Chapter Eleven: Confronting History
Posted on 2011-05-25
Darcy turned slowly to find George Wickham standing in the doorway of his room at the inn in Brighton, the light from the lamp in Darcy's hand barely stretching across to illuminate him. It had been a long time since they had come face to face -- in any of the iterations of time Darcy had experienced recently. He had forgotten how deceptively innocuous the man looked.
He was smiling, a bland expression on a perfectly angelic face, and that smile widened as he came further into the room, throwing his silver-handled walking stick on the bed and his hat on a chair. "It seems my luck has turned," he said as he stripped off his gloves, dropping them next to the hat. "And just in time, too. I'm afraid it's gotten a bit hairy here the past few days, what with people tediously demanding their money be paid. The cards have been against me, but Fate, on the other hand, is choosing to be a lady for me, it seems."
"We thought you were out for the night," Darcy said, glancing across the room at the closed doorway.
"I came home a little early, a little more in debt. Are you not pleased to see me?" Wickham asked with a laugh. "I dare say it has been quite a while. Let's see -- the last time I saw you was last year, in Meryton. And then, of course, on the quay at Ramsgate before that. Oh! You seem surprised. Did you not realize? You weren't exactly hiding yourselves well."
"You saw me?" Darcy echoed. "You mean, rather, that you saw Georgiana and I in Ramsgate."
Wickham looked at him, a pleasantly puzzled grin on his face. "No, I saw you, Darcy," he said. "How could I be mistaken, when I saw myself beside you? The traitor."
"Traitor?" Darcy echoed, shaking his head firmly. "Your older self did not betray you. You betrayed him. He had to live with the guilt of what you'd done -- and he became a better man because of it."
"A better man," Wickham said, his expression warping into a sneer. "He was a traitor and a cheat. I had a chance to marry Georgiana -- and I would have, too. My older self promised me that. But you came in and changed it all, and I was left with nothing. Nothing -- not even the time machine, because the rat wouldn't let me touch it. And look where that ended up. He disappears along with it, and all I have is the notebook he brought. If he'd had the sense to give it to me, I could have gone back and fixed everything. Instead he runs to you with it."
None of this made sense. Darcy put a hand to his head, trying to sort out the facts from the younger man's bitter rant. "I don't understand," he said. "What do you mean, he ran to me? How could you have known that was me? How could you have known about the time machine? Where did you get this notebook?"
Wickham was silent for a moment, and when Darcy looked up, he saw the other man staring at him with a thoughtful countenance. "You don't understand this at all, do you?" Wickham said, rubbing his chin with his hand. "That seems to me surprising, that you could know so little, when you have possession of the time machine." He peered at Darcy for a few more seconds before shaking his head, turning, and taking a seat in a mostly clean chair. "But we'll play this out how you'd like -- at least for now. I know everything about the time machine, Darcy. My older self told me all about it when he first came to me a few years ago, just after you'd refused to give me the living. He found me in a pub in the East End, and told me this elaborate story of how he was really my older self, that he had already tried a few things to make my fortune, and was now convinced that it would happen if I eloped with your sister. Naturally, I was a little suspicious. Frankly, I thought the old man had had a few too many tipples of gin. He certainly smelled like it."
"What convinced you he was telling the truth?" Darcy asked.
"He told me a few things no man alive should know about me," Wickham said, leaning over the side of the chair to pull a decanter of whisky from under a uniform shirt. He looked around for a glass, but when he couldn't find one, he took a swig from the bottle itself. "But I'll say honestly that I didn't really believe him until he disappeared right in front of my eyes while we were in London. One moment, we were talking together and the next he was gone -- him along with the time machine he'd been latched to. And then you showed up there in London, effectively putting paid to our plan to elope with your sister. It took me several months to recover from that, and then you and he intruded again in Ramsgate." Wickham grimaced and took another swig of his whisky. After he'd wiped his mouth with his sleeve, he asked, "Did he ever tell you why he played turncoat on me?"
Darcy leaned back against the edge of the desk, his arms crossed over his chest. "What makes you think he betrayed you?"
The other man laughed, the sound bitter and harsh. "How did he not betray me? He was with me one minute, and the next I see of him, he's there with you on the quay at Ramsgate, standing in the alley by the inn, watching as my thirty thousand pounds and life of ease ride away in a carriage. I've no doubt he came to you and you paid him off. It would be just like the dastard."
Wickham continued, decrying the old man's selfish betrayal, but Darcy had stopped listening. Instead, he was mentally sifting through what Wickham had just said, trying to figure out what must have happened. The only thing he could puzzle out was that they were each talking about two different Wickhams: the first, the older version of the Wickham who had grown bitter by the years of watching Elizabeth and Darcy's happiness; the second, the older Wickham who had repented of his alterations of the past. It was the first Wickham who had come to this younger Wickham with the time machine and tried to change the past. It was the second Wickham who had come to Darcy and who, with him, had eventually succeeded in preventing Wickham's marriage to Georgiana in 1811. If what this Wickham said was true, and that the older Wickham disappeared in London, then things must have changed since Darcy's Wickham -- the second Wickham -- experienced the past. It must have been then, as Darcy and Wickham had changed the past together by preventing Georgiana's marriage in London, that the first Wickham disappeared.
But why not earlier? Why would the first Wickham still have existed, even in part?
Of course, Darcy thought, cursing himself for not thinking of it earlier. It had all been there in front of him, and he hadn't seen it: the first Wickham existed for the same reason the second Wickham still did. He, the older Wickham, Elizabeth Wickham, now even Elizabeth Bennet -- they were ghosts.
Their interactions with the past, their presence always remained in the past, even when their lines had disappeared in the future. They were artifacts of a time that was not -- phantoms. It would explain how Elizabeth Bennet knew of the Winterbottoms. It explained how they were able to watch his earlier self and Elizabeth Wickham on the hill at Rosings. It explained … how Wickham knew of his presence.
True, it still failed to explain why certain objects remained -- the time machine, the red notebook, for instance -- but it was the only thing that could make sense with all of the information Darcy had gained. And it explained how the first Wickham would have disappeared when he and this Wickham were in London -- that would have been when Darcy and the second Wickham came back into the past and convinced the younger Darcy to come to London. At that point, the timeline would have changed -- and the first Wickham would have faded out of the resulting timeline.
But Wickham wouldn't have known that there were two Wickhams. He would only have seen that the older Wickham he knew had disappeared and seemingly reappeared some months later in the company of the older Darcy.
