Posted on Saturday, 11 December 2004, at 3:33 p.m.
It is dark and wet. Outside the carriage, rain falls in drips and splats from the branches of trees and the gates of the great houses we pass.
Inside the carriage the air feels cold and damp and there's the smell of wet wool from my uniform coat and from my collar - soaked through with my tears. The carriage rocks and sways. The coachman cracks his whip. I promised a reward for getting me to Pemberley by early tomorrow morning. Before she... Before the woman I love slips out of my reach forever. I have - I think - proof that will render my reputation blameless and me worthy of her.
But why should Darcy believe me now? Now, after all these years. Perhaps I'm going on a fool's errand.
Something like the exhaustion of sadness overcomes me. I turn to the window and rest my head on it. And I feel the carriage rock beneath me, rock, rocking me away from the present and into the past.
"No, I don't believe I will give you the living at Kimpton," Fitzwilliam snarls at me. "Good Lord man, think you I don't know about your scandals at Cambridge?"
I stand, mute and confused in front of him, in what was once his father's study. From the wall behind Will his father's portrait looks down at me, his blue eyes softly benevolent and his smile that gentle one which he often gave me. Will's father was my father's best friend, who lured my father away from a lucrative practice as a solicitor and down to manage his great estate of Pemberley.
It wouldn't have been a hard thing to do. My father had been left recently widowed, with no one to look after a baby son, and facing letting that son grow up in cramped quarters in London with no supervision. George Darcy had offered him a chance to live in the country, in one of the most beautiful estates in Derbyshire and to have his son share the nursery with Darcy's own son. How could my father have refused? Oh, sure, it was a diminution of prestige for him, but what did he care for that? George was not someone to hold to the social differences. My father had taken the offer and been contented with it. As had I, till that moment.
Oh, I'd had some inkling before that not all was quite right. When his father paid for me to go to Cambridge with Will, Will and I, both, had been overjoyed. We were to have a shared lodging in Cambridge and we were to take with us, as a joint valet, Curvin Smithen, who had grown up with us - well, as a boot boy - and who had just finished his training as valet. It seemed to us, then, like we'd achieved our dream of adulthood, like we were finally to enter that marvelous world of privilege and that nothing but happiness awaited us. We were, you see, the best of friends. Like brothers from the nursery onwards. Between us there was no awkwardness, no feeling of social superiority.
But shortly after we got to Cambridge, I noticed as our friendship cooled. William seemed distracted around me, shy, retiring. He no longer talked to me about his most intimate concerns, his thoughts, his fears.
I recalled Smithen telling me, "Well, what can you expect, now, Mr. Whickam? Surely you realize all his other friends here at Cambridge are far above you? Surely you realize that they have made fun of him for his friendship to you?"
Whatever I'd expected, it wasn't this. It wasn't Will, tight-lipped and pale, summoning me into the study right after his father's funeral, and then announcing that he wasn't giving me Kimpton.
"Why? Why ever not?" I finally managed to say. "Why not give me the living your father promised? Why would you dishonor his memory?"
Will's lip curled, the way his lip has always curled since childhood when he was presented with a patent falsehood, an unworthy action or someone he judges despicable. "Dishonor his memory indeed. Yes, I would do that and more if I gave that living to you. No, Whickam, give over. I know you too well to entrust you with the souls of Kimpton. I'm not sure I would entrust you with the souls of Hades." He pulled his father's account book from the drawer. "Name your price for what you'd rather have, instead, and I'll write you a note for it here and now."
He looked up. I was speechless.
"Name your price," he said. "Come on, while I feel generous. You must understand that now that both our fathers are dead there is no occasion for you to come to Pemberley and you must consider our acquaintance to be quite at an end."
I felt tears burning in my eyes. He would turn me out of the only home I'd ever known? I swallowed hastily, to avoid disgracing myself. "Will?" I asked, not quite sure what this meant. Was it some nightmare in which my childhood friend, my almost brother became a malevolent stranger? I would presently wake up and be snug in my room in Cambridge and Will would be sleeping in his room next door. I would wake him up and tell him of my strange dream and we'd laugh about it.
"Please don't call me that. I will give you a note now, and you will cash it - I'm sure you have gambling debts aplenty, not to mention payments to any tradesmen's daughters - and then you will consider all our acquaintance at an end." He wrote as he spoke, in large, vivid flourishes. "Will ten thousand be enough? Surely ten thousand would be enough. Good Lord, fortunes have been made on less. You will take ten thousand and you will leave my home. We shall only meet again as common and indifferent acquaintances."
Numb, not believing any of this could be happening, I received the slip of paper with a hand that felt frozen.
