitless wait or the thought of another evening spent in the shadows tomorrow. Such things were the easy parts in their search for Wickham, and the harder task lay ahead: finding the rascal and persuading him to marry Lydia Bennet.
The night was black and had the sudden chill that sometimes happens on summer evenings, an insidious reminder of the changing season soon to come. And, much to Fitzwilliam's relief, the rain had stopped. Both men had pulled their hat brims low over their eyes to prevent chance recognition by any passers-by, and they kept to the shadows at the edge of the street. Cruikshank Lane hardly deserved the name, being rather a poorly cobbled alley lit only by smoky torches at irregular intervals. The glare coming from the front windows of the boarding-house provided a little more illumination -- hopefully enough for them to spot the man they were after. In the quiet street, the rattle of dice could be clearly heard, interspersed with loud catcalls after each throw. Other noises came from the upstairs windows that had been left open to the evening breezes -- apparently gambling was not the only side business Mrs. Younge conducted in her establishment.
The dice game appeared to be nearly over: men in various states of inebriation were slipping out the door by ones and twos. Those who were the least besotted took the time to glance up and down the alley to check for constables, but others could barely stumble out under their own power.
Darcy gripped Fitzwilliam's arm suddenly as one of the last men appeared in the doorway. This man was obviously sober, and just as obviously pleased with his luck, whistling softly to himself as he stepped out of the house. His clothes were slightly worn, but scrupulously brushed, and his hat was set at a rakish angle on his head.
"There he is," Darcy whispered.
"You're sure?" Fitzwilliam whispered back.
"Absolutely. Let's go." Darcy stepped away from the wall and started to walk after the whistling man, taking care to stay in the shadows at a discreet distance behind him. With any luck, he would lead them straight to his lodgings.
Fitzwilliam came close behind his cousin, keeping a wary eye on the dark alleys and doorways they passed. It would never do for the followers to be followed, and Darcy was concentrating too much on the pursuit to consider the possibility of any human interference.
Unfortunately, despite Darcy's concentration and Fitzwilliam's watchfulness, their stealth was ruined by a mundane object: a loose cobblestone. It rolled under Darcy's foot and forced him to quickly shift his weight to keep his balance. The sudden noise of his other boot coming down loudly upon the pavement alerted Wickham to his followers, and in moments he had ducked into a side street and was lost from view.
"Now that he knows someone is after him, he'll be twice as careful." Fitzwilliam swore softly under his breath. "Blast! Now what do we do?"
Darcy had knelt down to briefly rub the ankle that had been twisted when he trod on the loose cobble. Standing up, he looked at his cousin. "I can speak only for myself, Fitzwilliam, but I have had enough of skulking through the shadows. It is high time for a direct approach."
Fitzwilliam looked questioningly at his cousin, then fell into step as Darcy turned and walked back the way they had come. When they reached the boarding-house, Darcy pounded on the door a few times, enough to rattle the sturdy oak planks on their hinges. The door was opened by a rather nondescript older woman, whose angry words at being pulled so rudely away from her warm fire died on her lips as she recognized the gentleman who was calling at such an unorthodox hour.
"Mrs. Younge," Darcy said, as he stepped over the threshold.
Part 8 -- Negotiations Begin
Wickham tilted the somewhat rickety chair on its two back legs, swung his boots up onto the windowsill, and considered the remains of the bottle of wine that was sitting on the equally rickety table nearby. It's probably gone rancid, but at least it's alcohol -- anything to make me forget this rotten mess I've landed in, at least temporarily! Without further thought, he picked up the bottle, took a large swig, and tried with no success to ignore the slightly sour taste. Looking around the room glumly, he remembered that Mrs. Younge would soon be complaining about the rent he owed. And the astounding rate she was charging for these two rooms was practically robbery, even though he was an old -- well, if not friend, at least a business acquaintance. The rug underfoot was patched and threadbare, and the curtains at the window were so worn that they nearly let in more light than they kept out. The bricks around the fireplace were cracked and stained with soot, and as he had discovered a few nights ago when he tried to light a fire to hold back the chill of a rainy evening, the flue was almost completely blocked. However, the smoke had simply found an alternate exit: the space where a pane of glass was missing in one of the casements. Sounds from the street below reached Wickham's ear through that gap now, and he thought he could hear the steps and conversation of some people approaching the building.
How long had it been since he arrived in London? A week? Longer? It seemed like years. What had he been thinking to run off from Brighton the way he had? Well, those tradesmen's bills had been mounting unpleasantly, and there was that little matter of the money he had lost to Denny and Sanderson, about which they had simply refused to behave rationally. A gentleman's word should be good to cover debts of honor, should it not? And going to Colonel Forster like a beggar to inquire about the possibility of an advance on his salary would have been unthinkable. No, making a clean escape had seemed like the safest plan at the time.