There was no question now what had fueled Wickham's actions since then. "You've been doing all of this out of revenge," Darcy said softly.
Wickham broke off his rant, turning to look at his guest. "Revenge?" he echoed, sneering. "It was all I had left after you cheated me out of what was rightfully mine. I was supposed to marry your sister."
"You were never entitled to such a thing, Wickham," Darcy said. He held up the notebook. "What your older self wrote in here -- everything that his life was -- that was how it was meant to be. You and he were trying to change the past into something it wasn't by eloping with Georgiana. That wasn't a right; it was a selfish action, a crime against everyone whose lives were changed by your marriage to my sister. You thought of nothing but your own gain."
"What other considerations would I have?"
"Your loss," Darcy said. "Your choice to change the past was one you regretted bitterly despite all of its gains. Yes, you had money; yes, you had my sister; but you didn't have any happiness. You very quickly went through the majority of the money you had gained by the marriage, especially after my sister died. By the time you found the time machine, you were living solely on the hope that you could go back in time and mend what you had broken. When your older self came to me at Pemberley, more than ten years from now, he had come seeking forgiveness for what you had done."
"But I did nothing!" Wickham bit out. "How could I, with you constantly appearing? First you had stopped me from marrying your sister, but then you must have said something to Elizabeth Bennet to turn her against me. And I've no doubt you were the one who tipped Miss King's uncle to my state of finances."
Darcy remained silent. He hadn't told Miss King's uncle anything and, truthfully, he had never thought of such an action -- that bit of luck must have come about on its own, amazingly. But it wasn't likely he would be able to convince Wickham of that. The man was a master at the narrow-focused worldview that had gotten him to where he was: in Brighton, in the militia, once again in debt, and in the middle of trying to seduce Miss Bennet's sister.
And Darcy was in the middle of Wickham's rooms, trying to figure out how to prevent that. He had forgotten for a moment.
But nothing had changed since Wickham had walked into the room to make his task any easier. If anything, it had made it harder. He watched as Wickham, muttering under his breath to himself and casting venomous looks in Darcy's direction, got out of his chair and began pacing. The man was in a devilish mood, and unlikely to listen to anything Darcy would say. He could hardly convince him to give up his plans.
Then what? It had been so long since Darcy had been in contact with Wickham, had been faced with thinking like the man, that it was difficult to know where to start working on him. What did Wickham value? Himself, naturally: his freedom, his well being, his looks, his continued health ... but none of that was important without money. Wickham's world revolved around gaining and spending money on whatever the current whim was. It seemed gambling was this week's vice, but Darcy had no doubt there was an unhealthy dose of women of ill-repute and fashionable accessories in the mix, as well. He certainly wasn't spending any money on someone to take care of his living quarters.
How much would be enough to persuade him to pack up, though? It was no small matter, and Wickham knew well how to negotiate. He certainly knew the value of his work here -- he wouldn't have put as much effort into it as he had so far if he hadn't known Darcy would pay heavily to buy him off. But then, once he had paid him, how could Darcy be certain it would be an end of it? Wickham was like a bad case of the ague: just when it seemed as if it would never come back, as if the world was turned right again, it would reappear for another round of pain and nauseating repulsion.
"A thousand pounds."
Wickham stopped mid-pace, his expression startled as he looked over at Darcy. His lip slowly curved into a sneer. "That is the best you can offer? Your sister's dowry was thirty thousand."
"And you'll never have another chance at it. One thousand, five hundred quid."
"I could pluck as much off a green cub in a London hell in one night," Wickham said.
Darcy smiled grimly. "And lose as much the next night. Two thousand."
"You're offering me shillings to the pound. I will be left with very little after my debts are paid."
"Then you ought to have gambled less," Darcy said. "Three thousand."
Wickham paused, a wicked smile creasing his lips. "I could get as much off Mr. Bennet in exchange for his favorite daughter."
Darcy's expression hardened. "You would have as much a chance with Elizabeth Bennet at this stage as the devil would slipping past St. Peter. And from what I hear tell, Miss Lydia Bennet is by no means as well esteemed as her elder sister in her father's eyes. You will get far less for her. Two thousand."
"Miss Lydia Bennet," Wickham murmured, glancing with narrowed and thoughtful eyes toward the door. "She is a tempting armful, isn't she? Quite free with her ways and easily led."
"Four thousand, plus payment on your debts."
"And how would you get this money to me? Do you have it here?" Wickham looked about the room mockingly.
"I would return with it," Darcy said. "But not until I see you ready to board a ship for somewhere far away. Australia, perhaps. I will even pay for the ticket -- one-way, of course."
"Oh, I have to leave England now, do I?" Wickham said with a bitter laugh. "You know I don't like the sea."
"You will simply have to get used to it. How else can I be certain you won't wait a few years and try again?"
"How can I be certain you would follow through on your promise to give me the money?"
"You will have it."
Wickham folded his arms across his chest. "And what kind of money will it be? I doubt a Bank of England note, drawn on your name, will work. Or will I have to wait -- how many years from the future are you? -- to reap the benefits of this deal?"
Darcy cursed mentally. Wickham's interest in a cash payout was quickly eroding. "I will get you gold coin."
"From the future? It would no doubt disappear or turn to dust when you leave." Wickham shook his head. "No. I want something tangible. I want the time machine."
"Over my dead body," Darcy ground out. When Wickham's body tensed at those words, so did Darcy -- there was a look in the other man's eye suddenly that he didn't trust. "As you can see, I wasn't so imprudent as to bring it with me, so you cannot take it by force."
"You are a head taller than me, and, oh, perhaps a stone heavier," Wickham said carefully, moving with slow, measured steps towards Darcy. "I would be a fool to try."
And Darcy would be a fool to believe he wouldn't. No matter what Wickham said, Darcy knew the other man could take him in a fistfight. Wickham had always been quick, and Darcy had gone soft over the past decade -- truly, it would be a miracle if he could remember any of his pugilistic training. His best hope was to find a weapon or to make his way to the door, and to stall Wickham while he was doing so. "There's someone who will protect the time machine if anything happens to me," Darcy said, edging away from the desk and around the back of a chair. "She would never let you have it."
"Unless she didn't have a choice -- it would be pathetically easy to discover where you were staying and get there before your friend finds out you are not returning," Wickham said, his smile widening. "Or should I say sister? What, is Georgiana here? That was unwise, Darcy."
