George Wickham’s old “friend,” Fitzwilliam Darcy, has found our couple in their rather posh new lodgings in London. Knowing only the public version of events, he arrives prepared to chastise and possibly even enforce a bit of morality. Wickham, however, sits dear Darcy down and flabbergasts him with the truth.
Will Darcy refuse to believe that his old companion holds national secrets in trust? Will he be convinced by Wickham’s devotion to Lydia Bennet? Only time will tell! Read on to see how our gentlemen fare.
Catherine Curzon and Nicole Clarkston
Catch up on previous adventures here! One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve,Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen, Eighteen, Nineteen, Twenty, Twenty One, Twenty Two,Twenty Three, Twenty Four
“Well now, Darcy.” George Wickham sat back in his armchair and kicked his legs over the arm, where he crossed them neatly at the ankle. He steepled his fingers in front of his chest and grinned. “I’ll wager you never expected George Wickham to hold the safety of the nation itself in his fair hand, eh? Or at least, a little cog in the great machine of espionage!”
His old friend– at least, at one time they had been friends– leaned back in his chair, his expression somewhere between astonishment and lingering agitation. His eyes narrowed as his mouth opened once, twice, to speak, but he simply closed it and shook his head. He drew a long breath, just as George Darcy used to do when preparing to deliver a lecture to wayward boys, and raised his hand with an extended finger. His mouth, however, seemed incapable of the words he would form, and instead he spoke only a simple, “No.” He bit his lips together then, clearing his throat. “And I must confess to some scepticism now. What proof have you of these claims, aside from the men who attempted to stop me on my way up?”
Well, this was entirely expected, for what good Fitzwilliam Darcy saw in George Wickham might fit in the palm of a newborn’s hand. Such was life, such was fate, such was the lot of Wickham.
“I have none other than my word which you might take or reject as you wish.” Wickham shrugged and brushed his hand over his shirt, flicking away a speck of line. “That choice is yours and only yours, I know that I have prevented British secrets falling into the hands of Napoleon, that the Bennet family can sleep safe under the watch of my hired hands and that soon the villain at the head of the plot will be under lock and key. And when all is said and done, Lydia Bennet shall wear my ring upon her finger, and what reward could be finer than that?”
There was some spark, perhaps of anger, or perhaps of desperate fear, which appeared in the man’s eyes when the Bennet family was mentioned. Darcy fell silent, his gaze seeming to narrow to a point across the room as his jaw worked. “How,” he spoke lowly, his voice carrying an almost dangerous edge, “did the Bennet family become involved in this? Could you and Lydia Bennet not have kept at least something quiet? Are they really in danger at Longbourn?”
“Why the devil are you annoyed at me, Darcy?” Wickham asked, pulling a puzzled frown. “I caught the spy, I retrieved the documents. Surely you should be thanking me for keeping national secrets secret? I declare, sir, I might feed five thousand with half a loaf and a couple of minnow and still you would see only the devil in me!”
Darcy shot to his feet and began pacing the room. He stared only at the floor, his hands gesticulating his thoughts as he wrestled with notions which were entirely the opposite of what he had expected to find. Once or twice he would turn to speak, but then he would restrain himself with obvious difficulty. At last, he drew close to the window and peered down to the street. “How can you be certain that there are no others involved? When you aid in capturing the spy, how can you be assured that there will not be ten more sent?”
“Because the chap upon whom I sat in a dingy alleyway gave up the name of his fellows and they in turn gave up theirs. Only the lieutenant remains, and he is alone but for what hoodlums he can hire.” Wickham examined his fingernails casually. “So tell me, my sometime friend, what has brought you to London?”
Darcy turned, an incredulous expression on his face. “Did you know the family of the girl– yes, girl— who is presently warming your bed have been giving her up as lost? That her father and uncle have already searched London for you and could find no trace? That her sisters even now are probably grieving their own loss of reputation because of these heroics of yours? Do you think that anyone will believe this story about spies and men sent for both your heads? What am I to do about this?”
What was the point, Wickham wondered, in a man doing the right thing when all around him had him damned before he opened his mouth to speak? Their morality was so simple, the rules that were laid down when a man lied meant that henceforth, even if that man were to say grass is green, then he would still be accused of intrigue? And what did he care for the approval of those who would see him hanged no matter what he did? Why, the Regent himself might walk into Longbourn and speak on his behalf and still they would call for his lying tongue to be torn out by the root.
