Today we bring you a special edition of our tale. George Wickham and Lydia have arrived in London and we meet someone new and start talking about Christmas feasting. What, you ask, does our tale have to do with Christmas? Read on….
“George Wickham! Well, aren’t you a sight! Come to pay your respects, have you? And possibly your debts?” Catherine Younge – reduced lady, clever advisor, and maven of the house on the back alley, fisted her hands on ample hips and welcomed him to her “office.”
“My dear Mrs Younge,” Wickham beamed. Obediently, he drew near and offered the obligatory kiss upon her cheek. “Do my eyes play me false, or have you become even younger since our last meeting?”
“Wickham, you old bounder!” she patted him on the jaw. “What brings you to my door? Are you in need of money, or just a little friendly welcome back to London?”
“All of the latter and, happily none of the former, for I have a little in my purse nowadays.” Wickham glanced back along the hallway towards the room where Lydia waited, prim and composed, in a neat little parlour that she had pronounced charming. She was probably pressing her ear to the closed door of that chamber even now, but she would hear nothing from this distance.
“A friend and I are travelling north as far as the border,” he explained as though there were nothing untoward about it at all. “And you will see from my rather battle-bruised face that I’ve had a little run in. The rest of me is no better off and I wonder, might you be willing to extend accommodation to a couple of weary travelers?”
Mrs Younge frowned. “A friend, eh, Wickham? All my rooms are already taken by other such ‘friends,’ although they might be persuaded to share, if your purse is deep enough.”
Wickham’s heart plummeted into the bottom of his exhausted feet but he kept that same devil-may-care smile on his face. His purse had been deep enough once, but time and necessity and the sheer business of keeping himself alive had put paid to that. He could finance them to Gretna Green – barely – but a night, two nights, as a guest of Mrs Younge’s house would have made all the difference. Two nights here, all the coin saved… it might have paid for those new ribbons Lydia was so keen to procure.
“Alas, Mrs Younge, my purse is not so deep as all that and my travelling companion is not one to share.”
She arched her brows in interest. “Ah! An heiress!” she breathed reverently. The unicorn, the holy grail among young women! “In that case, perhaps we can see to some… arrangement. She will need to give you charge of her purse. It is not safe for a lady to carry so much, of course.”
Some things, he decided in that moment, did not need to be shared. Especially the financial situation of Lydia Bennet. “A charming and beautiful young lady,” Wickham replied. “A holy grail to me, indeed.”
Mrs Younge permitted a sentimental smile. “Well, now, perhaps we can let old grievances pass away, can we not? I believe you are still frightfully in my debt from the last encounter, but I am a generous woman and I am willing to forgive all! I will, of course, require some small token of good faith. Your young lady is genuine, she not? Surely she would have no qualms with fronting… Oh, shall we say ten pounds?”
She might as well ask for the crown jewels, it was as much within his reach as ten damned pounds. Surrender that amount and he might as well give up Lydia here and now, let alone his sorry life, for what would become of him then?
“Miss Bennet is not yet in control of her finances,” he said smoothly. Better a lie than a sorry truth. “Alas!”
“You have not even ten pounds? Nor she?” Mrs Younge shook her head and waved him off. “I haven’t time to bother with the likes of you, George Wickham. You were always the one with the gold in your smile and lint in your pockets. My house is full up, as you can see.”
“Mrs Younge, my life – not a poetic, romantic life, my actual life – is on a rather stretched thread at the moment. These bruises lend me a manly sort of air, I credit, but can you not find a tiny corner somewhere? Two peaceful nights with my girl in my arms is all I ask!” He composed his most winning smile, well aware of just how to make his dark eyes flash and how, sometimes, that flash made good things happen. “A little space, just big enough for two?”
She crossed her arms. “Not this time, Wickham. Who is she? Some farmer’s strumpet, running from a ugly suitor? Does her father know about you?”
“She is no strumpet.” He shook his head. “I have nothing that I can give you other than my word that one day – one day – I will pay back all that you have done for me. There must be an attic that we might prettify and turn into our nest?”
Mrs Younge pursed her lips. Sensing some weakening of her stance Wickham waited, all too aware of the delicate balance of a woman’s whims.
She stared at him, a dark displeasure with herself, for her own feminine sentiment, causing her frown to deepen. “Wickham, if you do not pay–” she threatened.
“One day, not so long away I hope, you shall receive a little gift from the good Wickhams, prettily wrapped, ribboned and fragranced.” He smiled, nostalgia tinging the words. “And in it shall be all that you are owed, and a little more besides. And will that not make for a merry Christmas indeed?”
“Christmas!” she snorted. “I shall be content to see Michaelmas. Are you implying it will be months before I have a farthing of you? Or do you think to soften me with these pretty visions of yours?”
“Have you and I and the late Mr Younge, God rest him, not passed some memorable festivities together, Mrs Y?” He quirked one eyebrow. “When we had not two pennies to rub together and no goose on which to feast – but did we care for it? We did not! We knew the value of friendship, did we not?”
“Friendship does not fill my table or keep the landlord at bay,” she retorted cynically. “But…” she scowled. “You were uncommon good to my poor Mr Younge when he took sick at the very last. He spoke often of you, how you brought us a little wine to drink to the Yule tide that last year. Of course,” she narrowed her eyes, “your harlot drank most of it. Have your tastes improved somewhat?”
Wickham laughed and nodded. It was not a chore to be kind to Mr Younge, for Mr Younge had been kind to him when he was on his uppers enough times in the past. “I think often of Mr Younge, I believe he would have approved of Miss Bennet.”
“I’ll not take you in without some promise, Wickham,” she warned, shaking a finger at him. “If your young lady is all you say, then promise me on pain of leaving her here if you have not the coin to keep her. You pay up by…” she bit her lip and drew a long breath, “… well, you named it yourself. Christmas. I can’t afford to let you go longer.”
Wickham surprised himself even as he heard his own voice say, “No. I cannot agree to that price, Mrs Younge, we are to be wed no matter what the world might think.” Leave her here? Abandon Lydia in a house like this? Over his dead body.
“What will you do with her, then? Go back to Darcy and beg him for money? Hope her father has a sufficient dowry set upon her pretty head? Wickham, you have played me for the old soft mark I am and right well do you know it– talking good old memories of holidays gone by– but I can only help you so far.”
“You shall have your due by Christmas, Mrs Younge,” Wickham promised. “And a happy Christmas it shall be!”