"I would not bring her within twenty miles of you," Darcy replied, shoving aside a hatbox with his foot as he sidled along the wall. "No, I have someone with me who despises you more than my sister does."
That, at last, appeared to check the other man. He stopped, cocked his head, and narrowed his eyes, thinking. Darcy took the opportunity to gain a few more feet in the direction of the door. He was probably halfway across the room, now -- if he kept Wickham talking, he might be able to make a dash for it and escape. If he could get back to the inn before Wickham, he and Elizabeth could be gone within seconds. He'd discovered all he had needed to know here.
But while his mind was on his escape, Darcy hadn't been watching his adversary -- so he was blindsided when the man lunged at him. His skull cracked hard against the wall, and they tumbled to the ground. His head muddled, Darcy struggled to get the upper hand, and they rolled across the floor until they came up hard against the bed, Darcy on top. Wickham shoved at him, but Darcy pinned him to the ground until the other man kneed him, barely missing his target. The pain and surprise, though, was enough for Wickham to get his hands around Darcy's neck, and suddenly Darcy was pinned to the ground, struggling for air. He clawed at Wickham's hands and kicked with his legs, but the other man was stronger.
"You were an idiot to come here," Wickham said, spittle flying from his mouth as he slammed Darcy's head against the floor. "Now you won't be able to protect anyone."
Darcy tried to speak, but couldn't get any air. His lungs were on fire, and the room seemed to be getting darker. I failed, he thought, the weariness of trying to fight making his arms heavy. I failed her.
And then, suddenly, there was cool air in his lungs. So cool and brisk that he coughed, doubling over as the pain engulfed him. He couldn't see anything, a loud buzzing sounding in his ears, as he lay there, the coughing seizing his body as he sucked in air.
"Mr. Darcy! Oh, God! Mr. Darcy!"
The sound of someone calling his name filtered through the cotton plugs in his ears, and he tried to push off whoever was shaking him. But they wouldn't stop. As the coughing eased, though the fire in his throat remained, awareness returned. He gradually realized he was looking up at Elizabeth Bennet, who was still shaking his shoulder and calling to him.
"Elizabeth," he croaked, his voice coming out more weakly and painfully than he expected.
"Thank God," she said, sitting back on her heels. The next thing he knew, she was putting a glass of something to his lips and urging him to drink.
After a few gulps of wine, the liquid burning down his throat, Darcy suddenly remembered why he was so thirsty and his throat so painful, and he pushed the glass away, struggling to sit up. The movement caused his head to spin and his stomach to rebel. "Wickham," he gasped.
Elizabeth pointed next to him, and Darcy looked over to see his attacker sprawled on his face. His silver-handled cane lay on the floor beside him, blood pooling out in a grotesque puddle. Darcy gaped at him a moment before turning his astonished gaze to the woman at his side. "You didn't kill him, did you?"
She giggled, her hand covering her mouth. After a moment, the giggles turned into full-out laughter, and soon she was holding her stomach, tears streaming down her face. "Oh, my," she said as her laughter died. "I shouldn't be laughing. I really could have killed him. My God, I could have killed a man..." She stared at Wickham's body, her eyes round. She shivered.
Darcy put a hand to his forehead, trying to make sense of it all. "What happened?" he asked. "The last thing I remember is that he was trying to kill me."
"Is that what was going on?" Elizabeth asked, her expression serious as she looked back at him. "All I knew was that I heard the noise from outside, rushed in here and saw him on top of you. I'm afraid I simply grabbed the nearest object and beat him about the head with it until he stopped. Why was he trying to kill you?"
Darcy closed his eyes and rubbed his hand over his face. "He wanted the time machine. Getting me out of the way was the most direct path."
"That man is more evil than even I had thought," Elizabeth said, her voice hardening.
He shook his head sadly. "His demons got the best of him, I think. It was done in passion; it wasn't with premeditation. It was simply ... I don't know. He's been drinking, he's in debt, and he sees me as the source of all of the evils in his life." He sighed. "And I suppose, in a way, I am. I did prevent him from gaining the living. I did prevent him from marrying my sister. I did prevent him from marrying you. Granted, these were not without some form of compensation or they were because of his own poor judgment, but I do not know if he was ever taught the morality or maturity to recognize that. His mentality is not one that can be easily worked on, that he would accept responsibility. I don't know what we are going to do."
Elizabeth didn't answer. She was staring at the man who still lay on the floor breathing but otherwise not moving. Her expression had softened slightly into something bordering on pity. "I am simply glad I did not listen to you," she said after a moment, turning her gaze back to Darcy.
"What made you disregard my order?" he asked. "What made you follow me?"
She smiled faintly. "The boy that had been tracking Wickham came back to the inn a short while after you'd left, looking for you. He told me that Wickham had left the pub and had returned to his rooms. I waited for you, hoping you had got out before he had gone in, but when you didn't come back to the inn, I grew worried. So I came here. The porter downstairs didn't question me -- seemed to think I was one of Wickham's women. And then when I came upstairs I heard the noise and came in. He could have killed you had I not."
"I know," Darcy said quietly, his voice hoarse for reasons beyond his bruised throat. "Thank you. You were right."
They remained in silence for some time then, each thinking about what might have happened, until Wickham began to stir. Ignoring his groans, Darcy stood with help from Elizabeth and sat in a chair she quickly righted for him.
"What will we do now?" Elizabeth asked him. "Should we leave him there?"
Darcy shook his head slightly, staring down at his longtime nemesis. "I don't think we have much of a choice. I will try to make a deal with him, but whether we resolve this is up to him. Knowing what I know of him, he won't likely be amenable."
And he wasn't. When he had finally been helped into the chair, groaning pitifully and holding his head, Darcy tried to convince him of the hopelessness of his situation, the benefits of leaving the country, and the new life he could start if he took the money and left. Darcy and Elizabeth would meet him the following night at a named inn in Portsmouth with three thousand pounds and a one-way ticket out of England with a choice of destination.
After much weak sneering and after gaining the addition of another thousand pounds, Wickham agreed to the deal. Elizabeth and Darcy left the rooms and returned to the inn and time machine with the certainty that all had been fixed.
But when they returned to the future to fetch the funds, they found they were wrong. Nothing had changed. At first, Darcy was convinced that it must have been a mistake -- that perhaps, if they met Wickham at the inn in Portsmouth with the money, he would change his mind. Or perhaps it was merely that, as they hadn't yet gone back to the past with the money, Wickham had grown frustrated and returned to wreak havoc in Brighton.