With that thought, he left his comfy chair and raised himself to his full height.
“Sir, you have correctly guessed my ruse, for I have dreamed this story from the first word to the last. Why, I am so wicked, so hopeless a cause that I sat in my rooms and thought, how might I best throw Miss Bennet’s family into despair and strip her and her sisters of their reputations whilst amusing myself in between courtesans?” His tone remained calm though, his expression serene. “Since beginning our sorry odyssey I have fathered a brood of bastard children, ruined three kingdoms and shared apple pudding with Eve herself. I am wicked, Mr Darcy, to the flinty centre of my withered heart.”
Darcy rolled his eyes. “Spare me the histrionics. I came to know whether you intend to act honourably by Lydia Bennet, for if you do, her family cannot wait for you to catch a spy. In the eyes of the world, they are all ruined unless the matter is resolved quickly. What are your intentions?”
“I will deal with Miss Bennet’s family myself, not through an intermediary who has already condemned me,” Wickham told him. “And when I tell Mr Bennet of the truth of this matter, as far as I can he shall not need to believe me, for I shall have confirmation from those whose service I am in.”
Darcy shook his head. “That will not do. Better to take a bruised reputation than confess espionage, even if your involvement never extends beyond this episode. You will never be safe from Bonapartists, and neither will Miss Lydia’s family.”
“No, sir, were you a young lady you would know it is never better to take a bruised reputation, and I will not have Miss Bennet sullied in the eyes of her family.” For here before him was proof of that already, in the distaste he saw in his visitor’s expression. “Her father shall know the facts of the matter, and I shall leave it to his good judgment to share them or keep his own counsel.”
“When all is told, Mr Bennet is more likely to laugh than to condemn, but Wickham, consider; espionage is not a game for a lady. Her reputation will gain nothing but notoriety if this is aired beyond Mr Bennet. I trust you will share this information only with her father? It will do little to clear her honour in the eyes of society, but perhaps I may have a proposal which will suit us both. You said that your assignment is to draw the spy out into the open, to make yourselves conspicuous?”
Why was it always the same, Wickham wondered? No sooner did he tell Darcy that he would share the information with Mr Bennet than he was warned to – what? Share the information only with Mr Bennet. As he had already declared was his intention. Perhaps this was how one acquired a reputation as a sensible though, let a fellow be honest, dour sort of gent – simply take another, more flighty man’s good sense and repeat it back to him whilst frowning.
Sensible. At the very thought of it Wickham shuddered. God forbid.
“You are not here out of any sense of honour for this Miss Bennet’s reputation, nor out of any lingering fondness for the friendship we once shared,” Wickham told him. “I can hardly blame you, for what went before was a horrible business, but nor can I spend my days attempting to prove that I am not the villain you take me for.”
Darcy seemed to flinch, particularly whenever the name ‘Bennet’ was mentioned. When Wickham had finished speaking, he stood silent and brooding for a moment, his eyes hooded by sombre lids and his lips pressed. “There is one way you can convince me,” he spoke quietly. He waited until he was certain he had his listener’s full attention, meeting his eyes. “What would Miss Lydia tell me of your treatment of her, this fortnight since you have been gone from Brighton?”
“She would tell you that I have been frustratingly gentlemanly,” Wickham replied carefully. “And you would not believe her.”
“Why should I not believe her? My experiences with Miss Lydia have been…” he cleared his throat… “limited. However, she is not in the habit of… prevarication. Rather, she tells more than is wanted quite often, and I am certain she would be forthright. However, I shall spare her sensibilities– and my own– and simply depend upon your word. Have you treated Miss Lydia with dignity befitting her station as the daughter of a gentleman?”
“I’ll wager I have treated her with more good humour than you have shown Miss Elizabeth Bennet,” Wickham teased. “I have done nothing that would make my father – or yours, for never was a man more decent – blush.”
“Now, hold just a moment,” Darcy held up a hand hastily, his complexion darkening. If Wickham was not mistaken, his eyes had even dilated. “I have no particular attachment to Miss Elizabeth, and I shall not bear such accusations on her behalf.”