He had a little ready money at present, thanks to the rather stupid young solicitor who had been too drunk last night to notice if Wickham was stacking his well-worn deck of cards. Unfortunately, the money would disappear faster than usual, since there was a second person to feed. Of all the idiotic things he had done in a long career of idiocy, why on earth had he persuaded Lydia Bennet to come with him to London? He had thought it would be a lark, since she was obviously infatuated with him, and he had assumed he could dispose of her after a few days. Most of the other young women whom he had put into similar circumstances had started screeching for their mamas as soon as they realized that Gretna Green was not his immediate destination. Or if that didn't work, the insinuation of the delights of shared lodgings, without the aforementioned trip to Gretna, was enough to send them tearfully back to their families. Wickham felt he probably should have flung Lydia out in the street as soon as he realized she would not be leaving voluntarily, but he had a sneaking suspicion that even that would not get rid of her: with his luck, she would sit out on the doorstep and howl for her "darling Wickham" until he gave in and let her in again. He also had enough remnants of good breeding to feel she should survive this escapade without real harm coming to any part of her except, of course, her reputation. Despite what some people might say of him, he was not entirely a hardened rogue, and abandoning a friendless, penniless young girl to the murky cauldron of London streets was more than his commonplace depravity could consider.
Considering her rather precarious circumstances, Miss Lydia was actually holding up rather well. She had made no objection to his constant delays whenever she brought up the subject of the marriage he had airily promised her. In any case, she had declared she would rather be married in Hertfordshire, so that her sisters would have to be her bridesmaids. Her only complaint was that he kept her confined to these two dingy rooms, instead of letting her go out to the park, or the shops, or the theater. Again, she readily accepted his explanation that they would go out into the town as soon as his "business" was completed. The real explanation -- that Wickham couldn't take the chance that either of them might be seen and recognized, in addition to not having the money for such entertainments -- seemed to escape her comprehension completely.
Any other thoughts on his unwelcome companion, his lack of income, or the impending demands of his landlady were interrupted by a knock at the door. Wickham was so surprised that his feet slipped off the windowsill and the front legs of chair came crashing to the floor. The unknown caller apparently assumed that the noise was enough of an indication that the occupant was at home, for the doorknob turned and the door creaked open.
Darcy stepped quickly into the room, seeing at once its decrepit condition. Wickham's financial straits must indeed be tight, if this was the best he could afford. Negotiating with him might not be as difficult as Darcy had feared. Fitzwilliam followed immediately behind his cousin, and they both noticed Wickham sitting by the window. For a moment the three men regarded each other warily, waiting to see who would make the first move.
Before anyone could come to a decision, however, the other door of the room opened and a young girl entered. "Wickham, my love, what was that noise?" She stopped short when she saw the two other gentlemen in the room, and quickly surveyed them from the brims of their hats to the shine on their boots. Recognition gradually dawned, accompanied by a broad grin on her ruddy features. "Good Lord, it's Mr. Darcy!"
Fitzwilliam immediately realized who this girl must be, but it was still something of a shock to actually see her there. The necessary business between Darcy and Wickham would be infinitely easier if Miss Bennet were not involved, so Fitzwilliam immediately walked up to her, took her arm, and escorted her back into the other room. His quick thinking was rewarded by a look of relief from Darcy, who waited for the door to close completely before he returned his attention to Wickham.
"Lydia was correct, and here before me is my dear old childhood friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy," Wickham drawled at last. "You must be the last person I ever expected to see here. Have you taken to slumming lately? Or are you finally taking my advice and sampling the myriad pleasures that can be had so cheaply in this part of town? There might even be something to tempt your watchdog of a cousin."
Darcy resisted an urge to wipe the smile off Wickham's face with a swift punch to his jaw. The man was the same as ever. Darcy shook his head ruefully and wondered that he had ever thought Wickham could change and become a better man. "You know precisely why I'm here. You have finally been caught in your own misdeeds, and it is time to pay. We will now discuss the terms of your marriage to Miss Lydia Bennet."
Wickham actually threw back his head and laughed. "Marry her?" he said, incredulously. "What possible incentive could you give me to shackle myself to such a creature? A mere infant, who is only just pleasing enough to look at? Good God, I ought rather to be paying you to take her off my hands. You cannot persuade me her family has the financial resources to make marriage to such a person worth my while."
"They may not, but I have."
Wickham's eyebrows shot up. "Oh, so that's how it is, is it? Very well, I'm listening."
Fitzwilliam would have liked to stay with his cousin, but he doubted whether he could keep his temper in check for the length of time their discussion would require. It was far safer to remove himself and Miss Bennet from the scene, thereby eliminating the most likely sources of violence and pestering questions.
This second room happened to be the bedchamber, and since there were no chairs, Lydia Bennet had flung herself upon the rather rumpled bed. She considered Fitzwilliam gravely before speaking. "I met that dreadful Mr. Darcy in Hertfordshire, but you were certainly not there. Who are you?"