"It simply isn't possible," Elizabeth said with a sigh. "We went to Brighton on the morning before he eloped with my sister, according to Jane's letter. Wickham couldn't have gone to Portsmouth, because he went instead to London with Lydia. They must have left mere hours after you and I spoke to him."
"Why would he do that?" Darcy said, running a hand through his hair in frustration. "He knows that I stand by my word. We made a deal, dammit!"
Elizabeth said nothing from where she sat on the chair in their rooms at Pemberley, watching as Darcy paced back and forth by the window. She looked down again at her notes, tapping the paper with her pencil. "We could go back to Brighton."
His jaw clenched. "And do what?" he snapped, turning to face her. "Tie him to a chair?"
She stood angrily, slamming the notepad on the desk next to her. The pencil bounced and rolled off the edge to the floor. "Don't you dare yell at me, you great lummox," she said, her voice intense but controlled. "I had nothing to do with this, and yet you stand there and criticize my help. So I failed to give you the answer you wanted. Is that a reason to mock me? You're no better than you were at Hunsford. You still cannot contend with things not being exactly as you want them."
Darcy had frozen at her first words, and he stood, stunned, as she poured her indignation over him. When she reminded him of the scene in Kent, his shoulders fell and his heart sank. She was right, he thought, rubbing a hand over the bruises that still marred his face. He had planned and prepared and assumed that he could do no wrong, and when things hadn't turned out the way he expected, he lashed out.
"Forgive me," he said softly. "I should not have reacted in that way. I am frustrated -- I have been working at this for so long, and just when the end is in sight ... but I have no excuse. None that I am willing to hide behind. I am sorry."
At first, there was no change in the expression that tightened the skin around Elizabeth's eyes and forehead, but after a moment it began to soften, and she slowly sank back into her chair. She didn't say anything at first, and his nervousness grew, but at length she looked up at him with a small smile: "I believe now I was wrong," she said. "You have changed."
Darcy felt an answering smile crease his lips and a surge of pride flow through him. He suddenly felt on top of the world, ten feet tall, that he could accomplish anything. This simple act of seeking and receiving forgiveness had taken his frustration and caused it to vanish. "We can do this," he said firmly.
Her smile widened. "We can."
"Do you think you might speak with your sister -- with Lydia?" he asked.
She sighed, the determination of only a moment ago seemingly exhaled along with the air. "It's worth an attempt," she said, "though I strongly suspect it will not work. I will have to talk to her before she leaves for Brighton -- there could be no reason for me to appear to her there -- so at Longbourn it must be."
But the talk stalled quickly. As Darcy waited outside Longbourn the night before Lydia was to travel to Brighton, Elizabeth crept inside and sought out her youngest sister and tried to persuade her to behave with propriety. That request received little more notice than a disbelieving snort, but when Elizabeth began warning her against paying too much attention to the officers, and in particular, Lieutenant George Wickham, her youngest sister turned on her. She repeated her earlier avowals that Elizabeth was simply jealous of her invitation and of that gentleman's interests and the greater popularity she enjoyed among the officers. Elizabeth tried to tell her something of Wickham's reprehensible behavior, but it was too late. Lydia was beyond listening. Elizabeth retreated when Kitty came in to talk with Lydia and, tiptoeing downstairs, escaped out the morning room window she had climbed in.
"How did you fare?" Darcy asked, offering his hand.
Elizabeth accepted his help and hopped off the ledge. "I don't want to talk about it," she said, pulling her dressing gown closer around herself. "Can we get out of here before someone sees me like this?"
Darcy flipped the switch, and they were soon back in Pemberley. Elizabeth quickly disappeared behind the screen to change back into her gown, and Darcy set the time machine on the desk, opening his notebook and scanning the entries. "So, did it work?" he asked her over his shoulder. "Did your sister listen to your advice and choose not to elope with Wickham?"
"Hell is still hot enough for Wickham to boil in when I kill him," Elizabeth replied, her voice muffled as she put her gown over her head.
Darcy chuckled at her response and continued making notes. On re-reading one entry, he paused and a wrinkle formed on his brow. "Your sister Jane sent two letters to you, did she not?" he asked suddenly.
"She did, but the second one never reached me here," Elizabeth said as she came from behind the screen, holding her gown up. "It was still somewhere in the post when we left Lambton. Could you do up my buttons?" she asked, offering him her back.
Darcy set down the notebook and pencil and stood as Elizabeth pulled aside her long tresses. The sight of her unbound hair and the bare skin revealed between the gaping gown and her underthings sent a thrill through him, though he had seen it several times before. Without maids and valets, the two of them had to fend primarily for themselves; their clothes were, for the most part, practical, but there were some that required assistance. It was an intimate moment, what she asked him to do, and he took a deep breath to steel himself. No matter how many times she asked it of him, he would no doubt always feel the same way.
"What would happen if the first letter never made it to you?" he asked, beginning with the bottom buttons as he struggled to keep his voice steady. His fingers fumbled with the first few tiny fastenings, and every accidental touch made his skin burn.
She turned to look at him in surprise, and he gently turned her back so he could finish his task. "You mean, I suppose, what would happen if the letter got lost or if I didn't open it?" she replied, her voice thoughtful. "I imagine my aunt and uncle and I would still be here until the second letter arrived. Jane wrote it the day after she wrote the first, so it would have come a day or two later -- perhaps even long enough for us to attend the dinner to which your sister invited us." She paused. "But if the first letter went missing, would the second make sense? I do not know what was in the second, and Jane said that it only contained more information."
"Then what if we merely delay the first letter, perhaps by taking it from an unattended post bag or something, make it appear as though it were redirected, and slip it into the letters when the second arrives?" Darcy said, finishing up the last button. He set his hands unsteadily on her shoulders for a moment after he was done, and when he didn't immediately remove them she turned her gaze to him in curiosity.
Their eyes met and held, and the desire he knew was in his own gaze slowly became reflected in hers. Her lips parted slightly; her indrawn breath drew him. He bent his head to hers no more than an inch, though, before he checked himself, retreating, his eyes closing in pain. When he opened them again, he put one hand to her hair, lifting a tress and letting it drop through his fingers, then took her face in his hands. Gently, leaning in slowly, he kissed her forehead before stepping back and putting distance between them.