"I... I suppose I could study law," I said. My voice cracked and failed.
Will looked up, looked at me. There was not in his eyes any friendship, any hint of concern, though my pain must have been vividly etched in my features. "I do not care how you live, nor what you do," he said. "So long as you be gone."
I don't know how I stumbled from that office. I do not remember. I do remember standing in the vast, marbled hall. Darcy had my things packed. Smithen waited with them. He handed me my cane, my hat, my cape, all curtly and without emotion. "You must know, sir," he said. "You must be gone. He'll have the law on you, otherwise."
"The law for what?" I asked, bewildered.
"Why, sir, that note he gave you. Surely you know he'll change his mind long before you cash it. He'll say you extorted it."
"Why?" It was the question I kept asking and to which I got no answer.
Smithen sighed. "I've tried to tell you, sir, in Cambridge, but you would not believe me. Mr. Darcy has fallen in with an unsavory set. All those tradesmen's daughters, the men demanding payment for gambling debts..."
I remembered. There had been women running from our quarters as I approached. There had been men coming to look for me, asking for payment for gambling debts incurred in some drunken game. There had been men demanding I marry their daughters. In that much Darcy was right, I owed money everywhere. Save for one thing - I hadn't done any of it. My days were spent studying or walking, my nights often praying in the College's chapel. I had no carnal knowledge of anyone and I certainly had never gambled.
"He," Smithen said, filling the word with meaning and significance. "Gave your name when he went about his exploits..."
And that I could see, suddenly. The whole thing became clear in my mind. Oh, Darcy and I look nothing alike. Not in a family type of resemblance. But we are both of us fairly tall men, and dark haired, and both of us have blue eyes. Similar enough to look the same in the darkened gambling dens around Cambridge and to men too intent on their pleasure to care to fix a face in their memories. Similar enough to sound the same in the descriptions a daughter gives her irate father.
"But why would Darcy do that to me?" I asked Smithen. It was an innocent question, as of a child to an adult.
His blue eyes looked sad, just like an adult's who has to explain a painful truth to a child, "Don't you know, sir? Have you never suspected? Why, sir. He's always resented the interest and kindness his father showed towards you, of course. Very proud, Mr. Darcy is."
And Smithen had to be right, though Darcy could only have become proud after going to Cambridge. But such things happened to people as they grew up. I should not think on it anymore.
My heart broken, all of my worldly possessions in a small bag, I started making my way down the long drive of my childhood home for the last time.
And then I saw her.
At first I thought that in my pain and grieving I was hallucinating an angel to console me. It was only on looking again I realized that the angel was none other than Georgiana.
Georgiana is Will's sister and almost ten years younger. Her mother died birthing her and while she was a small child in the nursery both Will and I spent hours entertaining her and seeking to make her laugh. In those days, I supposed, I'd thought of her as something between a doll and a sister.
But then at seven she had been sent away to an expensive and reputable school for girls. Mr. George Darcy had judged it prudent that his daughter should have a more feminine surrounding than a home where everyone but a few servants was male. Two years after she'd gone to school Darcy and I had gone to Cambridge. I hadn't seen Georgiana at all in eight years.
And what I saw now took the breath from my lungs and the thought from my mind. Even my hurt was gone. All I could think was how beautiful she looked - this blonde young lady I could not associate with the awkward child I'd once loved in quite a different manner.
This young lady awakened in me feelings I hadn't been sure of ever entertaining towards anyone. I wanted to fall on my knees and worship her. I wanted to hold her in my arms, protect her, comfort her. I wanted to put a ring on her finger and call her Mrs. Whickam.
She wore a dark dress - mourning, of course - and held a dark parasol open behind her. The darkness only made her seem more beautiful, a statue in ivory and sunlight. Her eyes were reddened. She would have cried for her father. She hadn't attended the funeral, of course. Women didn't.
"George?" she said. And a small smile appeared on her grief-pale features. "George. You came for the funeral." Then her gaze wondered to the valise in my hand. "But you mustn't leave. You mustn't leave so soon. You must stay and console me and Will. We three have always been quite close, have we not? You're family. Family draws together in times of sadness."
I couldn't tell her what had happened between Will and I. It sounded so insane, even to me. Perhaps Will was insane. Perhaps that was it. It wasn't his fault. Just an illness, a sad event. "I ... can't stay," I told her. "I wish I could, but business calls me away to... London." I spoke quite at random.
"London?" She smiled. "Oh, but then you must come see me. Will is setting me up in my own household with my own governess in Rams Gate. You must visit me, George. Promise you will. I will not be denied."