"I am Colonel Fitzwilliam, and Mr. Darcy is my cousin. Since his business with Mr. Wickham is likely to take some time, I thought I would keep you entertained while we wait for them." He scrambled for any explanation other than the truth: that Wickham might be nursing a black eye or a broken jaw if Fitzwilliam remained in the same room with him for very long.
He need not have worried about whether his excuse was satisfactory; Lydia had noticed only his name and had her brow furrowed in concentration, wondering why it sounded familiar. At last she recalled where she had heard it. "Fitzwilliam! Of course! You must be the one my sister Lizzy met while she was visiting poor Charlotte and that odious Mr. Collins."
"Yes, I had the very great pleasure of becoming acquainted with your sister. Darcy and I called on her several times while she was in Kent."
Lydia continued blithely, not paying the slightest attention to his reply. "Yes, poor Charlotte! Can you imagine having a clergyman for a husband? Maria Lucas described for me everything that Charlotte has to endure: someone dull and shortsighted, who has to preach sermons all the time, and who goes about dressed in a tremendously unfashionable black coat. And a clergyman's wife would never have any fun -- I am sure Charlotte does not. No fancy dresses or elegant bonnets, lest some gossip say she was getting above her station. Lord, how I should hate it! Far better to be a soldier's wife! Maria Lucas thinks the same, but the only officer who ever looked at her twice was Denny, and even he preferred my sister Kitty. Wickham was everyone's favorite, though, and he is far more handsome than anyone else in the regiment. Even Lizzy liked him, so it is such a joke that I will marry him and she will not!"
Fitzwilliam was rapidly revising his initial assumption: far from being in want of entertainment, Miss Bennet seemed to be an excellent source of it. He walked over to the window, marveling at the unending monologue the young lady was able to produce. In the space of five minutes he was regaled with her opinions of clergymen and their wives; her further reasons for preferring officers to clergymen (the ranks of tents at an encampment were far more pleasing to look at than a stodgy old rectory); her stories of which officers she flirted with at Brighton (at one dinner, she enjoyed the attentions of no less than six gentlemen at once, all offering to fetch a glass of wine for her!); her preference for Brighton over Longbourn and London over Brighton (if only her darling Wickham would let her go out into the town!); her opinion on London fashions (several ladies walking by on the street had been wearing long sleeves, which looked positively ravishing, and she intended to follow all the latest designs when she bought her wedding clothes); her decision over whether to keep any of her old dresses (Kitty may as well take the old pink one, but it did not become her nearly as well as it became Lydia herself); and her frequent repetitions of the expected raptures of being an officer's wife (Wickham was sure to be a general in no time, of course, and all the other officers' wives would defer to her). Before she could launch into yet another self-congratulatory outburst for being the first one of the Bennet daughters to be married -- and her just sixteen! -- Fitzwilliam felt he had to interrupt with at least an attempt at rational conversation.
"But Miss Bennet, you are not yet married."
"Well, not at present, but I soon will be. Wickham says we may return to Hertfordshire when his business here is concluded. And then all my sisters will be my bridesmaids! Mama will cry, and Kitty will be positively green with envy, but I do hope she won't ruin the ceremony by pouting through the whole service. Of course, my gown will be so beautiful that no one will notice her. Aunt Phillips once promised she would get me some French lace for a veil, as well!"
Fitzwilliam took a deep breath and tried again. "Miss Bennet, you must realize how wrong it was for you to go away from Brighton with Mr. Wickham."
"Lord, no!" she replied, grinning. "It was all a great joke! No one suspected that I might run away, and I thought an elopement would be more fun than anything. I did leave a note for Colonel Forster's wife," she concluded, as if that last fact made everything right.
"But Miss Bennet, surely you must see that you should have gone at once to Gretna Green?"
She continued as if she had not heard him. "Wickham doesn't know about the note I left for Emily. It was all supposed to be such a secret! I can never keep a secret, though. What fun is it if no one else knows what is happening?"
Fitzwilliam rolled his eyes. "Your family are all very upset that you left Colonel Forster and his wife. You should not have gone without their permission."
"La, but it seems an age since I saw my family! Everything will be smoothed over when I come home and say that I am now Mrs. Wickham." Her smile continued unabated as she stood up and began to twirl about the room. "Just imagine! An officer's wife! What company we shall keep! And Wickham is sure to advance in the army, they will make him a general in no time. I am sure they will give him medals when they realize how brave and daring and dashing he is, and I will pin them ever so carefully on his red coat. Then we simply must have our portrait taken, so that everyone may see that he is certainly the most handsome man in the world!"
Fitzwilliam despaired of making her understand the impropriety of her situation. Stepping out of her way as her twirling continued unabated, he contemplated the enormous difference between Miss Lydia Bennet and her sister Elizabeth. Could the two women truly come from the same family? Now he understood why his cousin Darcy had felt some reservations about the Bennet family, but it raised his opinion of Elizabeth Bennet even higher, to know that she had escaped unscathed from the same influences that had created Lydia's personality. If this comparison did not confirm Darcy's understanding of what a jewel Elizabeth Bennet was, then nothing could.