He cleared his throat, averting his gaze, and sought to recall their conversation, to say something to break the awkward silence, when he was surprised by the touch of her hand on his cheek. He barely had a moment to realize Elizabeth had stepped forward before she had placed a chaste kiss on his lips and stepped backward, smiling.
"What was that for?" he asked, startled.
"For being you," she said softly. She looked down, her expression tinged with sadness. "I am sorry that all this has happened, that we have managed to put up so many obstacles with our foolishness -- that I rejected you, in the first place. This all might have been done with months ago." She looked up at him, unshed tears in her eyes, and her lips quirked in a half-hearted smile. "I wouldn't have been given this opportunity to know you like this, true, but being married to you would have been well worth that sacrifice."
With a small sigh, he reached out and gathered her into his arms, kissing her hair as he held her closely. "I, too, wish our path to happiness were not strewn with so many thorns, Elizabeth, but I doubt our younger selves would ever have made it easy for us -- Wickham, time machine, or aught else notwithstanding. It is enough for me that we are making it right, in such convoluted fashion as we have seen so far. I know that I have no right to be here with you, to have been so close to you as I have been, but I wouldn't give this experience up for the world. If that means these small sacrifices, if that means disguising ourselves, if that means dealing with Wickham once more -- if that means stealing letters from the post, I will do it." He held her from him, meeting her gaze. "You are worth everything I do, and more."
When her eyes lightened and her smile widened, he raised her hand to his lips and kissed it softly. "Now, we have a crime to commit. Do you think you have the talent to distract a postman?"
She fluttered her lashes at him, her eyes twinkling with mischief. "My dear sir, my mother instructed us in all the feminine arts. If I feel any doubts, I need only recall how Miss Bingley attracted your attention at Netherfield, and put her example into practice."
Darcy groaned. "Anything but Miss Bingley, Elizabeth," he said, shaking his head. "We want this to be a successful mission, remember?"
When the two knocks sounded on the door to the Lambton Arms, Mr. Hobbs stood from behind the counter in the taproom and went to the door. The postman, wiping his brow, came in with his bag slung over his shoulder.
"A hot day, innit, Mr. Hobbs?" the young man said, tossing the bag onto the bar and falling into a chair.
"Indeed, it is," Mr. Hobbs said, retreating behind the counter and taking a mug from a hook. "Fancy a pull? The cellar keeps it fresh."
"Don't I know it," the postman said, accepting the mug. "The Arms makes me rounds a perfect treat, Mr. Hobbs. Makes the rushin' afore Lambton worth the work. An' tis certain me horse could say us'd use a rest."
"If'n your horse be talking to you, Mr. Felton, I think the both of you could use one."
The postman laughed and raised his glass in salute before taking a swig and sighing in pleasure. "That's near certain," he said after a few moments of appreciation of the brew. "The week's been a hot one, and some mighty strange things been happening lately."
"Have they?" Mr. Hobbs said politely, wiping the counter of a small spill.
"That they have," the postman said, taking another drink. "Not all of 'em were happened to me, mind you, but they was sich strange things, all the same. There was that ghost what George Patten said he seen the other night out on the heath."
"What, after he spent five hours in me taproom? If he saw a ghost, you can call me Charlie."
Mr. Felton allowed that it might have been no more than a sodden Mr. Patten's imagination. "Yet then what of the three-legged chicken born on old Lynch's farm Tuesday last?"
"Naw, anyone look close on this third leg? I don't doubt me he strapped it with some string," Mr. Hobbs scoffed. "If'n, a'course, he didn't paste it with that glue he used on that so-called unicorn last autumn."
"Fair enough," the postman acknowledged. "But it still don't explain what happened yesterday while I were on me route."
Here Mr. Hobbs looked skeptical and would have made some comment, but the door to the taproom opened just then and a tall man ducked under the lintel. "Why, Mr. Darcy, sir," Mr. Hobbs said, tugging his forelock and hastily straightening things on the bar. The postman sat up straighter on his chair as he swiveled around to stare in surprise at the newcomer.
Mr. Darcy came into the dimly lit room, setting his hat on the counter as he pulled off his gloves. The harsh light of morning cast strange shadows on his face, and wasn't at all flattering to the young man, Mr. Hobbs thought as he offered a drink.
"Thank you, but I can only stay a moment before I am expected elsewhere," Mr. Darcy said. "I merely entered to discover if the post had come yet this morning. I know Pemberley has a boy pick it up, but as I was in the area..."
Mr. Hobbs raised his brows in surprise, a smile lighting his face, "Well, then, Mr. Darcy, sir, you are in luck. Here's the post just come, not five minutes ago. Me an' Mr. Felton were just talking a while."
"It's a hot day out, sir, and I needed the rest," the postman said, raising his glass from the bar in acknowledgement.
Mr. Darcy smiled kindly on him. "I certainly understand, Mr. Felton. Were there any letters bound for Pemberley?"
Mr. Felton said he believed there were and that he would find them in his pack. As he dug around inside the bag, Mr. Darcy asked, "What was it I heard as I was coming in? Something about an occurrence on your route? I trust it was nothing serious? No flood waters or highwaymen, I suppose?"
"Oh, no, nothing o'the sort, sir," the postman said quickly, pausing in his search. "It was something unusual, is all. I don't generally see people on my route that time of morning, you see."
"What time of the morning is that?" Mr. Darcy asked.
"Oh, somewhere's about five or so. Just after dawn, I heads out from Sheffield and delivers me letters to all the post offices and inns on me route. I seen farmers an sich before, but ne'er a lady walkin down the road as if there's nothing odd in that."
"A lady?" Mr. Darcy echoed, sharing a laughing glance with the innkeeper.
"Indeed, a lady," the postman affirmed. "And bless me if she weren't wearing a fancy gown with gloves and a bonnet an sich and carrying one o'them lacy 'brellas like she were in London among the swells. Now, I almost ran her down, I did, as I were coming 'round the corner when she appeared, and so I stopped ta make sure she weren't hurt noways. And what does she do but tell me it weren't my fault, but that she were glad she found me, as she'd gone an' lost her purse down a hole, and would I be able to get it out? Well, I says to her, I has me route to finish, and it's all me job if'n it don't get done on time. But her eyes fill with tears and she says it's only a few feet off the road, and can't I jest come a bit and pull it out, as her arms don't reach that long? Well, I can't leave a lady in distress, says I."
"Indeed," Mr. Darcy agreed.
