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Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Colonel at Ramsgate


(2010)
Pride and Prejudice
What if Colonel Fitzwilliam, not Fitzwilliam Darcy, had visited Georgiana at Ramsgate a day or two before the intended elopement?



“She was then but fifteen, which must be her excuse; and after stating her imprudence, I am happy to add that I owed the knowledge of it to herself and to Colonel Fitzwilliam, who joined them unexpectedly a day or two before the intended elopement and discovered the whole. You may imagine what he felt and how he acted.”




“Good day, Holmes. Is Miss Darcy in?”

“Colonel—”

The colonel raised a finger to his lips.

“Good day, Sir.”

The colonel spoke in a low voice, “I should like to surprise her, if I may.”

“Certainly. She is in her sitting room, I believe. A right at the top of the stairs, third door on the right.” He frowned. “Her companion is…out.”

“You make it sound as if she is off entertaining gentlemen instead of tending to her duties.” The butler’s frown deepened. “Perhaps she is merely spending a few coins in the local shops, or walking along the shore? It is a lovely day.”

A noise sounded overhead, as of something heavy being moved. “Tell Mrs. Holmes I shall stay for tea.” He bounded up the stairs, a huge smile on his face, curiosity alight as to his cousin’s reasons for moving her furniture about.

Fitzwilliam knocked on the door and it swung open a little against his fist. He peered round to see clothing, books, music, and heaven knew what else spread on every available surface. His cousin was nowhere in sight. “Georgiana?”

“Is that you, Wickham? What will Mrs. Younge say if she finds you up here?” The tone of her voice conveyed excitement rather than anxiety. “Oh! Is she with you?”

Images and thoughts flashed through Fitzwilliam’s mind. He watched with a sense of unreality as a bright shape on the other side of the room moved back and forth, revealing itself to be Georgiana’s gown with Georgiana in it. She was bent over, removing items from a large trunk and draping them over her arm.

He parted his lips, and his tongue felt thick in his mouth. “Mrs. Younge,” he said, recalling the butler’s words, “is out.”

“You sound like my cousin.” She straightened and turned, smiling, until their eyes met. The gowns she had been holding fell to the floor. The silk pooled at her feet.

“Stay here. Do not make a sound.” He did not trust himself to say anything more, not yet.

He closed the door, bounded back down the stairs, and found Holmes, instructing him to tell no one else of his presence. “Especially not Mrs. Younge. In fact, tell her Georgiana has a headache and has asked not to be disturbed.” He arranged for tea to be brought up and then returned to his charge.

He heard her weeping as soon as he opened the door. At least it was too quiet to be heard outside the room. “Georgiana,” he said, struggling to keep his temper in check, “why had you expected Wickham to come to your room?”

“I did not expect it! I receive him in the sitting room downstairs—well, only in the last day or two. He would never come into the house until very recently. We generally meet at the beach.”

“This is George Wickham, the son of your father’s steward, is it not?”

“Yes, the same George that my father loved as his own son.”

Fitzwilliam closed his eyes. “Georgiana, tell me you are not as intimate with him as you seem to be.”

“No one was to know until it was over,” she whispered.

“Know what?”

Georgiana’s eyes filled with tears again, and she said something unintelligible through her quiet sobs.

“I cannot be very effective as your guardian if you will not tell me what is happening.”

“You will not need to be my guardian in a few days. I am to be married.”

“At fifteen?” He clenched his fists and just barely stopped himself from standing over her and yelling it in her face.

“Fifteen is old enough.”

“You cannot convince me you have Darcy’s permission to marry that—that—” Dog, he almost called him. “Man,” he said, trying not to offend Georgiana before obtaining the intelligence he needed.

“We go to Scotland in two days.”

“So that profligate can get his hands on your money? I think not.”

“Profligate? Wickham is a gentleman! He loves me! He does not care about my money!”

George Wickham loves no one but himself, he thought. “He does not love you enough to obtain the consent of your guardians. He does not love you enough to allow your own brother to be present at your wedding.”

“I…. I did wonder at that at first, but Wickham assured me it was best to go to Gretna Green. He is so violently in love! He tells me so every day.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam locked the door and sat, his legs suddenly too weary for standing. “Georgiana,” he said gently but firmly, “do you think it is best?”

“I…”

“Do you? Are you so violently in love, too, that nothing else matters?”

“I am in love, I think. I have never been in love with anyone before, so I cannot be certain. I…I would like Fitzwilliam to be at my wedding. I shall be sorry not to have him there.”

“What did Wickham say to that?”

“He said Fitzwilliam would never understand. He feels unworthy of me, you see. He hopes that he,” she bowed her head, “that we shall soon be forgiven.”