At length Lydia became dizzy and out of breath, and she collapsed happily upon the bed again. "Lord, what can be taking that dreadful Mr. Darcy so long? Business affairs are so tiresome." She then proceeded to hum tunelessly to herself, considering Fitzwilliam's presence insignificant when compared to her imaginings.
Only a short time later -- though to Fitzwilliam, subjected to Lydia's ramblings, it seemed an eternity -- the door of the room opened and Darcy entered.
"Fitzwilliam, I have done for the moment. Shall we go?"
"As you wish," Fitzwilliam said fervently. Remembering his manners, however, he turned to Lydia and bowed slightly. "Miss Bennet, I bid you good afternoon."
His farewell went unheeded, since Lydia had run into the other room to embrace her darling Wickham. Darcy and Wickham did not speak as the gentlemen took their leave, exchanging instead only a curt nod that was apparently understood on both sides. Fitzwilliam waited until they were out in the street again before addressing his cousin.
"Well, have you come to an agreement?"
Darcy nodded. "We have at least the beginnings of one. I will call on Mr. Gardiner tomorrow morning to tell him that his niece is found, and to describe the settlement that Wickham expects. Then I will need to see my solicitor and my banker tomorrow to arrange some of the financial details. Paying off Wickham's debts will be relatively easy, if he fulfills his promise to make up a list of his creditors, but he was most adamant about having a reliable income if he is to marry Miss Bennet. I would prefer to find him some employment, since regular payments are out of the question."
"He is not still hoping for the living at Kympton, is he?"
"He had the temerity to mention it, but since I have already filled the position, I told him it was impossible. I was also able to make him see how preposterous it would be for someone with a reputation like his to take orders."
Fitzwilliam smiled a little at that. "Not to mention Lydia Bennet's dislike of clergymen! Wickham missed his one chance to rid himself of Miss Bennet: he could have been ordained!"
"Ridding himself of Miss Bennet is no longer an option, Fitzwilliam," Darcy said sternly, "so I would prefer that you not make light of it." Fitzwilliam's smile vanished at his cousin's rebuke. "However, I have to admit," Darcy continued, with a faint gleam in his eye, "that I am quite amused by the idea that Wickham could behave like Mr. Collins!"
Part 9 -- Darcy Pays A Call
Over breakfast the next morning, which was another delicious creation from the Fitzwilliams' excellent cook, Darcy and Fitzwilliam discussed the upcoming meeting with Mr. Gardiner. He was sure to be relieved that his niece's whereabouts had been discovered, but there was some doubt whether he could keep from mentioning Darcy's involvement to the Bennets.
"He is a most honorable gentleman," Darcy was saying. "Once I have explained the reasons for my actions, I believe I may be assured of his secrecy. However, I continue to hope that Mrs. Gardiner will not be at home today."
Fitzwilliam looked up from his breakfast, surprised. "Why is that? You cannot suggest that a lady whom you described in such glowing terms would fail to keep this matter in confidence."
"Not at all!" Darcy replied. "I am as much convinced of Mrs. Gardiner's sense of honor as I am of her husband's. It is only that she is rather more perceptive, and she may not entirely believe my explanation for why I felt so strongly about tracking down Wickham."
"Does she know for certain your feelings for Miss Bennet?"
"No, of course not. If I have not revealed them to Miss Bennet, why should I enlighten her relatives? However, several times during her visit to Pemberley, I found her watching me and Miss Bennet with a peculiar look in her eye."
Fitzwilliam laughed. "Beware of wise married women and their looks! They always find out the truth in the end. Whatever you may wish, for my part I hope that the lady will be at home, since I am quite looking forward to meeting her."
Darcy shifted uncomfortably in his chair and stared at the remains of his poached egg while nervously twisting his napkin. "Actually, Fitzwilliam..." He cleared his throat. "I had planned to call on the Gardiners by myself."
"You do not wish me to accompany you?" Fitzwilliam asked.
"I would rather you didn't," Darcy replied. "I have another commission to which I had hoped you could apply your considerable talents. Do you mind?"
Fitzwilliam admitted to a little disappointment; he had been enjoying both the excitement of the past few days and the rare pleasure of his cousin's company. "Then I suppose my introduction to the Gardiners will have to wait until another time. They sound like a charming couple, and I would have liked to discover if my opinions about Miss Elizabeth Bennet coincided with theirs."
"And what opinions are those?"
It was impossible for Fitzwilliam not to laugh at the tone of his cousin's voice. Darcy hadn't shown such jealousy since they had been in Kent together! "Never fear, Darcy! My opinion is that she is a wonderfully amiable young woman who is perfectly suited to you."
Darcy relaxed and looked rather sheepish. "I beg your pardon, Fitzwilliam. It is just that I haven't completely forgotten that Miss Bennet preferred your company to mine while we were in Kent, and I still wonder if..."