She looked so adorable. As imperious as her insufferable aunt Catherine, but with a whispering undertone of shyness and diffidence. How could I have refused her anything?
As the heavens are my witness, I swear I though I'd visit Georgiana in Ramsgate and we'd make stilted conversation over tea that had brewed too long - as tea made by these governesses is all too prone to doing - and then I'd leave and go about my business, as shod of Georgiana as I was of her brother.
I'd never cashed the promissory note - indeed, I dared not, because Smithen was probably right and any man willing to treat an old friend the way Will had done would be capable of any villainy. I had no intention of being jailed for extortion. With Will's word against mine, they'd surely choose his.
Instead, I'd found menial work in a book binder's, reading the final proof before text was printed. I was familiar enough, from Cambridge, with the Bible and all holy texts to catch mistakes efficiently. It paid me enough to keep me in clothes and food and a small room. I lived.
And then I visited Georgiana. And in those moments in her tidy rooms, in the better section of Ramsgate I was a gentleman. I was sir, and Mr. Whickam again. I was... what I had once been.
I think at first that was the attraction, the reason I allowed Georgiana to invite me back, and then again. But then something changed. I started going back... for Georgiana.
I think it took me a full six months, as fall turned to Winter and Winter to shy blushing spring to realize I was in love. I was in love with Georgiana Darcy. As far above my station as I could ever hope to love, and enchanted with the turn of her arm, the movements of her hand, the little crooked shy smile she essayed. I was besotted with the way her blonde hair curled at the nape of her neck. And not all the perfumeries of the east could create a scent to equal her fresh smell of soap and rose water.
I dreamed of her during the day and then dreamed of her at night. My only hours of golden happiness were those spent in her lodgings, holding her hand.
This is the only explanation I have for proposing to her. Surely, even at the crest of my emotion I must have known it was foolish. Perilous. Insane. Not to say self destructive.
And yet I proposed and she accepted. And then I must carry my purpose without being interrupted. I must get to marry her before Darcy found us out. Once I was a member of the family I would have some leverage and if Darcy was truly slipping into insanity there were excellent doctors of the mind. I could have managed it, I would have managed it, were we truly related.
Georgiana agreed to elope. Not happily, but I explained how people might think, how they might say I only wanted her for her dowry. How certain tongues - the Miss Bingleys' - might impose upon her brother's kind, believing nature. She accepted. She was in love with me. She accepted my explanation because she wanted to marry me as much as I wanted to marry her.
I remember that other night of rain and darkness, and waiting inside the carriage for Georgiana and her packages.
It was cold for a Summer night, and the rain was from one of those thundery ones, when the blustery wind whistles around corners. Georgiana looked giddy, in her pelisse and hat, as she ran down the steps. And stopped.
There were hooves in the night and a horse drawn up behind the carriage. Georgiana looked delighted. She ran towards where the horse had stopped.
I believe I knew even then, who the rider was. I felt no surprise when, after a brief talk with Georgiana, Will appeared at the door to the carriage. He was furious. I'd only seen him that furious a couple of times while growing up - once when his groom had whipped a horse within an inch of its life, and then again when a gardener had beaten the gardener's boy without mercy. Both times Darcy - only a stripling of a boy - had threatened to have the offender flogged.
Now he was looking at me in cold rage. He looked so pale his lips appeared gray. "Eloping?" he asked. "You convinced her to elope?" His lips trembled and his gaze flashed with ire. "She is just sixteen."
"I love her," I croak. "I want to marry her."
"Oh, I am sure you love her," Darcy said. "Which is why you want to destroy her reputation forever. Out of my sight, Whickam. Take this carriage to whatever miserable hole you huddle in."
"You can't do that. Georgiana. I want to see Georgiana."
"Meaning you want to blackmail me over whatever letters or billet doux she was indiscrete and innocent enough to write to you. Very well, Whickam. I'll send Smithen with a check and you will send me every last scrap of paper you have of hers. Do you understand?"
I tried to protest, but he slammed the door of the carriage, and I heard him order the coachman, "Drive on, coachman. Drive this villain whence he came."
And the carriage took off, bouncing and jostling through London streets.
I never saw Georgiana after that. Smithen brought me a note, indeed, the contents of which I scruple to mention, and a check which I would never dare cash.
He took from me a letter written with an anguished heart and stained with my tears. It detailed, faithfully, all my dealings with Darcy and told Georgiana all that I'd like to have spared her. It begged her, for the sake of the love we shared, to meet me the next day, at such and such hour, by the coachmen's on Hay street. I thought we'd rent horses and make the fastest way possible for Gretna Green.
