Rivals & Rascals
August 10, 1812
Colonel Fitzwilliam had paced the perimeter of Shelby’s sitting room so many times and at so furious a pace that he was dizzy from the exercise. Porkhost, no doubt concerned that the colonel was wearing holes in Shelby’s Turkish carpet, had several times attempted to entice the colonel to sit down by bringing in trays of cold meat and cheese, but the colonel had waved him away. He could no more eat than he could sit still. He continued to pace as he relived the events of the morning.
It had still been dark when he and Wickham faced each other in the torchlight with their swords drawn. Believing that Wickham would try some trick if he could not beat the colonel fairly, the colonel initially masked his own prowess, allowing Wickham to believe that he had the advantage. Fortunately, Wickham was a better swordsman than the colonel had anticipated so that it was not too difficult for the colonel to give the appearance of being the weaker opponent. After the colonel had responded to one of Wickham’s thrusts with a particularly weak parry, Shelby, standing on the sidelines, had audibly gasped. Spurred on by Shelby’s gasp, Wickham had advanced upon the colonel with a triumphant look in his eye. With a lightening stroke, the colonel had knocked Wickham’s sword from his hand and then pressed his own sword against Wickham’s throat. The look in Wickham’s eyes quickly turned from triumphant to terrified. Keeping his eyes fixed upon Wickham’s, the colonel had moved his sword from Wickham’s throat to his brow, and then slowly and deliberately had slashed a line from Wickham’s brow to his chin.
The colonel had felt a surge of pleasure when he first drew Wickham’s blood, thinking of the suffering that Wickham had caused to his own family and to Elizabeth’s. His pleasure soon palled, however, as he observed Wickham’s eyes cloud over with pain and horror while the blood poured down his face. The colonel had drawn blood with his sword before, but that had been in the heat of battle. Never before had he had deliberately cut into another’s man’s flesh for personal reasons; and never before had he felt pleasure in such a savage act. He felt a small flush of shame, not for wounding Wickham, but for the coldness of the act, and for the enjoyment he had taken in it.
He looked beyond Wickham to where Digby and his mistress had been observing the duel. The colonel had been shocked by the presence of the woman earlier. It was unheard of for a woman to attend a duel. As he observed the satisfied look on the woman’s face as she watched Wickham’s agony, the colonel realized that this whole event had been staged for her benefit. Digby, looking as pleased as his mistress, glanced over at the colonel and nodded; it was the kind of nod one would give a servant for a job well done. The colonel’s sense of shame increased and he gritted his teeth.
Digby walked slowly toward Wickham and stood directly in front of him. “You will wed the young lady that you recently absconded with. I will then forgive your debts to me, but you are not to show your face in London again. Do you understand?” Wickham nodded and then, his knees buckled suddenly and he fainted to the ground. Digby signaled to the doctor who had been waiting in the sidelines to attend to Wickham. Then Digby returned to his mistress’ side and started leading her up the slope to their waiting carriage.
The colonel stared at Digby’s retreating back. Digby had not seen fit to tell him that he was Wickham’s creditor. It was clear now that Digby had played him for a fool. With clenched fists, the colonel had started walking towards Digby, but Shelby had stepped forward and put a hand on his arm.
“Fitz! What with all that blood, I almost forgot my duties as your second. Come, let me wipe you down and give you some brandy. I could use a snort or two of it myself.”
Unable to resist the lure of brandy, the colonel decided to confront Digby at a later time. He allowed Shelby to lead him to a nearby stand of trees and wipe his brow with a large silk handkerchief. After they had finished off Shelby’s flask of brandy, Shelby produced two large cigars and offered one to the colonel. The two men had smoked in silence. To the colonel’s relief, the thick smell of tobacco smoke partially blotted out the potent smell of blood.
Finally, Shelby broke the silence. “Who is going to see to the young lady?”
The colonel frowned, his thoughts had been focused on Digby. “Which young lady?”
“The girl, your fiancée’s sister. Wickham is not a pretty sight; I imagine she will faint herself when she sees him. Young ladies seem to pass out these days for the littlest reason, and Wickham’s face provides deuced good reason to keel over if there ever was one. He looks like something from the slaughter house.”