"You have no need to wonder at all," Fitzwilliam interrupted firmly. "That was all months ago, and you have met her at Pemberley since then. I have no doubt of where the lady's affections lie, even if you have. I am surprised that you feel the slightest misapprehension about her feelings, if everything occurred in Derbyshire as you described it to me."
"I do doubt, Fitzwilliam, and I will continue to do so until I see her again, although I know not how or when that shall be. I only hope you are right." Darcy sighed and started twisting his napkin again.
"Of course I'm right!" Fitzwilliam stabbed his knife in the air in the general direction of his cousin to emphasize his point. "And I shall be proved so, although you should not require proof, seeing that I am so much older and wiser than you are."
"And so much more infinitely experienced in the ways of women?" Darcy asked, with an exaggerated air of innocence. He raised his eyes to Fitzwilliam's face, where he was surprised to see the faintest hint of a blush.
"Precisely," Fitzwilliam replied, keeping his attention on his plate. "I'm pleased to see you recognize my superiority in these matters. Now, tell me about this important commission to which I am assigned."
The Gardiner townhouse was in a quiet neighborhood that possessed perhaps less grandeur than the area in which the Fitzwilliam and Darcy homes were located, but was still recommended by neatness and charm. The iron railing in front of the house showed not a speck of rust, the stoop had been freshly swept, and there were colorful flowers blooming in the window-boxes. At an open window upstairs, a maid could be seen tending to the feathered occupant of a gilt birdcage, who trilled sweetly for pure pleasure in the sunlight. Encouraged by the pleasant aspect of the house, Darcy quickly mounted the front steps and rang the bell. The butler who answered the door performed a precise bow and took his card, and the speed with which he returned showed that Mr. Darcy was indeed welcome. The door opened to admit him, he was relieved of his hat, cane, and gloves, and then he was led towards the library.
The floor of the entry hall was hardwood, instead of marble, and perhaps the paper on the walls was a little worn, but the brass of the chandelier gleamed, and everything bespoke care and competence. The library into which Darcy was shown was a good-sized room containing a respectable collection of books, some quite antique and valuable, and sturdy but comfortable furniture. Darcy could only admire the taste and moderation of the house's furnishings. All in all, he found that the house exactly agreed with his impression of its owners, when he had met them in Derbyshire.
Mr. Gardiner had been engaged in some early correspondence, indicated by the disarray of his desk. He stood as Mr. Darcy entered, gravely bowed to his guest, and apologized for the informality of receiving him in the library, instead of in the drawing room. He was at present engaged in some pressing business and trusted that Mr. Darcy would understand that the demands of business occasionally interfered with routine politeness. Darcy calmly nodded his assent, having a very good idea of what business it was that occupied his host so thoroughly. Mr. Gardiner also expressed his regrets that his wife was not present to give her welcome, as she was still detained in Hertfordshire, although she was expected that evening. Darcy breathed an internal sigh of relief at this last information.
"It is a great pleasure to see you, Mr. Darcy," continued Mr. Gardiner, "but I confess I am at a loss to account for your visit."
"Then allow me to explain myself at once," Darcy replied. "I have found your niece, Miss Lydia Bennet."
Mr. Gardiner's expression was incredulous. "Is this possible? We had nearly given up hope of her recovery! And may I know how you accomplished this? You may believe, however, that an explanation will not lessen my gratitude."
"Mr. Gardiner, I feel I bear some of the responsibility for these sad events. Wickham is a knave and a scoundrel, and were it not for my reserve about publishing the details of his connection with my family, he would have been known as such. Since I kept silent, he has been allowed to continue his career of slanders, swindles, and seductions. I intend to make every reparation in my power, including his marriage to your niece, satisfying his creditors, and whatever else may be required."
Mr. Gardiner lowered himself into an armchair and indicated that Darcy might do the same. If, like his wife, he had any other suspicions regarding Darcy's motives, he kept them to himself. "Very well, Mr. Darcy. I must repeat that I am quite relieved, since every inquiry into Wickham's whereabouts I had made since I left Hertfordshire was unsuccessful. My brother, Mr. Bennet, had no better luck while he was here in town -- although I am afraid his motivation markedly decreased once I arrived. He did very little but travel from his bedchamber to the dining room to the library for the last few days of his sojourn here."
Darcy manfully suppressed every indication of amusement at this description of Mr. Bennet. "I was very glad to hear that Mr. Bennet has returned home to his family, where his presence will be a comfort. I am certain that you and I between ourselves can handle every difficulty."
"I made sure that my brother-in-law returned to Longbourn at the earliest opportunity." Mr. Gardiner also kept a remarkably straight face, although he had the benefit of many more years of experience with Mr. Bennet's behavior.