Need I say she didn't show up? I sat and waited, in the warm summer evening, by a horses' trough, till the sky turned bright pink in the East. And then I went home with a broken heart.
How I lived, how I survived those few months, I don't know. I seized upon the recommendation of a friend, Denny, to join the militia. It seemed a good way to leave behind London, the scene of my happiness and it's shattering.
I went to Hertfordshire, to a little place called Merryton. And there found, to my chagrin, that Darcy was a guest at a country house nearby. Neatherfield, it was called. And, as any man who has ten thousand a year to his name, he was the subject of lively speculation amid of the mamas and the daughters of Merryton.
Wishing to warn them all but, for the sake of his father not wishing to disgrace him publicly, I contented myself with warning one woman, a Miss Bennet, at whom Will was looking with particular intent. I realized my warning was most improper, but Miss Elizabeth Bennet seemed to understand it all.
And then the militia moved to Brighton. I went, happy to get away from Will. Tradesmen were accusing me of seducing their daughters again, and there were men collecting from me for debts I'd never incurred at the gambling table. It had gotten so that Smithen told me Will plotted my death. All his other behavior was perfectly normal, so I had to believe it was I and I alone who unhinged him. I left, hoping it would all improve between us.
But in Brighton my debts only got worse. People pursued me for payment. The odd thing is, though Will had left Hertfordshire, I didn't see him in Brighton. Not once. I had to assume he was there, though, because I once glimpsed Smithen from a distance and Smithen was, after all, Will's valet.
The debts got so awful the only thing I could do was go to London and cash those old promissory notes. I prepared to do so.
That night it was raining again. Seems to be my fate whenever I have to travel by carriage. The note had arrived, informing me that this night I'd be thrown into debtor's prison.
It was not my intention to rot in jail for Darcy's spurious debts in my name. Of course, I might very well end up rotting in jail by cashing a note he said was not intended for me. But it was a risk I had to take.
I had got a coach with my last remaining bit of pay, and I was getting into it, when I heard panting and giggling. Puzzled, I looked out the window.
Miss Lydia Bennet - the young and very silly sister of Miss Elizabeth Bennet who was the particular friend of Mrs. Forster, my commander's wife and who had been staying with the commander's family - was running towards the carriage, in a flutter of ruffles and laces, an eager grin on her pretty, vacuous face.
As she approached the carriage, the driver opened the door to her - if out of habit or because it was the logical thing to do, I'll never know. She plunged in, in a cloud of perfume and giggles.
Her face was flushed, a not unbecoming pink in a girl still very young and naturally very pretty. She leaned back in the seat taking deep, racking breaths. "Oh, Lord, I'm fagged," she said. And grinned. "But we're eloping, Whicky." She adjusted her skirts and gave me a sly look. "Imagine your being in love with me all this time. And never to tell me or give a sign of it to me personally but only to write about it in letters, what a good joke. But I'm glad you did. We shall be married. And I only sixteen." She gave me a sly look, under her quite long eyelashes. "To think I shall have done what none of my sisters has done."
"In love?" I asked, puzzled. Miss Lydia was very pretty, I'll grant anyone that, but really - look at the way she was behaving when she thought she was eloping. Was this proper behavior for such an occasion? And why did she think she was eloping? With me? "Why? Why? Why?"
"Oh, Whicky, there's no need pretending. Your note said it all so well. How much you loved me, how you couldn't live without me. How you'd die lest I eloped with you. And how you'd have the coach here a this time." She grinned at me.
It was the scene with Darcy in the study after his father's funeral all over again. Perhaps I should contemplate that it was not Darcy who was insane, but I. Perhaps I did these things and... forgot them? But why would I want to punish myself in such horrible ways as to cut all my own access to Pemberley? And so as to marry miss Lydia Bennet?
The Coachman's voice came through the window, "Sir, there's a large group in pursuit. Sir..."
The creditors. And now, if they caught me with this girl. "Drive, man, drive."
"To Gretna Green," Lydia Bennet called out laughing.
"To London," I screamed desperately, over her voice.
I confess I sat in my lodgings at the boarding house Mrs. Young had opened and drunk myself into a stupor day after the day for the next several weeks. If I was so insane as to gamble, wench, run up debts and elope with Lydia Bennet all without my knowing it, then there was nothing for it but to drink myself to death.
Meanwhile, Lydia - who had been placed in the room next to mine and whom I had not touched, at least that I knew, of course - whined day and night "When shall we go out? Are you going to take me to the theater? Are you going to take me to a review? When shall we be married? I'm bored."
How could even the dark side of my soul wish to elope with her?