"So I goes with her, and jest past some trees she shows me this burrow, and, sure enough, when I reaches into it, there was a purse, all lacy with ribbons and sich on it, and she starts crying and carrying on about how I was a dear to pull it out, and how could she repay me, and I says to her she ought not have dropped it down the hole in the first place, and she jest about takes me head off."
Mr. Hobbs shook his head, the movement in time with his rag as he polished a mug. "What you needs, Mr. Felton, is more time around the ladyfolk. Mrs. Hobbs would have smacked you right 'round, had you said such to her."
Mr. Darcy agreed. "Indeed, it was no doubt impolitic to have said such a thing, Mr. Felton."
"Tho' how were I to know, says I? I don't have no truck with that sort. So, I goes back to me horse with her grabbin' me arm and pullin' me back and then beatin' me about the head with her bag, and only when I gets on me horse does she stop."
"Well, that certainly is an odd occurrence," Mr. Darcy said with a nod.
"But that ain't the oddest part yet," the postman said, his voice dropping into a low, intense whisper as he looked about him. The taproom was, as before, empty but for the three of them. "I only went but a few feet when I started to feel what that maybe I'd been in the wrong, and wasn't it a gentleman-like thing to do to apologize real nice to the lady? So I turns around me horse, but bless my soul if she weren't there!"
"She had left?"
"I don't rightly know how she mighta done," the postman said. "Not unless'n she run into the trees to hide, or summat. But, now, why would she have done that?"
Mr. Hobbs didn't have an answer, and Mr. Darcy declared himself perplexed. So the postman, his story finished and triumphant in having baffled the two doubters, he went back to the task of finding Mr. Darcy's letters in his bag. He finally located them, as well as the letters for the inn, and pulled them out, handing them to their respective owners.
"Thank you for the letters and for the tale, Mr. Felton," Mr. Darcy said, taking a coin out and throwing it on the counter. "Have another drink on me."
"Well, thank you kindly, sir," the postman said.
Mr. Darcy taking out his pocket watch and looking at the time. "I do apologize for having to dash. I've some other business to see to this morning, as well. I will be back later, though, Mr. Hobbs. The Gardiners are still in residence?"
"Yes, indeed, sir. Shall I let them know that you will be calling?"
"No need," Darcy said quickly, putting his letters into his jacket pocket. "I believe they are expecting me. Oh!" he said, leaning down and coming back up with a letter in hand. "I believe this may have dropped out of your postbag."
The postman took the letter and glanced at the ink-splattered direction with surprise. "It sure must have, sir, as I don't rightly recall it on the floor when I come in. Seems like it's been redirected already," he said, turning it over and then handing it to the innkeeper to look at.
Mr. Hobbs nodded. "Indeed. It seems as if it were meant for Miss Bennet, so it's a good thing you found it there, Mr. Darcy, or it might have been delayed more unnecessarily. Thank you, sir."
"My pleasure," Darcy said. He adjusted his gloves and hat and, bidding the innkeeper farewell, left the inn.
The innkeeper waited around in the taproom, listening to more of the postman's stories, until at last the latter finished his second mug and declared himself ready to resume his route. Mr. Hobbs took the letters to his wife, who was in charge of sorting through them and directing them around the village, and then returned to his duties.
Less than half an hour later, as he was wiping off the counter, the innkeeper was surprised by the sight of Mr. Darcy coming through the door. "Back already to see the Gardiners?" he asked.
The other man started and a faint blush came over his face. "Yes, indeed," he said, removing his hat. "I trust they are in?"
"I believe they are, sir. I'll have a servant take you up to their private room." The innkeeper watched as his son led the tall gentleman up the stairs, and then turned to his wife, who had just come through the door leading to the kitchens. "That boy's got it something fierce, Mrs. Hobbs," he said, shaking his head.
"Yes, well, the young lady's got it no less, from what I hear. It'll be nice to see him settled. So he's come calling on her, then?"
"On the family as a sum," he corrected. "He didn't say naught about calling on her particular-like yet."
"He hasn't a choice this morning, Mr. Hobbs," the innkeeper's wife said, putting her hands on her hips and glancing upwards. "The gentleman and his wife left not ten minutes ago whilst you were in the cellar. I believe it is only the young lady present."
The innkeeper gave a hearty laugh, his large belly bouncing. "Well, then, perhaps we'll see a few more smiles and blushing cheeks shortly," he said. "At the very least, an announcement in the near future."
But the smiles were absent when, after the innkeeper's son went tearing out the door in search of the Gardiners a few minutes later, Mr. Darcy strode down the stairs at a clipped pace. He paused at the door and looked over his shoulder at the innkeeper and his wife, who were still standing behind the counter, watching the traffic pass. His face was white and his hands trembled as he placed his hat on his head. "Mr. Hobbs, you'll inform me when the Gardiners depart?" he asked in a firm voice. The innkeeper nodded dumbly. "I'll send a boy to run me any messages they leave."
"I've not heard they've any plans to leave, sir," the innkeeper said apologetically.
Mr. Darcy paused, glancing up at the floor above, and shook his head. "I'll send a boy," he repeated. Nodding curtly, he departed.
Neither of the Hobbs said anything for a few minutes, both staring in surprise at the door through which the gentleman had left. "Well, tip me over with a feather," the portly innkeeper said at last. "What do you suppose that means?"
"She must have refused him, the poor dear," said his wife, shaking her head sadly. "I suppose there must have been something or someone else in it. That's always the way. What a pity."
"Indeed," the innkeeper said with a sigh. "The Gardiners were supposed to stay until Friday, and now we'll lose the money the rooms would have brought us."
Indeed, it was only half an hour later that Mr. Gardiner descended to settle the accounts and hire the carriage to take them to Hertfordshire. Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth would be taken to Longbourn and Mr. Gardiner would join Mr. Bennet in London to search for their missing relative. As well, the younger Darcy, galloping back to Pemberley, was making his own resolution to depart for London within a day, in search of his old friend.
Little did each of these parties know, there were already two other people on the hunt for the prodigal couple in that great city. The older Darcy and Elizabeth had jumped to London in search of Wickham and Lydia shortly after Darcy had returned to Pemberley from delivering the letter in the village and dropped off the letters on his desk in his study.
Their plan was to search the public houses and temporary rooms in the area where Elizabeth remembered Lydia said she had been abandoned. It was a tall order: there were at least twenty boarding houses within the two-block radius of the street Lydia could identify.