The two gentlemen then settled to the more serious business of exchanging the tales of their searches. Mr. Gardiner reported that the colonel of Wickham's regiment in Brighton had been able to provide very little information about the elopement, except that Wickham had left behind an impressive string of debts, and that the fugitives' only communication had been a note Lydia left behind for the colonel's wife, about which Mr. Darcy had already heard from Lydia herself. Mr. Gardiner had hoped that one of the officers in the regiment would supply them with a clue, but Wickham managed to remain very reticent about his personal affairs while convincing everyone that he was in fact of a very free and open disposition. Unfortunately, most of his revelations had been tales of how he was maliciously wronged by the Darcy family.
Darcy was pained to hear that this false report was still circulating, and increasingly angry both at Wickham for causing it and at himself for not preventing it. His only thought the previous summer had been to preserve his family's honor, and still Wickham had managed to sully it. Darcy consoled himself that no further slander would be spread now that Wickham was captured. In his turn, Darcy spoke of his encounter with Captain Reynolds, the discovery of Mrs. Younge's boarding-house, and the confrontation with Wickham and Lydia. It was with some difficulty that Darcy remembered his promise to Fitzwilliam: concealing his cousin's help, especially when the success of their actions depended so heavily on Fitzwilliam himself, rankled deeply in Darcy's soul.
"I wrote just a few days ago to my nieces Jane and Elizabeth at Longbourn to let them know their father would be coming home," Mr. Gardiner said, settling back in his chair. "My next letter will give them even more relief, when I tell them that Lydia has been recovered thanks to your intervention."
"I beg you will not tell them," Darcy said immediately, practically jumping out of his chair. The sudden energy of his emotions propelled him to pace up and down before the fireplace. "The Miss Bennets would only be distressed to think the knowledge of their sister's shame has gone beyond their family. I should infinitely prefer to keep them unaware of my presence here."
"Sir, I must protest! Perhaps your help is beyond Kitty and Mary's understanding, but Jane and Elizabeth will be fully sensible of its value, and I know they would wish to express their gratitude." Mr. Gardiner thought he saw Darcy flinch at the last word, but surely it was only his imagination.
"No, sir, I insist. You may tell your wife, of course, since I shall not conceal my visits here, but I will not have the Bennet family told. I am sure I sound unreasonable, but I must have it so."
"But Mr. Darcy...!" Again Mr. Gardiner tried to interrupt, but to no avail.
"Mr. Gardiner, as I said earlier, I knew Wickham's character long before he formed any designs on your niece. Forgive me if I do not tell you all the details, but he also tried to injure a member of my family."
Mr. Gardiner, remembering Darcy's sister from his visit to Pemberley, nodded. "And you still fear that if your part, however benevolent, in this sorry affair is made known, then the other may become public knowledge as well, which might still cause your...family...pain. I do understand, Mr. Darcy."
"Thank you, sir."
There was some further argument when Mr. Gardiner realized that Darcy intended to shoulder the entire financial settlement himself. Darcy was a man of substantial means, of course, but surely it was too much for him to pay Wickham's debts, establish an income for him, and provide money for Lydia's marriage portion! However, Mr. Gardiner soon discovered that Darcy was absolutely inflexible on this point, and he was forced to give in. He expressed his chagrin in detail to his wife that evening, after she had arrived from Longbourn -- to be forced to take all the credit for Lydia's return, when he had done nothing, and such an excellent gentleman would never get the gratitude he deserved! It was almost more than he could bear. Mrs. Gardiner gave a rather short and absent agreement; she was obviously thinking of something else at the time, and her husband noticed a peculiar look in her eyes.
Part 10 - A Brief Respite
After Darcy's departure, Fitzwilliam sat for a while at the breakfast table, staring ahead but not at all seeing the linen tablecloth or his empty teacup. It was strange to be left thus alone, especially after spending the past few days so much in his cousin's company. However, he comforted himself that Darcy had given him an important mission: solving the problem of employment for George Wickham.
If Wickham and Lydia Bennet were to marry, a stable income was a necessity. Their life together would not be easy, with his extravagant habits and her lack of sense, and Fitzwilliam knew that, although Wickham and Lydia would never acknowledge any assistance, whatever he could do to improve their chances for financial comfort would be sincerely appreciated by Darcy and, through him, by Miss Elizabeth Bennet. But what profession would be most suitable? Wickham had already tried the law and failed -- and in any case, studying for the bar would mean staying in London, which held far too many temptations for the pair. And Wickham as a clergyman was unthinkable! He had no family inheritance on which he could rely, and he had no connections in trade. The only option for Wickham seemed to be the military -- more specifically, the army, since Fitzwilliam had no connections with the Admiralty. He had to admit, however, that the idea of packing Wickham off on a ship to the West Indies was terribly attractive.