I had the notes cashed and forwarded some money to Brighton to pay for the debts there. The rest of it I invested in good wine as I sat by the window and dreamed of Georgiana. Georgiana who didn't love me, Georgiana who hadn't met me. Georgiana who was now forever our of reach - because of Lydia Bennet.
It shouldn't have come as a surprise that Darcy found me. I had given my address when cashing those notes. What came as a surprise was that he took an interest at all. And that he looked as angry as I'd ever seen it, but controlled himself and didn't punch me into the ground.
He wanted something from me, you see. He wanted me to marry Miss Lydia Bennet.
It seems that, quite unknown to me, his romance with Miss Eliza Bennet had progressed till she was all he could think about. From the tone of his words, and though he'd not said it, he was either at the point or proposing or had proposed to Miss Bennet when the news of my elopement with Lydia arrived.
To Darcy's eyes it was all very simple. I must now marry Lydia so that the stain would be removed from the family. Then Darcy could marry Elizabeth.
We were to be brothers. What a good joke. The Almighty, clearly, had Lydia's sense of humor.
I went through with it. What else was left for me to do? Twice, I tried to explain to Darcy that I was out of my mind, that I needed help. But the look in his eyes when he thought I was - as he put it - trying to wiggle out of it, wasn't worth tempting.
He drew up the papers, he settled the money. Darcy in love carried all before him.
I asked about Georgiana once. I think eventually the scar his signet ring left on my chin might fade. In a few years.
Lydia, of course, thought we were fighting over her. She was the sort of woman whom this kind of thing excited.
And we were married, on an insipid summer morning, when the milk thin sunlight trickled through the windows of the church on Cheapside.
Her parents - kind, generous people - invited us to their house on our way to a garrison in the far North, where Darcy - for the sake of having me far away from him - had bought me a place in the regulars.
Lydia was still untouched when we headed for the North. And still untouched when news of Darcy's wedding reached us three months later.
Did she know she was missing something, for the full state of marriage? I've often wondered. After all, many families don't tell their children anything about their own provenance till the marriage day. Particularly those children who were female.
She gave no sign of being disappointed. During our first year of marriage, she went about with a smile on her face and a song in her lips, to all eyes the happiest bride on the Lord's Earth. As for me, that was the easiest year of my life. Save for Lydia's incessant chatter, save for missing Georgiana night and day, I did not seem to have run up debts. No women claimed to have been seduced by me. Perhaps by saddling me with the erstwhile miss Bennet and putting Georgiana forever out of my reach my other, self-destructive self had rested at last?
And then, after a year, I got the happy news that my wife was increasing. Increasing! And I'd never touched her.
But, what if the other Whickam had? I didn't ask. I waited in misery to be a proud papa, while enduring the congratulations of well-wishers all around me, for whom this was the right and proper conclusion.
There was no correspondence from Darcy save a note from Mrs. Darcy wishing us happy on the forthcoming occasion of our child's birth. But such was my state, I thought I saw Smithen around town once or twice. But then I always had that feeling, wherever I went.
The birth didn't go well. The mother was young. Just seventeen. Too young, it proved.
Though you'd think someone that buxom and full of interest in such things would give birth with a natural ease, behind the barn, like one of the ewes. But things didn't happen that way.
I called the midwife early morning. I called the doctor late in the day. Lydia's screams lost force through the day, becoming mere whimpers at night fall. And then.... nothing.
I sat in a chair just outside the birth chamber waiting, trying to compose my mind for fatherhood. What would I do? What could I do? The tike would be my son or daughter and please the Lord sane and healthy and not suffering from my obvious streak of insanity. I would be a father. The best father I could be.
But it wasn't supposed to be like this. My child was supposed to have Georgiana as a mother. He or she was supposed to have Georgiana's eyes and that little crooked smile.
I was crying a little when the mid wife came out. I knew from her expression something had gone very wrong. I stood up, my limbs, seemingly tangling on each other, my voice failing me. "My..." I said and then, "the baby?"
"Oh, the baby is fine Mr. Whickam," She said, wiping her hands to her already blood-stained apron. "You have a daughter, Mr. Whickam. It is your wife. The poor thing. I..." She looked at my face and seemed to see grief reflected there, because she broke into tears. "I'm sorry, Mr. Whickam. I'm afraid she's dead."
And thus, I became a widower.
It was days before I looked at my daughter, days before I returned to the world of the living. Something about Lydia's awful death confirmed for me that I was cursed and all those who involved themselves with me would end badly.
I sat in my room and drank myself into a stupor and wished for death. But there were kind friends, concerned officers all around. My officer's wife, she sent a nanny over to look after my daughter whom I called Lydia. What else would I call her?