They could have tried other avenues: the best lead they had was Mrs. Younge, Georgiana's former governess who had conspired with Wickham in London and at Ramsgate. Darcy had heard from one of Colonel Fitzwilliam's connections that she had a house in London where she took in boarders, and most likely she would have been Wickham's first contact in the city. But they couldn't approach her: Darcy could already recall his younger self's plans to come to London in search of Wickham, and his knowledge of Mrs. Younge's presence in London was longstanding enough that the younger Darcy would know it, as well. Without knowing whether Wickham had taken in Mrs. Younge on his knowledge of the time machine and the two Darcys, the older Darcy could not contact her, knowing his younger self would likely, as well.
The task of visiting each inn and boarding house in the area had a major drawback, as well, though, in that they did not know what alias Wickham was using; that he would use his real name was an unlikelihood. True, they could try using a description of him, but whether the innkeepers would be friendly and willing to cooperate was an unknown.
Therefore, the best way to find Wickham was to spend time at the pubs, in the taprooms in the area -- particularly the cheaper ones. But neither Darcy or Elizabeth, as themselves, could be present and risk being seen by Wickham -- particularly not now, after they had spent time waiting for Darcy's bruises to heal. If he saw them, he would flee and they would be back at the beginning.
But Wickham wouldn't recognize the Winterbottoms.
"Is this really what people do in pubs?"
Darcy glanced across the small table at Elizabeth, who was shrouded in a hooded cloak and glancing warily at the door as she sipped at her mug. She seemed less nervous than intrigued, though this was the second day of their search and the fourth pub in which they'd sat and had drinks.
Around them, men joked and called out in loud voices for another ale. A group on one side of the room was playing a boisterous game of skittles, while a few others played dice at a table. Women of a particular sort threaded through the crowd, making nice with the customers and taking orders. The publican chatted with the clientele and pulled pints.
There had been no sign of Wickham yet, but Darcy knew he had to show eventually in one of these pubs. He wasn't the sort to sit at home, no matter the feminine or financial situation. And if he had any money in his pocket whatsoever, he would no doubt be out trying to play more off someone.
The key was to find which taproom he spent his time in, but they hadn't had any luck so far. They had all the time in the world to find it, as they could easily repeat days if needed. Whether Darcy would be able to keep up the steady stream of alcohol intake was another matter entirely. He'd already spent most of the past two days sleeping off the effects while leaving Elizabeth to do the planning.
"This is more or less what they do," Darcy replied to Elizabeth's question as he took a drink of ale. "There are other games to play, different crowds of people, but it's mostly a place to blow off steam, to unwind. Or just to get drunk."
"Or get something else," Elizabeth muttered as an amply-cleavaged woman came over to cozy up to Darcy.
"Can oi gets ye anything, love?" the blowsy blond asked, offering an indecent view of her assets.
"Ah, yes," Darcy said, glancing with apology at Elizabeth before tugging the woman across his lap. The woman giggled as he planted a kiss on her cheek. "I would like another mug of ale," he said, offering a coin, "as well as a little information."
"Ask me wot y'like, love," the woman said after biting the coin and then tucking it in her bodice.
"Have you seen a rather handsome gentleman come by, perhaps in regimentals, in the past few days? Blond hair, blue eyes, average height, scar about an inch and a half long on his left hand?"
"Oi ain't seen none as 'andsome as you," the woman said, earning herself another coin, "but oi might 'ave seen the gent. 'e was 'ere last night playin' cards fer several hours. Friendly-like. Knew how to flatter a lady." She looked at him suspiciously, and then glanced over in curiosity at Elizabeth, who ducked her head into the shadow of her cloak. "Why, wot's it to do with you'?"
"You should always ask that first, my dear," Darcy said with a laugh. "But you've nothing to fear. We've known George for many years. We've just heard he's back in town."
"Well, then, oi can tell ye 'e'll be 'ere tonight -- said 'e'd be back," she said. With a sly glance at Elizabeth, she leaned a little closer to Darcy and played with his cravat while adding, "If ye'd like, oi can keep ye busy 'til then."
"Thank you, but no," Darcy said, trying to contain his smile at Elizabeth's irritated reaction.
The woman wasn't offended, but she did add as she slid off his lap, "Mackie don't like carry-ins if ye sees my meanin'."
"We'll keep it in mind," Elizabeth said, grounding out the words.
With a wink at Darcy, the woman left and returned with another mug of ale. Darcy watched Elizabeth over the rim as he took the first sip, wondering what was going through her thoughts. Her initial enthusiasm for the venture seemed to have waned in the past five minutes. "I have no interest in her," he said at last, setting down his mug.
Elizabeth startled at his voice and he caught sight of the blush that filled her cheeks. "I should think not, you being a married man, and all."
"It's more than that," he said. "I have never -- that is, I've only once betrayed my vows. And it was with you."
She looked up at him, her eyes round. "With me?"
"When you were Mrs. Wickham. We were at Netherfield, and in a rather peculiar situation. We got ... carried away. We kissed." He paused and took in her thoughtful expression. "That was all, but it was enough. I believe strongly in fidelity and always have. You are the only woman I have ever loved. You will have nothing to fear, once we are wed."
"I never imagined I would," she answered primly. After a moment, though, she softened: "But thank you." She paused, her finger tracing one of the many grooves etched into the table. "I wish I could remember," she said after a moment. "I know -- it was a different life, but it seems so strange for me to read or to hear you tell these stories of me and not be able to recall them. I feel ... inadequate."
Darcy didn't answer for a moment, thinking over her words and the most proper reply. She seemed to be searching for something more than just a reaction to her lack of memories. "Is it that you cannot remember," he said at last, "or is it worry that what you cannot remember will hurt you?"
She looked up at him, her eyes wide. After a moment, her lips curled in a smile, and she let out a small, breathy laugh. "That is it exactly. I know the story, but without knowing how it happened, I worry that I will make the wrong choice. My heart wants it so that there is no pain -- that we would not have to sacrifice in order to make a happy future, that the people we love will not have to make compromises. And while I know I should never or, really, could never hope for such a thing, I worry my heart will overrule my head and I will cause more pain to the people I love."
"We always have to make those decisions, Elizabeth, whether we are in our time or without," he said, covering her hand with his own where it lay on the table. "And yes, the chance that we will cause pain is necessarily greater with the power that we have, but we can also create the possibility of greater happiness."
"But how do we choose who is given the pain and who is given the happiness?"