Fitzwilliam's solitary reverie was interrupted by a sudden maelstrom that resolved itself into his little nephew. Young Master Fitzwilliam was as ecstatic as only an eight-year-old boy can be when he came tearing into the breakfast room and discovered that he had his beloved Uncle Fitz all to himself. A harried nurse was hard on his heels, ready to scold the boy for running in the house. Her reprimands could hardly be heard over the boy's rapid-fire description of the games he had played yesterday: pirates captured, stallions mastered, and castles conquered -- which were in reality a toy galleon, a rocking horse, and a pile of wooden blocks. Laughing at these imaginings, Fitzwilliam was quick to suggest a walk in the park before the boy could demonstrate how these exploits were achieved, by pummeling him with his miniature wooden sword. This sword was a gift from his uncle -- as soon as the boy had discovered that Fitzwilliam, as an army officer, was entitled to wear a sword with his dress uniform, nothing would satisfy him until he had one of his very own. The child eventually remembered enough of his manners to look to his nurse for permission, and she gave it, along with a look of infinite gratitude for the gentleman.
Fitzwilliam's introspective mood did not lift immediately, even while walking down the street with his nephew. He found himself staring at the boy, wondering if he would ever have a family of his own. Surely there was a woman in the world for whom he would be willing to go to as great lengths as his cousin was going for Miss Bennet? However, by the time they reached the park the charms of the day were working their magic, and Fitzwilliam put aside his worries. With such a sun shining above, such bright flowers dotting the grass ahead like jewels on green velvet, and such crystalline glints reflecting from the pond under the trees -- surely in a world full of such simple beauties it was impossible that there could be anything but a happy resolution for Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.
The picture made by the uniformed officer and the small boy, who was skipping along while happily clutching his uncle's much larger hand, was enough to bring a smile to the faces of those they passed. Fitzwilliam insisted on good behavior from his charge, showing him how to tip his cap to any ladies walking by, and not letting him rattle his wooden sword along any iron fence railings. His reward for following Fitzwilliam's "orders" -- the child had been made an honorary lieutenant for the day -- was to hear more stories about India, and he peppered Fitzwilliam with questions about "effalunts" and "jagulars." The two settled into a shady spot under a large oak tree, and while he was doing his best to answer the never-ending onslaught of inquiries, Fitzwilliam rapidly constructed a miniature catapult out of twigs and some string and showed the boy how to fire small stones into the pond.
It was in the middle of a recitation about the stalking habits of tigers that Fitzwilliam caught sight of a different sort of hunting creature: Miss Clarissa Lancaster. She was strolling along the path, firmly arm-in-arm with Miss Henrietta Wilkins-Leighton. Fitzwilliam surmised that, in order to be behaving so cordially to each other, the two women must have made up their differences about the proper hue for roses that had made them seem such bitter enemies at the Hutchings' ball only a few days before. This change hardly surprised him, since he already knew that Miss Lancaster's fancies and friendships varied as much as a weathercock on a windy afternoon. Her persistent pursuit of himself was the only constant in her behavior that Fitzwilliam had seen since he made her acquaintance, but he privately hoped that her zeal would be somewhat lessened now that she had had the honor to dance with his much more impressive, handsome, and wealthy cousin, Mr. Darcy.
But alas, this hope was not to be realized. Miss Lancaster easily caught sight of the splash of scarlet that was Fitzwilliam's coat and, seeing the age of his companion, decided that the opportunity to demonstrate her natural maternal skills was too great to be missed. Surely Fitzwilliam would realize what a paragon of womanhood was about to slip through his grasp when he saw how tenderly she dealt with this little child! She spoke a word in Miss Wilkins-Leighton's ear, leaving her to walk with Miss Lancaster's mamma, who was as always trailing rather bemusedly behind her daughter. As she sailed gracefully up to the oak tree which shaded Fitzwilliam and his nephew, Miss Lancaster was thinking of her own perfections instead of her footing, and therefore she did not realize that, when she performed her usual exquisite curtsey, her slippered foot crushed the little twig catapult.
"Colonel Fitzwilliam, how do you do? Such pleasant weather we are having, is it not?"
Fitzwilliam, who had watched with resignation as she approached, now stood up and brushed bits of leaf and grass off his trousers before he made his bow. "Miss Lancaster, you are perfectly correct. The weather is very pleasant. I hope you are enjoying your walk, madam?"
"Yes, I thank you. You see I am taking the air with my mother and Miss Wilkins-Leighton." She gestured towards her companions with a finely-wrought hand, making it necessary for Fitzwilliam to bow to the other two ladies. "And now won't you introduce me to this charming young gentleman?"
"Miss Lancaster, this is my nephew, Master Robert Fitzwilliam."
"What a lovely child!" she cried, bending down towards him. Unfortunately the boy chose this moment to avenge the destruction of his toy, running forward to strike Miss Lancaster soundly on the shin with his wooden sword. He then leapt behind his uncle, and no amount of scolding would convince him to come forward to make an apology.
"Miss Lancaster, are you quite all right? I do apologize for my nephew. He is usually not so shy of strangers." Privately he thought his nephew was becoming an excellent judge of character.