And friends sent food and comfort and came and sat with me and tried to console me for the loss I didn't really feel and should have felt.
Guilt and rage swirled in me until one day I woke up, sober and with an aching head.
It was a spring morning. The birds were singing. At breakfast, our housekeeper informed me that my daughter was a fine, lusty child and that my late wife's things still remained in her room, waiting my going through them and packaging them to send to her family or to charity or whatever I intended to do with them.
I went to Lydia's room, a place I'd never consciously entered, and started sorting through her effects. She had no less than eighty five exquisitely trimmed hats, plus ribbons and frippery to trim a hundred more. She'd missed her calling. She should have been a hatter's daughter.
There was other stuff, all to no effect. And then, under a pile of lace, in her most hidden drawer, I found a pile of letters tied together with a blue ribbon. I pulled them out, recognizing the handwriting, to my shock. It wasn't mine. Or Darcy's.
The letters - clearly by the hand of an intelligent man - were from the Brighton time and told Lydia of love, of passion, of undying devotion.
In every letter, he told her to burn them. But women never burned such letters.
I stared in horror at the huge, angular handwriting. Once seen, never forgotten. It was Smithen's writing and no mistake.
I stared at it, as I realized that he was - also - tall and dark haired and blue eyed. In the darkened, smoky atmosphere of a gambling den, if he dressed like me and said his name was Whickam, who would doubt him? In the darkened bed chambers of tradesmen's daughters, primed by a hundred previous love letters, who would believe he was not me? In my own, conjugal bed, in the dark of night if he threw my jacket over the foot and climbed into bed with Lydia, how was she to know he wasn't me? It wasn't as though I'd given her anything to compare his actions to.
The whole monstrous plan unfolded in my mind like a flower. And I realized I'd been had. I'd been played. My entire disgrace, my horrible marriage, perhaps even my separation from Georgiana were all a game. Smithen's game.
I saw the baby and arranged for her care while I was gone. If I had looked at her I would have known. Her eyes were as close together as Smithen's, and her mouth had a dissatisfied setting, just like his.
But I could not hate her. She'd been conceived because I'd failed of my duty by my wife; because I hadn't examined the events in my life. She was mine in guilt if not in blood. We would do the best we could. I would try to raise that dissatisfied expression out of her little mouth, to coax her to overcome the duplicity the close-together eyes suggested. I would be a good foster father, if not a real one.
But first, before I settled down to be a quiet widower with a daughter, I must go see Darcy. If this was not my fault and not his fault, then we must talk to each other and clear all. I misdoubted me he would welcome me with open arms or let me court Georgiana after all - I doubted Georgiana would want to be courted by me. She hadn't come to our rendez-vous. But still, the truth needed to be out.
With such resolute ideas, I arranged for a coach to carry me south, and I took care of some household affairs. At least no one accused me of gambling debts or seductions. As drunk as I'd been...
But why hadn't Smithen caused trouble for me recently? Something must have happened on the nature of an end game. He must know there was nothing for me, but how?
I understood when I got Darcy's letter. Announcing Georgiana's upcoming marriage to the baron d'If.
It all went blurry. The date of the wedding was a week hence. Enough time to get there, if I rode night and day and rested not.
And that brought me to the carriage, devouring the miles, approaching the place and date of my true love's wedding to someone else. For no good purpose and on a fool's errand. And yet. And yet, Darcy must know and perhaps Georgiana too must know that I was not a black-hearted villain. They must by all that was holy, listen to me.
If Georgiana was marrying this baron, she must love him, and who was I to compete with nobility. Georgiana would marry him still. But she must know before she married that she had never loved a truly unworthy man. Perhaps it would give her peace and make her married life better.
I intended to get there the night before the wedding, to explain all to the Darcys in decent privacy. In retrospect, all it would have earned me was being locked out of the house, perhaps thrown in jail.
Fate had other plans. Due to an unfortunate incident with three cows, one pig, a muddy road and a frail carriage wheel, I ended up getting to Pemberley when the family chapel was full of guests and the grounds gaily decorated with bows for the occasion.
And I ended up bursting into the church - sweaty and reeking of travel, of tears, of wet wool and unwashed fur - just as the minister said, "or forever hold your peace."
"I must speak," I shouted bursting into the church.
The August company - and never had Pemberley in its glory hosted such a wondrous crowd of the highest nobility - fell silent. All eyes turned to me. Standing by the altar with his sister - and some blond youth whose looks I barely remarked save for noticing he was swathed in velvet and golden braid - Darcy turned to give me a murderous glare.
"Give me leave," I said. "For I must speak."
