Well, the time has come. George Wickham has decided to expose the whole truth, and more than Lydia Bennet are sure to be shocked. What will happen when Lydia hears all the sordid details of George Wickham’s flight from Brighton? Who are these men out for his blood? Find out today!
Catherine Curzon and Nicole Clarkston
So this was it. George Wickham’s words, always so poetic, so smart, so charming, had all deserted him and he was left with the truth. The sorry truth and the sorry fact that he had loved just once in his life and that love was about to end, here on a harlot’s bed in an overdone bedroom in an expensive whorehouse.
“I have never really tried to do the right thing until–” Wickham chose his words carefully. He took Lydia’s hand in his and squeezed it. “Life is fun, isn’t it? Fun and short and I was content to let other men be heroes. I wish I had stuck to that rule, Lydia, because if I had, we would be betrothed, you would not have abandoned your reputation and we would not be reliant on a few pennies and the kindness of questionable acquaintances.”
“I told you I had forgotten the money. That wasn’t strictly true, for I spent it.” He smiled and this time it wasn’t that charmer’s smile, a scoundrel’s seduction, but a rather more rueful expression. “It happened a week or so before we eloped.”
The smoke and wine tickled his nostrils– spiced burgundy and leather, and the finest tobacco of the exotic Indies, swirled into one tendril of flair in the curled fingers of his opponent. Lieutenant Reeves laid down the hand he had been bluffing over the entire game, a smug twinkle in his eye as he looked up. George Wickham felt a knot twisting in his gut when he realised that the knave had not been bluffing. “A four on yours, and I’m out,” the lieutenant gloated quietly.
“Oh dear. Well, such is fate, I suppose. We cannot all win, all the time.” Wickham drew in a long breath and shook his head. He looked down at his own cards with the expression of a man who had been comprehensive bettered, a man who would learn a hard lesson from today. “What on earth will I tell Miss Bennet’s father now? I was hoping for a win so that I might approach him for her hand as a man of means.”
Reeves sneered. “Tell your whore that she can earn back your losses, if she be any good between the sheets.”
“I have no need of a whore, because I have the love of the fragrant Miss Bennet.” Wickham’s saintly smile betrayed none of his anger at the way this creature dared to describe Lydia. Nor did it betray any of the triumph he felt as he laid down his own cards, their faces turn up towards the lieutenant. “And I hope that you have no need of paid companionship either, for I doubt you could afford it now. I rather think I’d call that a win, wouldn’t you?”
The lieutenant’s handsome face underwent an unsavoury transformation. His cheeks flushed, then bled to a stark pallor, and his teeth flashed. “Cheat!” He lunged half across the table to catch Wickham’s sleeve. “I’ve killed men for less, and if I find so much as a deuce on you–”
Reeves’ companions were soon pulling him back to his chair by main force, with one or two casting an eye toward another table where two colonels sat at whist. “Save it for later,” one warned under his breath.
“Save it…” the lieutenant growled, his eyes staring daggers at Wickham. “That was the last of my pay for the month. I will have this liar’s blood on the field of honour, unless he confesses his crimes at once!”
“I thank you for the game and the victory.” Wickham sprang to his feet and dropped into a bow so courtly that he might be bidding farewell to Cleopatra herself. Sometimes a man had cause to cheat, but not when playing against an opponent whose ignorance blinded him to anything but what his own thick head told him. “And when we are wed and she is dripping in silks and safe in my arms, Mrs Lydia Wickham shall thank you as well!”
As last words go, those struck Wickham as particularly perfect. As Lieutenant Reeves spat and snarled, he gathered his winnings from the table and gave the men one final nod of thanks. This was the biggest purse George Wickham had ever left the table carrying and it wasn’t just victory, nor good luck and skill, but a whole future in his hands. Here was the means to approach Lydia’s father and–
What am I thinking?
Wickham opened the door and strolled out into the bar, his winnings by now safely hidden from view. The light was low and the buzz of conversation loud, soldiers and workers and, of course, women. What might a man like him do in a place like this, a fortune in his hand and everywhere one chose to look, a beauty on which to spend it? Why, he was George Wickham, he wasn’t the sort of fellow who would take his biggest ever victory and spend it on marriage, on a wife who could be as frustrating as she was enchanting, as temperamental as she was beautiful.