For her part, Miss Lancaster limped for a moment while muttering something about "teaching children proper manners" as she reassumed her usual impeccable posture and did her best to ignore the bruise on her leg. "What a pity," was all she said aloud, smiling brightly. "Children usually adore me."
Fitzwilliam gallantly returned the smile. "They often admire bright and beautiful objects, but you must take care that they do not encounter any sharp edges."
Miss Lancaster either did not follow this remark, or chose to ignore it, rather abruptly changing the subject. "It was too bad you and your cousin had to leave the Hutchings' ball so suddenly. And just when I was discovering what a fine dancer Mr. Darcy is! Will he stay long in town, do you think?"
"His plans are uncertain, since he is here on a matter of business that is following no fixed schedule." Fitzwilliam thought rapidly, seeing the chance to deflect Miss Lancaster's attentions from himself, but knowing that he could not possibly subject Darcy to her wiles. It was more than enough for him to endure Caroline Bingley! "In fact, I should not be at all surprised if he returns to Pemberley within the week."
She seemed disappointed at this intelligence, having obviously been hoping that Darcy would be in town long enough for her to claim his attention at several more assemblies or card parties. At last she said, "Then I hope we will not be deprived of your company so soon, Colonel? My mother was planning to send invitations next week for a small supper at our townhouse, and we would be most gratified if you could attend."
"I am terribly sorry to disappoint you, Miss Lancaster, but my leave will be finished in another day or two. Once I am back at my duties I regret I will have no time to spare, even for such a pleasant evening as that would be."
Miss Lancaster appeared to have had absolutely no use for the type of officer who would rather satisfy the demands of his superiors for military duty than accede to a lady's gracious request for a social engagement, and she returned to the company of Miss Wilkins-Leighton after a perfunctory farewell. Fitzwilliam breathed a sigh of relief, glad for the first time that his leave was almost over. He turned to his nephew, who had not moved from his secure position behind Fitzwilliam's legs, and told the boy it was time to go home. Master Robert was not at all pleased by this announcement and stubbornly refused to move from the spot -- unless he might be carried home on Uncle Fitz's shoulders?
Fitzwilliam solemnly agreed to this ultimatum, and lifted the boy up. Once he was firmly perched, crowing at how high he was above the ground, they set off the way they had come. If possible, they caused more smiles on their return from the park than they had on the journey there.
So absorbed was he in keeping a secure grip on his nephew's legs -- while simultaneously making the boy loosen his grip on his hair -- that Fitzwilliam did not immediately realize that one of the amused passers-by was General Mattox.
Quickly he turned, snapped to attention, and offered a belated salute, trying not to knock off his juvenile burden in the process. "General! Sir, I'm sorry, I didn't see you..."
"Not at all, Fitzwilliam, I can see you were rather occupied. At ease, before you tip over."
Fitzwilliam let out a breath he hadn't been aware of holding. Mattox was an excellent man to have as one's commanding officer, but he was occasionally a stickler for proper behavior from his subordinates. Once he had even canceled Lieutenant Morris's leave simply because the man hadn't shined his boots properly! Fitzwilliam lifted his nephew off his shoulders and gently placed him on the ground, keeping a wary eye on the General as he did so. Master Robert promptly struck what he imagined was a perfect "at attention" stance.
The exceedingly formidable General said nothing else, but only paced in a circle around Fitzwilliam and his nephew, observing them critically. Finally, after harumphing a few times and clearing his throat ominously, he spoke. "Training a new recruit, are you, Colonel? I had thought the point of your leave was for you to relax more, especially after all the trouble you took to get Major Andersen situated."
Fitzwilliam resisted the urge to smile, and kept his eyes forward. "Yes, sir. However, I am always on the lookout for new blood that would benefit our regiment."
"Hmph." Still pacing. "And who is this promising young fellow, eh?"
"Lieutenant Fitzwilliam, sir!" The boy piped up boldly.
The only reaction from the General was to raise his expressive eyebrows a fraction. "A lieutenant already, my lad? Well, with the Colonel's training, we shall hope you continue to progress through the ranks so quickly. Now, Fitzwilliam," he continued, moving his gaze up a few feet until it rested on Fitzwilliam's features, "I'm quite glad I found you, since I was asked to pass along a message. I met Lord B-- at our club this morning, and he said he'd take it as a great favor if you would call on him today. I suggest you go to his Lordship's house as soon as you have finished -- ahem -- training this promising young officer."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. I shall call upon his Lordship directly." He saluted crisply as the General took his leave, but Fitzwilliam's mind was racing. He hardly noticed his nephew battering the little wooden sword on every available railing as they finished their walk home. Why on earth did Lord B-- want to see him? He had been planning to call during his leave in any case, although the events of the past few days had delayed his plans somewhat. But to be asked for and expected? No, there was something else going on here. Fitzwilliam could hardly wait to find out what it was.
Continued in Part 3
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