The minister, astonished, waved me on. Georgiana, lovely as an angel in her lace and satin, looked as if she might swoon on the spot and leaned on the former Elizabeth Bennet, her matron of honor, for support, as if her legs would fail her. She was not, at least, immune to my presence.
I poured my story out. Incoherently and in a confused, tangled mess, I told it all. The gambling. The tradesmen's daughters. And yet I, who had been accused of so many seductions, I who had eloped and been married, had never lain with a woman or, indeed, with anyone. Even sheep were safe from me. I heard the words come out of my mouth. I saw Georgiana, pale and wan, lean further back against her sister in law, and my mouth went on, all uncaring, "It's not, of course, as though I've ever had the slightest interest in sheep," I said.
"You're drunk, man," Darcy said.
"Not even a little," I said, and went on to explain my discovery in Lydia's drawer. As I spoke, I pulled the packet of letters from my jacket. "And I daresay, if you look," I said. "You'll find similar letters with every tradesmen daughter whom I ever, supposedly, seduced." I extended the letters. I was aware of some commotion at the back of the church, but I didn't turn to look.
Darcy extended his hand for the letters, saw the handwriting and exclaimed, "Smithen!"
"All right," Smithen said from the back of the church. "So you've found me out, but you'll do nothing."
I looked back and saw him, unsteadily, point a gun at me. "I will shoot you as a dog if you take a step towards me," he said.
"You forgot you left me nothing to live for," I yelled.
The target moved towards Darcy. Darcy took an inflexible step towards Smithen, all the same. "If you shoot," Darcy snarled. "You'd better be very sure of hitting me, for you only get a shot. And after that, I'll be on you."
"All right," Smithen yelled. "Then her." He pointed his pistol at Georgiana. "Take another step towards me, and I will shoot her."
The baron, Georgiana's would be groom, made a sound uncommonly like a whimper, removed a lace kerchief from his pocket and fanned himself with it, while staring at Smithen.
But Georgiana had the blood of Darcys in her veins, the very same Darcys who had once opposed the great Henry, Henry VIII, in a fury. She stood straight all of a sudden, and she took a step forward, away from Elizabeth Darcy.
"You are evil," she told Smithen. "And all evil will be punished."
Smithen laughed, a deranged laugher. "Not today," he said. And pulled the trigger.
I jumped forward, not quite knowing what I was doing. I jumped in the path of the bullet, knowing only - without thinking - that I must save Georgiana. Georgiana must not die.
The ball smashed into my shoulder. I felt it crush though skin and flesh and bone. I heard screams. I felt something warm down the front of my traveling jacket. Cold spread from my shoulder to my chest. I could not speak. Breathing hurt. My legs felt like running water. I fell.
At the back of the church there was a scuffle, the sound of fists hitting flesh. But I was all beyond it, now. I noted that Georgiana's groom was on the floor, also, seemingly unconscious. I wondered if he'd been hit, also.
But Georgiana was by my side, her fingers fluttering soft on my jacket, her voice as commanding and stern as Lady Catherine at her worst, "Bring lights, someone bring lights. And a knife to cut his jacket. And a tourniquet. Quick, man, put pressure on the wound. He's bleeding his heart out. A doctor. Send for the doctor. Now."
Other hands were doing things to me. It didn't matter. Georgiana's face, concerned and lovely, standing amid a wealth of satin stained with my blood, looked down on me with gentle tenderness. Suddenly her lips touched mine - a moment of heaven. I tasted salt on them. Why was she crying? It was just me, and I did not matter.
"You must live, my love," she said. "You must live for me."
My love. I took those words with me into darkness.
I woke up hours later, in my old room in Pemberley. The doctor had patched me up admirably. The valet - obviously not Smithen - who'd been left with me till I woke told me how Miss Georgiana had refused to marry the baron, who'd been so coward as to faint at the sight of blood. She'd said, in front of everyone in church, she'd only agreed to marry him because she thought her true love was a villain. Now that she'd been proved wrong, she'd marry for love or not at all.
And Smithen had been on the point of arrest, for fraud and conspiracy and attempted murder, when he turned his pistol on himself, spraying brains over the wall of the ancient chapel at Pemberley.
Darcy - well, the valet, a good lad of maybe fifteen wouldn't say anything even ironic about his master - but it was clear from what the valet said that Darcy was shaken and oddly contrite. Oddly contrite for Darcy, of course.
"He muttered much about his abominable pride that didn't allow him to look behind the seeming facts for the truth," the valet said.
I nodded, and started pulling myself up on the bed. "Where are they now?" I asked. "Have they retired?"
"To bed? No. No one has gone to bed. The guests are accommodated in their wing, but in the family wing, no one has gone to bed. Although they're not in the drawing room and I'm not quite sure..."