Lydia Bennet was a fun distraction, Wickham told himself as he called for brandy, and he would spend a few coins on a few bits of ribbon and silk and she would be happy. Years later, when she was married to a respectable, dull parson, she would remember those ribbons and her soldier and smile, and he would be forever caught in time as her generous, dashing gentleman.
“Damn it.” Wickham murmured as he took a drink. The brandy was warm and welcome and it tasted like Lydia’s kisses – no it didn’t, it tasted like brandy. And brandy wasn’t Lydia, brandy was a soldier with plenty to spend and nobody trying to tell him what to spend it on.
“Something else to go with your drink?” purred a voice at his elbow. A plump vixen with fair locks and ample endowments bent near, a fresh bottle and an empty glass in her hand. “Such a handsome soldier oughtn’t look so lonely, drinking by himself in this seedy place.”
She did not wait for an answer, but began to top off his glass then poured her own. As she lifted it to her painted lips, her tongue tipped the ridge of the glass while her eyes locked with his. “I understand what it is, to be lonely in a crowded place,” she crooned in husky tones. “It is much quieter upstairs, if you prefer to drink in privacy.”
Wickham smiled and opened his mouth to reply, but he found the words, the ready agreement, didn’t come. Instead, in that moment, he wondered what Lydia would be doing at this moment. Would she be asleep or even better, awake in her bed, looking into the darkness of her cosy room and thinking of him?
Would she dream of her George Wickham, as he dreamed of her every night?
“I think–” Wickham blinked, and finally managed to say in a voice that was almost bewildered, “I might have fallen in love by mistake.”
“By mistake, luv?” the barmaid laughed. “No one simply trips and falls, now do they? And even if so, you must dust yourself off. I have the perfect remedy for your broken heart.” She stood somewhat taller, her breath hot on his ear. “Tell me the moment you begin to forget her,” she whispered. Her mouth caressed his neck then, and her free hand slid under his uniform to trace his chest muscles as only a woman of experience can.
“She has the funniest smile,” Wickham laughed at the memory of their encounter in the shop, Lydia’s passed note, the way her fingers traced the ribbons that had caught her eye. “And a mania for ribbons; I believe she would drape herself in silk if she could and–”
Lydia draped in silk. Diaphanous silk.
What a dream that had been.
“And I had no intent but to sport, madam, what say you to that?” He caught her roaming hand and stilled it. “I had no intent but to sport, and she has made me love her, the minx!”
“She sounds like the veriest flirt. A man can find himself in treacherous waters with a respectable flirt. A flirt of disrepute, however, will leave a handsome man with naught but a smile and a clear conscience. Come, let me show you.” She pulled away, tugging at his hand and offering a generous view of her bust. “Leave all that sentiment for those who can afford it and come warm me. It is rather draughty in this old building by nights, but my bed is soft, and I can help you with your troublesome wench.”
“Madam, I thank you for your marvelous advice and excellent sense.” Wickham downed what remained in his glass and put a handful of coins on the bar, surely more than enough to thank the lady for her time. “And I wish you well, but I have a lady waiting for me. For the first time in my life, I believe I am silly with love!”
The harlot dropped her hands from his shoulders, and with them, all pretense that she had desired his company. She pulled away with a bored expression, dropped his coins down the front of her bustier, and sashayed toward another lonely customer. George watched her go then turned from the bar and walked towards the door with a new-found lightness in his step.
A walk to clear his head, he decided, then a letter to his beloved to tell her of maybe some of the less colourful dreams and–
And they would never know a moment’s unhappiness from this day to their last.
The night was warm and Wickham strolled merrily through the streets, exchanging nods with the few others he encountered on his moonlit promenade. What a strange place the world had become in the last hour or so and once Mr Bennet had been approached, then the world would change again.
George Wickham, husband; that sounded very odd indeed.
George Wickham, husband of Lydia, well that sounded just right.
Only when the night began to cool did Wickham return to his lodgings, ambling merrily along alleys and lanes as he went. Now the night was quiet, the air still around him.