The colonel closed his eyes, feeling another wave of shame wash over him. He had forgotten entirely about Elizabeth’s sister. Shelby was right, someone needed to look after the girl, but he could not bring himself to do it. He was the one after all who had savaged Wickham’s face; she would hardly want to see him.
“Will you go, Shelby, and see to her? I will give you her family’s address in Cheapside, you should take her to her sisters. She will want to stay there, anyway, until the wedding.”
Shelby looked uncomfortable at the idea, but he nodded. “What is her name?”
For a moment, the colonel could not remember, then it finally came to him. “Lydia, Lydia Bennet.”
“That’s a deuced fine name. I had a horse named Lydia once. Do you remember Fitz?” said Shelby. “She was remarkably lively but she broke her foreleg and I had to put her down. Damned shame it was, she was a fine animal.”
They finished smoking their cigars while they watched from a distance as the doctor deftly stitched Wickham up. Wickham must have still been unconscious, because he did not stir or cry out while the doctor worked his needle in and out of Wickham’s face.
When the doctor was done with his work and Wickham was thrown on a makeshift stretcher, Shelby stood up and joined the doctor.
“I will take good care of the girl.” He called over his shoulder as he walked behind the stretcher and its carriers.
The colonel stayed behind for awhile, grateful for a moment of solitude. Then he went to find his horse. He still felt a mixture of shame and anger as he rode his horse up the hill, but his mood was starting to improve as he realized that he would be able to formalize his engagement with Elizabeth soon. Wickham had, after all, just agreed to marry Elizabeth’s sister. The colonel was wondering how many hours he would have to wait until he could decently pay a visit to Elizabeth at her aunt’s house, when he encountered Darcy.
When the colonel had discovered, soon thereafter, that Elizabeth had come with Darcy to stop him from dueling, he had felt irritated at both Elizabeth and Darcy for being so reckless. He had felt no real jealousy then, however, secure in the belief that Elizabeth returned his love. Thus, the colonel had been caught completely off guard when Elizabeth had chosen Darcy over him. It was not just her words, as the way in which Elizabeth’s entire being had seemed to soften when Darcy had laid his arm upon hers that had triggered the colonel’s jealousy.
The colonel was then overtaken by a sense of fury so strong he was more than half blinded by it. He had launched himself at Darcy, and blindly hit him not once, but twice. He would have kept hitting him if Elizabeth had not restrained him. She had looked at the colonel then with such animosity that the he had literally felt a pain in his heart. He remembered throwing himself on his horse and shouting some bitter words to Elizabeth before riding off at a breakneck pace.
Seething with rage and despair, the colonel had ridden for hours and hours. It was not until both he and his horse were so tired that they could hardly hold their heads up that the colonel finally returned to Shelby’s house. He had stalked into the house and after ascertaining that Shelby had not returned home, the colonel had retreated to Shelby’s study. Tired as he already was from riding, he could not stop himself from pacing; and here he was, more than an hour later, exhausted and footsore, pacing still.
The colonel sank suddenly into a chair, unable to stay on his feet a moment longer. It was the strength of his emotions that were the biggest drain to his energy. He had lived his life up to now without feeling very deeply about anything or anyone. He had a fondness for many things and many people, Darcy and Georgiana, chief among them, but he had never needed or wanted anyone with anything close to the intensity that he still wanted Elizabeth. He had always thought that love was a pure and elevating emotion, but this violent passion that he felt for Elizabeth was dark and lowering. The idea that Elizabeth preferred Darcy to him made the colonel wish them both evil.
The colonel had a sudden desire to play chess. He hoped that the strategic challenge of the chess board would calm down his overwrought emotions. He strode to the door and called for Porkhost. The man appeared almost instantaneously.
“I believe there is a chess board in the house, but it might take me awhile to locate it.” Porkhost had responded to the colonel’s query. “Mr. Shelby has never used it, I am afraid.”
The colonel nodded. “I am not surprised. I daresay Shelby would not know a pawn from a bishop.”