“And you think Darcy will suddenly understand when he learns his fifteen-year-old sister has run off with a man who has caused him nothing but grief for the last several years?”

“Grief? Wickham mentioned jealousy, but I thought Fitzwilliam would not hold Father’s preference for him against him.”

“Georgiana,” he laughed mirthlessly, “you do not have the least idea. George Wickham was never preferred over your brother in any regard. He was a great favourite, undoubtedly, and even after Uncle Darcy’s death, your brother continued to honour your father’s wishes for Wickham as far as he could.”

“Not all of Father’s wishes. Fitzwilliam would not give him the living at Kympton.”

“Did Wickham tell you that he first refused it and was handsomely compensated?”

“No,” Georgiana whispered. “He never said that.”

“It is true. As I recall, he resigned all claim to assistance in the church, should he ever be in a position to receive it, in exchange for a tidy sum. Your brother has the documents to prove it. Ask Darcy to show them to you if you do not believe me.”

“I do not need to see any documents,” she said, her voice faltering. “I trust my brother. I believe you, but I do not know why Wickham never told me.”

“Do you not?”

Georgiana remained silent and fretful for some moments and finally looked up at him with confusion, and a little fear, in her eyes. “You will not let me go, will you?”

“Do you think I ought to?”

“Tell me why you called him a profligate. Tell me why you said he has caused Fitzwilliam grief.”

“First tell me why you were willing to disregard all propriety and elope.”

Georgiana inhaled sharply and pressed her arms close to her body as tears streamed down her face. “I did not think…”

“No. You did not think. What if I had arrived three days hence? I would have been frantic with worry. What if Darcy had come to Ramsgate to find you gone?”

“I never meant any harm! I would not hurt my brother for the world!” For many minutes there was no sound save sobs and laboured breathing. At last, she dried her tears and calmed herself. “Tell me why you do not like Wickham.”

“Is it not enough that he has convinced my very proper cousin to take part in his foolish scheme?” He wondered how much to tell her. “Wickham leaves debts wherever he goes. He is always in need of more money. Uncle Darcy left him one thousand pounds, but that was not enough. When Wickham declared he had no use for the living at Kympton, your brother gave him three thousand pounds more. Somehow he managed to spend it all in three years and have nothing to show for it, for when the living became vacant, Wickham tried to claim it.”

“What?!”

“He wrote to your brother. Of course Darcy refused his request. What else was he to do?”

“Indeed.”

“And now here he is in Ramsgate, seeking his highest prize yet: thirty thousand pounds.”

“You truly believe that is all he wants with me?”

“Georgiana, I swear to you that if you were penniless, he would not have looked at you twice. At least not with marriage in mind.”

She gasped.

“You may as well know. You were about to throw yourself into his power. You ought to know the sort of man he is. I doubt he would have been an ideal husband.”

Footsteps sounded in the corridor. The colonel quickly moved to conceal himself and gestured for Georgiana to go to the door.

“But I am not fit to be seen!” she whispered.

“Tell that to him, or her, whoever it is,” he whispered back.

They heard Holmes’s voice, and Georgiana visibly relaxed. She opened the door. Fitzwilliam motioned the butler inside.

“I hope you will pardon the presumption, Miss Darcy, but in light of Colonel Fitzwilliam’s instructions, I took the liberty of bringing this myself.” He set the tray down on the one available horizontal space. “Mrs. Younge has not yet entered the house, but she and Mr. Wickham have been seen approaching.”

“Very good,” the colonel answered. “Miss Darcy is still indisposed.”

“I understand, Sir.”

“I appreciate your discretion, Holmes.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

Alone again, the cousins looked at each other. Fitzwilliam secured the lock once more. “You will not have to open the door again just yet, but you will have to answer Mrs. Younge, at least. I expect she will seek you out despite what Holmes tells her.”

“I think you are right.”

Several minutes passed, but eventually they heard a knock and a voice. “My dear Miss Darcy! Holmes said you are unwell.” Mrs. Younge knocked again. “Miss Darcy?”

Georgiana stood frozen in place. She did not move or speak, despite Fitzwilliam’s expressive looks. In the next moment he had reason to be grateful for her silence, for when Mrs. Younge spoke again, it was not to her charge.

“George! What are you doing here? You know better than to follow me upstairs! What if someone had seen you?”

“No one did. Where is Georgiana?”

“In there, sleeping off her headache, I suppose. I have knocked loudly enough to wake the dead, but she does not answer.”

“Poor thing. What shall I do now I have come all this way for nothing?”

“What indeed?” Mrs. Younge giggled like someone half her age. The sound stopped abruptly and resumed after a moment. “But here, in this house?”