“I accuse her of nothing, my friend!” He tapped his finger to his chin. “But I know of well-connected gent in the forces, good breeding, fine prospects. Why, if you have no interest in Miss Bennet, perhaps she might welcome an introduction to my friend instead!”
Darcy tugged at his cravat. “That will not be necessary, I hope.” He cleared his throat. “Her situation need not be considered desperate, if a marriage between you and Miss Lydia is effected at once. I believe Bingley still harbors tender thoughts for the elder Miss Bennet; therefore, the family’s reputation will be secure, and Miss Elizabeth will be free to choose at her leisure.” He blinked rapidly, and Wickham did not miss the quickness of his breath as Darcy sought to control himself.
“No, no, I cannot have you imposed upon! I shall speak to my friend when all of this is settled.” What fun this was, this return to boyhood silliness, to memories of girls long since become women, of innocent adolescent fancies. “Now, sir, have you more to say? No need to thank me for freeing you from the unwanted yoke of marriage, for I consider you a brother still!”
Darcy had begun to pace again, but at Wickham’s last words, he spun, his eyes glittering. “Damn you, Wickham!” he hissed. “Leave Elizabeth Bennet be! Very well, if I must confess it, I shall. I would offer her everything, if I thought she would accept, but I will not have her do so out of desperation. If she feels free to choose any man, I pray that one day it might be myself, but as matters stand now, she would accept Lucifer himself to preserve her sisters!”
“Alas, sir, Lucifer is spoken for by Lydia Bennet.” Wickham clapped his hand to Darcy’s shoulder. “She has captured you, you lovesick soul!”
Darcy mumbled something below his breath, refusing to meet Wickham’s eyes. He drew a long, bracing breath, and muttered, “What remains to be done before you wed? A special license? Funds? What is it?”
“Where to begin?” He blinked, enjoying the sport even if he had no intention of taking anything. “We would like St Paul’s ideally.”
“Done.” Darcy spoke before the words were fully out of Wickham’s mouth, but there was a challenge twinkling in his expression. “Although I doubt I can convince the bishop to agree if Miss Lydia is in residence with the groom before the ceremony.”
“Where would one make representations for the Abbey?” He frowned. “If St. Paul’s is so easily won, one wonders if it is not a little common nowadays.”
“Do not press your luck. Come, let us be serious. What is necessary to secure the marriage? You say that you are funded by the army for what may be found needful, but I hardly think the general in authority has dispensed adequate resources for a wedding. Miss Lydia’s clothing alone will surely cost–”
“I am always serious, especially when I am joking.” Wickham laughed and slapped Darcy’s shoulder again. “We are what you might call comfortable, but thank you for the kind offer. As a matter of fact, I was going to enquire whether I might cover the cost of your travels to London!”
Darcy coughed. “And how did you intend to do that? Rumour has it that you fled Brighton due to your debts. Perhaps I might now accept the explanation that all that was a ruse to cover your hasty departure, but unless your general has been exceedingly generous with the Crown’s money, I fail to conceive how you can be in such comforts as you claim. Unless, of course, you gambled and won, but that would mean confessing that you used army monies for illicit purposes. Even you would not dare! Or would you?”
“You believe rumours too readily, sir,” Wickham told him in a measured tone. “You are so filled with distaste for your old friend that you grab at first one thing then the other. I have not lied, I am no longer debt-ridden and I have not gambled so much as a penny. Yet I am comfortable, and so is the woman I love.”
“Consider not what I think, for you have also misjudged my intent. I doubt we shall ever celebrate holidays together, but I wish you no ill, and would not stand between you and an honourable future. I think you have spent too long assuming no Darcy could ever again be persuaded to take an interest in your welfare. I would, if not for my father’s sake, then for that of your future bride. Now, let us dispense with wounded pride, for I believe we have both had our share. What is keeping you from applying for a special license and wedding the young lady? You said yourself that you are to create a public spectacle of yourselves, enticing this spy out into the open to attack where you appear to be unguarded. What better than a wedding to look as though you haven’t a care?”
Wickham shrugged and settled back into his chair. “We have more money than we should, and I do not care to explain to our patrons in Whitehall how we came by it. When this business is done, there shall be a wedding for the ages!”
Darcy frowned, then a cunning smile played about his mouth. “Miss Lydia. The girl is a fiend at cards, I have seen her leave soldiers destitute after an evening at Lucas Lodge.” He shook his head, laughing for the first time since their exchange began. “Wickham, you have found a lady suited to you, make no mistake!”