“Precisely, sir. He would not know a bishop from a vicar either, but that is another matter,” said Porkhost before he withdrew. Porkhost returned a few moments later carrying a chessboard and pieces. He swiftly set it up; the colonel noticed that he knew the exact location where each piece belonged.
After Porkhost had departed, the colonel lovingly picked up the black queen, his thoughts returning to Elizabeth. How could he bear it if Elizabeth married Darcy? The colonel closed his eyes and sunk down in his chair, still clutching the black queen. But would Darcy marry her? The colonel would have said one week ago that it was impossible that a man with Darcy’s pride and sense of self-consequence would marry so far beneath him, but he knew now what love and passion could do to a man. If Darcy felt anything approaching the degree of passion that the colonel himself felt for Elizabeth, he would overlook any family impediment, even Wickham.
The colonel stared at the chess piece in his hand. Elizabeth had deceived him grievously. He had been convinced that she loved him. She had melted so sweetly into his arms during those several occasions in which he had held her, and she had even allowed him to braid her hair and caress her neck. In addition to granting him these liberties, she had agreed to marry him once the situation with Wickham and Lydia had been resolved. Surely, these things meant she cared for him him. Perhaps, he had imagined more between Elizabeth and Darcy than there actually was.
The colonel put the black queen in her place on the back of the board. He moved a white pawn two spaces forward while he thought back to the events of the morning. Elizabeth had refused to ride with him on his horse, preferring to travel in Darcy’s carriage. Although he had taken this as a sign of rejection, perhaps, this reflected nothing more than the fact that she did not want to ride with the colonel on his horse. True, it would have been somewhat scandalous for her to ride through town on his horse. The colonel bolted upright as he suddenly remembered something that Elizabeth had told him once in Kent. She had said that she had only been on horseback once in her life, and it had been an experience she did not care to repeat. The colonel felt suddenly giddy with hope. Perhaps, Elizabeth’s determination to ride with Darcy had been motivated chiefly by fear of riding on his horse. He thought back to Elizabeth’s various looks and gestures of this morning and determined that they signfied very little after all other than relief that she would not have to ride on a horse, and dismay that the colonel had hit his cousin.
The colonel moved the black knight forward in the position most protective of the queen. His heart felt lighter already. There was still a chance that he could still have Elizabeth. Perhaps, he had blown everything out of proportion. After all, Elizabeth had not retracted her promise to marry him if Wickham married Lydia, she merely chose to ride home in a carriage instead of a horse.
The colonel suddenly heard laughter coming from downstairs. He froze as he recognized the voices of Shelby and Elizabeth. Elizabeth was here, he thought and a bolt of joy shot through him. She would not be laughing so with Shelby if she had decided to refuse the colonel’s suit. The colonel smiled and shoved the chessboard away from him. He strode to the mirror and fussed with his hair, trying to decide whether he would go downstairs to greet Elizabeth or wait until she came up to see him. Although part of him wanted to run downstairs and embrace her, his pride prohibited him from doing so.
He sat down on Shelby’s sofa, arranging his legs and arms in a casual pose. He decided that he would accept her apology graciously and then he would tell her that Wickham had agreed to marry Lydia immediately. He smiled as he imagined her face when he told her the news.
He heard quick footsteps on the stairs and he sat up straighter, schooling his features into a nonchalant expression. The door burst open and Shelby entered the room, his face glowing brighter than the end of his cigar.
“Fitz, you will never guess what has occurred! I am still reeling from the shock of it.”
“Yes, I heard you come in with Miss Bennet. Where is she?”
“She is taking a bath before we leave town. She has not had a hot bath in days and days. I wonder how long she will take, we can not dally for too long you know. Why remember when Sherman tried to elope with that red headed chit, they took too long about it and …”
“Shelby, I do not have the faintest idea what you are prattling on about. Would you please tell me why my fiancée is taking a bath in your house?”
Shelby closed his mouth and then opened it again. “Your fiancée, Fitz? No, no, I am talking about Miss Lydia Bennet. Lydia, like the horse. She is as lively as the other Lydia, too. She even snorts like a horse when she laughs. She is magnificent.”