“Why not? I shall soon be family after all.”

Their laughs mingled, and they whispered back and forth. More quiet laughter followed, but laughter and conversation were not the only sounds that could be distinguished by the colonel’s ears. Soon another door opened and closed, and their voices could no longer be heard at all.

Fitzwilliam turned to Georgiana, and his anger immediately gave way to compassion. She stood there shaking, no doubt in grief and mortification as well as shock at the alarming things that had been said and the even more alarming things that, presumably, were this moment being done by her ‘betrothed’ and the woman she had trusted to serve as her companion.

He took her hand and led her as far as possible from the door.

She looked so miserable that he engulfed her in an embrace. He was thankful he had stopped at the inn and got most of the dust from the road off his face and clothes before having a drink and confirming the direction to the house. As she allowed her weight to rest fully against him, he noticed several things: she had grown taller; her hair was done up in a more mature style than when he had last seen her; her figure was very much that of a woman.

“But he…” Georgiana said, “and Mrs. Younge…how…? How could they?” She shivered. “She called him ‘George’ and they were flirting and…and he must have kissed her, and now they are in her room together! They certainly did not go back downstairs!”

He stroked her hair. “I knew nothing of their relationship. I would not be surprised to find he was acquainted with her before we engaged her as your companion. It seems they were both complicit in this scheme to get your fortune.”

“She knew all about Wickham. She was going to come with us. She encouraged me to let my affections guide me and not to worry about disappointing anyone. She said that such a pure love could not be wrong.”

Fitzwilliam cradled her head and pressed a kiss on the top of it.

“He said he would not dare to kiss me until we were man and wife. He only kissed my hand!”

“Be glad of it.”

They stood silent for what seemed like many minutes, but it could not have been very long.

“It sounds silly,” said Georgiana, her voice muffled by his coat, “and unimportant in light of everything, but I did so want to know what it is like to be kissed. I know I should be angry with Mrs. Younge, but, I am embarrassed to say, I feel more jealous of her than anything else.”

He leant back and looked in her eyes. “You still want Wickham’s attentions after what you have heard?”

“Oh, no!” Her eyes opened wide like a child’s and reminded him how innocent she still was in many ways. “No. I could never, never trust that man again. That would be impossible. I do not want him near me.” She turned her face from his. “I am only jealous that she is experiencing the very thing that I wished to.”

She is experiencing far more than that, thought the colonel. “You were not so very much in love then, I think.”

Georgiana reddened. “I have said too much. You will not mock me for it, will you? I do not think I could bear that, much as I deserve it.”

He shook his head. He had not even considered doing so.

“Are you angry that I should say such a thing?”

He heard her, but he did not answer.

“You are certain you are not angry? Why do you look at me so?”

He blinked and then stared into a very pretty pair of eyes, despite their being red from her tears. “Georgiana, do you see me as a second brother?” He was not certain why he had asked her that question.

She laughed, being careful to keep quiet. “You are nothing like my brother.” She blushed. “I could never tell Fitzwilliam what I have just told you.”

“Do you truly want to know what it is to be kissed?”

She frowned. “You are mocking me now.”

“No, I am not.” He lifted her chin so that she would look at him again.

She nodded.

He kissed her cheek and then let his face linger against hers. “Someday you will know,” he whispered. “I have no doubt of it.”

At that moment he could almost feel the woman she would become as he wrapped his arms more tightly around the girl she was now. “Georgiana,” he said, slowly moving until he could look at her directly, “you must promise me something.”

“Yes?”

“Promise you will not allow anyone to involve you in such a reprehensible scheme again. Promise me you will wait for someone worthy of you.”

“I…I will.” She looked at his mouth, not his eyes, as she spoke.

Fitzwilliam could easily imagine someone worthier than Wickham being drawn to her sweet face—not that it was difficult to think of a man superior to that scoundrel, who, after his display with Mrs. Younge, could not even claim affection as the smallest excuse for his perfidy. Fitzwilliam could even see himself developing such an attachment to Georgiana, if he were a little younger, or, even better, if she were a little older.

If he had not already seen so much of the world.

If Uncle Darcy had not made him her guardian.

If.

He released her and stepped away. “I think we had better have something to eat.”

“The tea will be cold.”

He watched as she went about clearing a place for them, taking care to keep the cups and saucers from rattling. Her voice had sounded delicate but not brittle, not bitter. Not despairing. She would recover. She was recovering already.

“It is a warm day. It will hardly matter.” Nothing would matter. He smiled as he watched her pour the tea, and his smile could not be suppressed, for he was suddenly incredibly happy that he had come.


~The End~

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