It was perhaps that very stillness, and his heady enjoyment of the keen air, which carried a sound to him that he would, very soon, wish he had never heard. He could not discern the source at first, but it seemed to be near at hand. In the alley? But there was no one there. His steps slowed in hesitation as he approached the rear corner of the tavern, where the refuse was dumped. It was the shortest route to his lodgings, but he began to think he ought to have taken the longer route, even if it meant his letter would have to wait ten more minutes.
He thought to retrace his steps, but the noises had gone. Breathing a little more easily, he began walking again, only to stop abruptly at the sound of a very human cry of pain. Then there were dull thudding noises, a low groan, and one or two whispered exclamations. He leaned close against the cold brick of the building, fearing his own footsteps could be heard if he fled now. Whatever punishment was being meted out on that dark corner, someone did not want the authorities– or anyone else– to know of it.
“The papers!” hissed a voice. “I saw you, you took them from the filthy spy! Where are they?”
Wickham flattened himself more closely against the wall.
“Search his trousers,” admonished another voice. “And hurry! We can’t leave him here, he’ll be seen before we are half a mile from town.”
There was a grunt, and then the sound of a boot connecting with flesh. A moment later some poor soul was retching in the filth behind the tavern, and there came the unmistakable noise of shredding fabric.
“I’ve got ‘em!” crowed the first man in hushed triumph.
“Be sure it’s the right document and not a forgery! Bonaparte pays good money for information, but we’ll be hanged if it’s falsified.”
“Bloody traitors!” someone cried out, but he was quickly silenced by what sounded like a blow to the head.
This was typical, Wickham decided, of how fate couldn’t let him have one uninterrupted epiphany without hurling a fresh oddness there in his path. Winnings, love, turning down a tavern lady with a bosom the size of a small county, for heaven’s sake, but could he just enjoy a nice stroll in peace? No he could not, for here he was faced with.. What?
Was it spies?
Maybe it wasn’t, Wickham decided, carefully backing away from the voices– but if it was and he did nothing? He was many things: scoundrel, rogue, seducer, cheat, but not a coward. He had not been raised that way.
Wickham edged forward along the alleyway again and paused at the end, standing in the darkness as he listened to the men’s whispers. He couldn’t hear their words but he had heard enough with the mention of Bonaparte’s name. Very slowly, as though reaching into the mouth of an angry dog, he stooped and picked up the only weapon to hand, a sturdy stone. It was hardly a gun but it might be enough to slow down a fleeing Bonapartist.
With a last prayer of self-preservation Wickham rounded the corner of the alleyway and brought the stone down with all his might against the head of the figure who stood before him. Happily, surprisingly perhaps given the amount Wickham had drunk, the man crumpled, his body slumping atop the bundle he still held in one hand.
There was a scraping noise, and Wickham looked up just in time to dodge a bludgeon of some kind. Though it cracked against the wall instead of his head, his quick ducking motion was apparently mistaken in the darkness for a fall. He had scarcely righted himself again, fists up for another fight, when the blackguard took to his heels and fled. Yet Wickham recognised him straight away, for he had just spent the evening relieving the very same man of the last of his pay for the month.
Reeves, of all people. Bloody Lieutenant Reeves. Not only a bad loser, but the sort of man who would sell British orders to Bonaparte. And as he sped down the street, Wickham was left with only the prayer that the darkness had obscured his own face.
“The papers! Stop him!” The poor wretch, the recipient of the beating, was still rolling on the ground and struggling to rise. “He is getting away!”
Before Wickham could form a response, the man he had just brained with the rock started to groan. Wickham reached again for the rock, prepared to strike if need be. He would not beat a defenceless man, no matter how badly he might deserve it, but the second that brute twitched his hand, all bets were off.
“These papers, whatever they are, are here.” Wickham reached beneath the stricken villain and dragged the bundle from beneath him. He could give chase but what then? Would the villain finish off the injured man and disappear? This way they had one of the two, the papers – whatever the papers were – and a chance to see an injured man tended to.
Really, what had become of George Wickham tonight?
“What’s in these papers?” Wickham sat heavily on the back of the fallen villain, ashamed to see the redcoat that the man wore, stained as it was now with filth from the alley. Then he tucked the papers safely into his own tunic and told the injured man, “There’s a tavern just down the lane and to the left. Tell me what I’ve just blundered into, then go and fetch help.”
To Be Continued….