The colonel held up his hand, “Enough of this nonsense, Shelby. I know you cannot talk sense when you are excited. Sit down and have a glass of brandy. Then I will ask you questions and you will answer.”
Shelby nodded and sank down into a nearby chair. Fitz handed him a glass of brandy which Shelby downed in two gulps.
“Now then, am I correct that Miss Lydia Bennet is here in this house taking a bath?”
“Why is she in your house?”
“I told you, Fitz, she wanted to take a bath before we leave town. We are going to Scotland.”
“And why are you going to Scotland?”
Shelby’s eyes brightened. “That is the exciting part Fitz. We are going to Gretna Green to get married.”
The colonel frowned and shook his head as if trying to clear out his ears. “You and Lydia Bennet are eloping to Scotland?
Shelby nodded again.
“She must marry and she will not marry Wickham. He was a terrible brute to her, Fitz. I witnessed it myself. I would have called him out for it, but you already did that this morning, and he did not look in the condition for another duel.”
“Tell me what happened.”
“After one of Digby’s men and I had helped Wickham up the stairs of his boarding house, Lydia came to the door. You should have seen her, Fitz, she is such a fine, sturdy looking gel . Then, she saw Wickham and screamed. Other girls would have fainted, but Lydia just put her hands on her hips and screamed. Wickham said some cruel things to her then. I will not even repeat them, but he was a scoundrel, I can tell you. Then Lydia said that Wickham looked like the devil and she would not have him anymore. Wickham made a move as if to hit her and I stepped in between them. Lydia told Wickham that she never wanted to see him again and she ran out the house. I followed her, of course. I certainly did not want to stay there with Wickham.”
“What happened then?”
“Well, I offered to take her to her family’s house, but she refused to go. She said they would scold her and try to make her marry Wickham even though his looks were ruined. So, I decided to take her to my sister’s house out in W----. We drove all the way there but my sister was not in. I did not have a clue what to do then, so I asked Lydia to marry me.”
“Shelby, that is really quite decent of you, but you do not have to make that sacrifice. The girl is young. She will change her mind about marrying Wickham once she gets used to his looks. I will talk to her myself when she gets out of the bath and convince her to go to her aunt’s house.”
“But Fitz, you do not understand. I want to marry Lydia. I have never met any one like her before. She is uncommonly lively and fresh, and she loves to laugh. Even with everything that happened today, she managed to laugh most of the afternoon. I have never laughed so much in my life. She makes me feel ten years younger, and she does not mind that I talk a lot. I really think I am in love with the gel already, I really do.”
The colonel was having difficulty comprehending this turn of events. “But Shelby, Lydia Bennet has been living with Wickham. You cannot possibly think to marry another man’s leavings.”
Shelby looked affronted. “She is not Wickham’s leavings; she left him, not the other way around. I know it is the fashion to marry a chaste woman, but I do not have the stomach for it myself, Fitz. Why, the very idea of sleeping with an innocent girl who has no idea what to do, and all those tears and blood and everything, it makes me ill. I have heard all of the stories, Fitz, and I will not have it. It is much better to marry a girl who knows what she is about and I can tell you that my Lydia certainly knows what she is about. She is just the one for me.”
“As your friend, Shelby, I must insist that you forget this foolish idea at once. Lydia Bennet is only fifteen and she has already acted in the most scandalous fashion. She sounds completely feckless. Besides, she has no fortune.”
“Neither does her sister, I imagine, and you are all set to marry her. Even if Lydia did have a fortune, I would probably just gamble it away; you know what I am like Fitz. She and I will do just fine on the monthly allowance my mother gives me, it is more than adequate. Do not try to talk me out of this, Fitz. My mind is quite made up. I have given Lydia my word and I will not go back on it. You should be happier about it. Just think, when you marry her sister, we will be brothers by marriage. Imagine that! Thank of what fun we will have at family parties.”
The colonel’s face darkened. “Well, as to that, I do not think it is likely.”