“From the day I laid eyes on her she has been mistress of me,” Wickham admitted, a smile creeping over his features at the very thought of Lydia who even now would be sitting in the drawing room, annoyed at her exclusion from this conversation. “And I fancy it shall ever be so.”
He smiled up at Darcy. “Imagine that, being ruled by a Bennet.”
Darcy gave a low, silent huff. “Such a man ought to count himself blessed.” He sighed then, seeming to shake a sudden melancholy. “What are your plans, Wickham?”
“My plans are much the same as yours,” he teased. “To grow older and happy with my Miss Bennet in my arms.”
Darcy stiffened in his chair. “My Miss….” He clenched his fingers into the arms of the chaise and appeared once more to growl, as he had so often done when in the company of his old friend. “Bonapartists notwithstanding, the chances of there ever being a Miss Bennet I might call my own are rather slim until you redeem yours. How long, Wickham, and what may I do to ease the way? For I see that you are not to be worked upon by money, which I was fully prepared to offer.”
“I had always hoped to one day make my father proud, and yours,” Wickham told his old companion. He had not expected to speak the words until they left his lips but there they were, out in the open now. “And perhaps I have not done so before now, but– perhaps there is something you might do for me, Darcy, and it will do nothing more than enhance your already considerable reputation.”
Darcy lifted a brow. “My imagination fails me. Perhaps you would enlighten me.”
Yet the thought of those two fathers, so unlike each other, so like brothers to one another, had momentarily still George Wickham. He blinked, thinking of the gentlemen he had known, who had raised him and who, perhaps, might be looking down now on the man he had become. Might he be a gentleman too one day?
Perhaps, with a lady like Lydia to call his own.
“Miss Bennet deserves a wedding befitting a princess and now, thanks to her skills at the table, that is precisely what she can have.” Wickham smiled at the thought of her, at the idea of it. “Yet I cannot claim to have gambled the Crown’s money and I will not have it known that my lady did precisely that so– tell me, Mr D, how would you feel about claiming to have paid for that wedding yourself?”
“As I had intended to do that very thing, I can make no objections. However, my involvement might compromise another lady– one who has not given her consent to hear her name linked with my own. I had intended to approach Mr Gardiner and make the arrangements through him. I believe that provides you not one, but two layers of protection. He will, of course, know nothing of our conversation here. I do not like to be complicit in any manner of falsehood, but to protect the lady, or perhaps ladies, and to preserve your hide from the firing squad, it seems this is the best alternative.”
“There will be no firing squad, for I would marry in the meanest chapel if that were all that was open to us.” Wickham sighed. “Will you never cease to look on the dourest side of any situation, sir?”
A small wrinkle appeared at the corner of Darcy’s mouth– the faintest glimmer of mischievous camaraderie. “You think me a stick, do you not? Naturally so, for in the last ten years I have seen things I cannot wholly dismiss in a quarter hour’s conversation. However,” he rose, beginning to smile now in earnest, “I believe Miss Lydia and the army have had the making of you. I look forward to watching it all play out. I am now in possession of the hope that my father’s faith was not misplaced.”
He straightened his waistcoat and glanced to the door. “One thing more. Will you be able to persuade Miss Lydia to stay with her relations for a few days until the ceremony? I am sure Mr Gardiner will consider it a gesture of good faith. I am certain the man will be agreeable to supervised visitations,” Darcy arched a brow, that mysterious smile appearing again. “And I know he would be comforted to hear how respectably his niece has been treated, though he presently assumes the worst.”
“I will only be able to agree to that if I can be assured that those who watch us can watch us still,” Wickham told him, Lydia’s wellbeing once more uppermost in his mind. “I cannot risk her now, Darcy, she is all that is dear to me.”
Darcy nodded, his expression grave. “A fair and honourable request. If you will speak to your authorities at Whitehall, I will manage Mr Gardiner. May I find you here at this time tomorrow?”
“You may indeed, sir.” He grinned. “Or should I say, brother?”
Darcy raised a hand, his mouth opened to admonish Wickham’s bold jest, but simply sighed and dropped it, shaking his head. “Tomorrow, Wickham.”
“Tomorrow.” Wickham’s smile grew more impish. “Brother.”