I knew then where they were. I knew for a certainty. Sitting on the bed, I looked about for clothes to make myself decent. I spotted a dressing gown thrown over an easy chair by the window. It was blue and silk and I was sure belonged to Darcy. How kind of him to share. "Give me my dressing gown, man. Quickly."
The valet stared. "Sir, I- "He swallowed.
"Come on," I said. "The dressing gown. Be quick about it."
"Sir, the doctor said as you weren't supposed to get up," he said.
"Boil the doctor," I said. "What does he know?" I had to see Georgiana. I had to talk to Darcy. I had to make sure this wasn't all a fevered dream.
"But Sir..." the valet whined.
He obeyed. Reluctantly, he obeyed with, it occurred to me, far more alacrity than was owed Whickam, the son of auld Whickam, estate manager to the Darcys.
His hands trembled, as he held the robe up for me. "Only, Mr. Darcy said nothing was to happen to you for you were his brother and before the month was out chances were you'd be his brother again."
My chest expanded as I grinned. The pain on my shoulder meant nothing. "You want to keep me safe, you help me walk downstairs."
"To Mrs. Reynold's sitting room," I said, and grinned at his astonished expression. Clearly, he didn't know that had been our childhood refuge, where the kind lady had fed us milk and chocolate biscuits and listened to all our tales.
But Darcy and Georgiana knew. And I knew where to find them.
"But why would Smithen do it?" Darcy asked.
We sat all three of us around Mrs. Reynold's table, as we had when we were small children. Elizabeth Darcy, lovely if disheveled, leaned against the doorsill, in her dressing gown, looking - not left out - but bewildered, as our voices and manner acquired the ease of childhood again.
She was probably having trouble adjusting to the thought that I was no villain. I didn't mind. She would get used to it. Darcy had married a smart woman.
Mrs. Reynolds had fed us cookies and was pouring the second glass of milk for Georgiana. She looked at Darcy with a concerned look, as if hesitating on what to tell him.
"I always treated him well," Darcy said. "Didn't I, Whickam? Did I fail in something I ought to do?"
Mrs. Reynold's concerned look turned to me. She sighed. She set down the milk jug and sat in her chair, at the corner. "It wasn't either of you," she said. "Nor Miss Georgiana either." She sighed. "It was Mr. Whickam's father."
"My... Father?" I asked.
"Aye, sir, you must understand, your father didn't want to marry again and subject you to the whims of a stepmother, but he was still a young man with... needs. It is said - and I've heard it from her own mouth - as he went down to Bessie Smithen at the tavern. That child of hers, hedge-born, as it were... Well, your father got him a position as gardener boy and then Mr. Darcy had him transferred inside. But you must see, Mr. Whickam, he was your brother all along and he resented that you were treated as a brother of Mr. Darcy's and he was not."
"Envy," Darcy said, and sighed. "Oh, I should have known. And that's why you two look so much alike," he said.
"I hope my eyes aren't that close together," I said, and, I'm afraid, crossed them trying to look at my own nose.
Georgiana giggled. "Your eyes are perfectly placed," she said, putting her hand on my arm. "And as soon as you can stand up with me in church I shall be Mrs. Whickam."
"And we'll help with whatever you need for the little girl," Darcy said. "And her education. She is our niece through her mother after all."
Elizabeth Darcy nodded, by the door.
"And mine through her father," I said. "You know, I believe Lydia thought it was me in her bed."
Elizabeth nodded. "She probably did. She was not the most observant woman around, poor Lydia."
"And the living at Kimpton?" I asked Darcy. "Will you reconsider on it, Will? Now that you know the truth?"
"The living at Kimpton?" Darcy asked, with that tilting sneer to his lip. "I wouldn't dream of it."
"But- " I said.
"Not for my brother in law. You must keep Georgiana in the style she's used to. There are some lands I'll make over to you both, and Georgiana, of course, brings ten thousand in dowry. We'll fix up the old manor house at the other end of the farm, shall we? That way you two will be near enough to visit but not so near it will be like living in the same house."
"When do you think you can stand up in church with me?"Georgiana asked.
I stood. "Why, now, if you wish." The room swam before my eyes, but I would not give way.
Darcy laughed, looking easier than he had since childhood. "My sister and my best friend are not to be married in the middle of the night, like fugitives. Sit down, you fool."
I sat, with relief. Georgiana's arms held me, helped ease me down. Mrs. Reynolds gave me another biscuit and poured milk for me.
And a feeling of great ease and happiness suffused me. I had Georgiana's love and Will's friendship.
I had come home.