Shelby waved his hand, “Oh come now, Fitz, everything will turn out splendidly, you will see. Have some brandy.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam poured himself a large glass of brandy and looked at his friend. He could not help noticing how happy Shelby looked.
“Since you are determined to marry Lydia Bennet, I wish you joy.” The colonel raised his brandy glass in a salute and then quickly downed half of its contents.*********************
That evening, Colonel Fitzwilliam found himself in Digby’s mistress’s house trying to find Digby. The place was even more crowded than it had been when he had visited a few days earlier. Someone handed him a glass of champagne and he tossed it back in one gulp. The colonel spotted Digby on the other end of the room and he tried to make his way over to where Digby stood, but the crowd kept pressing him backwards.
The colonel felt a hand on his arm and he turned and found himself face to face with Digby’s mistress. He greeted her curtly and started to turn quickly away. She kept her hand on his arm.
“I know this morning was not pleasant for you, colonel and I am sorry for that,” Her voice was soft and her accent was genteel.
The colonel bowed slightly. “I was glad to be of service, madam.” There was an edge of sarcasm in his voice.
“I understand that you did yourself a service, as well, Colonel Fitzwilliam. Now that Wickham is to be married, you can marry her sister. That is your desire is it not?”
Colonel Fitzwilliam stiffened but said nothing. Besides, resenting the reference to Elizabeth, he did not like the fact that this woman knew so much about his personal affairs.
“I wanted to ask you about the handsome dark haired couple who came to the field this morning just before we left. Shelby indicated that the man is your cousin, is that correct?”
The colonel almost groaned, this was the last thing that he wanted to talk about, and with Digby’s mistress of all people. He nodded and said nothing.
“I was sitting in my carriage when they arrived. They are a most striking couple, and their carriage is so elegant. Are they newly married? ”
The colonel shook his head.
“Well, they must have a very happy marriage then. Even though they were clearly worried about you, their devotion to each other was apparent. Why, just the way they looked at each other when the gentlemen helped the lady down from their carriage made my pulse quicken. You probably will not believe it, Colonel Fitzwilliam, given my circumstances, but I am a firm believer in true love. I hope you will be as happy in your marriage as your friends seem to be in theirs.”
The colonel had turned pale. “Thank you. Please excuse me, madam.” Colonel Fitzwilliam pushed his way through the crowd until he came to a fairly deserted sitting area. He sank into a chair and put his head in his hands. His eyes had not deceived him, then. If a total stranger could sense a passionate connection between Darcy and Elizabeth, there must be something between them. A footman walked by and asked the colonel if he needed anything.
“Punch,” said the colonel immediately. “Bring me a pitcher of laudanum punch and a cup.”
By the time Digby found the colonel an hour or so later, the colonel was snockered.
“I am glad to see you, Colonel,” said Digby in his colorless manner. “I have something for you.”
The colonel opened an eye and stared at Digby. He knew he was supposed to be angry at Digby about something, but he could no longer remember why he was angry. “More punch?” he asked hopefully.
Digby’s upper lip curled slightly. “No, it is something else. I will be right back.”
Digby returned a few moments later carrying a small, heavy looking sack. He lifted it up and poured its contents onto the table in front of the colonel. The gold coins were so bright they hurt the colonel’s eyes.
“These are you winnings. Remember, half the takings from the bet yesterday were to go to the winner of the duel. There is over 500 pounds here. You deserve it.”
The colonel squinted at the money on the table and suddenly remembered why he was angry with Digby. He stood up to confront him but the sudden motion made him dizzy, so he sat abruptly down again. He closed his eyes and clutched his stomach. “You are a bastard.” The colonel said between clenched teeth.
“That is perfectly true,” said Digby calmly, “and you are about to be very ill, I believe. I will have my man see you home at once.”
Within a matter of moments, Colonel Fitzwilliam found himself sprawled in a carriage with the bag of coins perched on his lap. He opened the bag and stared at his winnings as he thought about everything that he had lost.
Return to Rascals and Rivals page
Return to Austen Interlude
© Maggie 2005-2006