Darcy looked at their hands, clasped atop the table. "I think," he said softly, returning his gaze to hers with intensity, "we must let the past and the future be our guide, and the rest will find a way."
Elizabeth nodded slowly, her gaze not wavering, and squeezed his hand gently. "Thank you," she said.
Darcy smiled, releasing her hand after a moment and sitting back to take a drink of his ale. He was becoming skilled at reading Elizabeth's moods. If all went well, this would be how it was when they were married, perhaps after a few years of the kind of intimacy he'd had with both Elizabeths -- and even greater, he thought with a smile. The thought of being an "old married couple" with her filled him with a strong sense of contentment. And it was so nearly in their grasp.
Across the table, Elizabeth suddenly tensed, her eyes on something over his shoulder. Resisting the urge to turn and look, Darcy slowly, casually set down his mug. "Is it him?" he asked in an undertone.
She nodded tightly. Within a minute, Wickham entered the edge of Darcy's vision, coming to the bar to chat with the publican. As one of the waitresses passed, he swatted her on her backside, setting off a squeal and giggles. "Oo, Mr. Hardy," she said, her voice carrying over the din. "You're a naughty one."
Mr. Hardy. Now they had his alias. Darcy lifted his mug to his lips again as Wickham turned and surveyed the pub. The man seemed to find nothing amiss, his expression and posture never displaying unease as he took his mug and swaggered over to a table of men playing dice.
Darcy nodded to Elizabeth, who stood and went to the door. Unceremoniously, he stood and strolled in the direction of the bar, a path that would take him straight past Wickham. He did his best to act nonchalant and not arouse suspicion in the other man, but as he approached Wickham looked up. At first, he showed no reaction to the tall, broad-shouldered, mustachioed man coming towards him, returning his attention and conversation to the table before him. But suddenly he gaze flew back to Darcy's and fear entered his eyes. Darcy reacted quickly, crossing the last few steps between them and pressing two fingers into Wickham's side as he slid behind him.
"We would like to see you outside," he said in an undertone for Wickham's ears only. "Act casually; tell your friends you will return shortly."
Wickham did as bid, smiling and adding with a laugh that he needed to "relieve himself of a persistent itch." Setting his mug down on the table, he preceded Darcy to the door. Elizabeth followed them out, glancing behind them as they went.
"It's all clear," she said as she joined them in the small alley between the buildings, which led to the mews. "No one seems to care about him, as if that's surprising."
"You betrayed us, Wickham," Darcy said evenly to the man flattened against the wall. "You were supposed to meet us in Portsmouth."
Wickham shrugged, the gesture not as insouciant as he no doubt intended, what with Darcy's hand clenched around his cravat. "I didn't like the terms."
"We won't give you the time machine."
"Then I won't give you what you want," he replied.
"Mr. Darcy's on his way to town to hunt you down," Elizabeth said now.
Wickham laughed. "As if I'm afraid of him. What can he do to me? And now that you've told me, I will simply abandon your sister earlier than I expected. I made enough in winnings last night to get me out of London."
"You cannot escape us," Darcy said. "We'll find you wherever you go."
"And yet it won't help you," he replied, narrowing his eyes. The corner of his mouth curled in contempt. "I've provided you'll never find happiness together, and if you do find a way around poor Lydia Bennet's tragic ruination, I'll only come back with worse. We're at a bit of a stalemate, Darcy. I want the time machine, and you want your precious happy marriage. You cannot win."
"I could kill you now."
"Poor Lydia, widowed before she's even a bride."
"We will give you the time machine," Elizabeth said firmly.
Darcy turned and stared in shock, his hand releasing Wickham's cravat. He spared a glance at the other man, who straightened and brushed off his jacket with an offended expression, but as there was no danger of their captive escaping, he returned his attention to the recent suggestion instead: "Elizabeth -- that won't help us. He will merely go back and marry himself to Georgiana."
Elizabeth ignored him, approaching the two men and meeting Wickham's smirking gaze steadily. "You will tell your friend Mrs. Younge to reveal your whereabouts to Mr. Darcy when he asks, and you will agree to marry my sister."
"I will need funds to settle my debts," Wickham said, attempting to right his flattened cravat. He shot her a sly look. "You wouldn't want your sister to begin her marriage as a pauper, would you?"
"You can negotiate with Mr. Darcy for that," she replied. "He would no doubt find it suspicious if you didn't try to weasel some money from him."
"You're spending my assets rather freely, Miss Bennet," Darcy said warningly.
She raised one brow at him. "Will you begrudge it?" He shook his head in acknowledgment of her point.
"When will I get the time machine?" Wickham asked, glancing between the two of them.
"As a wedding-gift," Elizabeth said with a smile.
Wickham hesitated, clearly torn by the temptation but cautious of the deal. "Do I have your word?"
"Absolutely," Elizabeth replied.
He looked to Darcy, who was studying the expression on Elizabeth's face. "Darcy? Do I have your word?"
There was silence between them for a moment as Darcy tried to discern what was in Elizabeth's mind. She was confident -- that was assured -- but of what, he could not tell. After a moment, as the tension continued to build, she nodded encouragingly, and he knew that he would have to trust her. "You do," he said firmly, turning to Wickham and offering his hand. "You have my word: you shall have the time machine."
The deal was complete. Wickham promised he would marry Lydia, and then faded into the night, whether to return to the taproom or to the inn where he was staying, they did not know. Either way, Darcy knew that this time they were assured he would wait. His younger self would find Wickham at his lodgings with Lydia. Wickham knew Darcy would keep his word: he would have what he wanted. But to what cost for Darcy and Elizabeth?
"Elizabeth," Darcy said as they entered their rented rooms at the inn, "are you sure this was wise?"
She looked up at him from where she was collecting their bags. "Of course," she said, coming over and handing him his valise. "I know what I'm doing."
"He's simply going to go back and undo everything we've done."
She shook her head, but offered no explanation. She fiddled with the inputs on the time machine, setting the date and coordinates, and then looked up at him. "Do you trust me?" she asked.
"I don't understand," he said.
"Do you trust me?" she asked, her voice gentle but insistent as she held out her hand to him. "Will you trust me enough to take my hand so that I can show you?"
"Show me what?"
Chapter Twelve: Bidding Farewell
Posted on 2011-06-01
Darcy sat in the carriage on its way to Meryton, holding the strap tightly as they bounced over uneven roads. They no doubt could have afforded a slightly better carriage and driver to take them the distance between London and the little Hertfordshire village, but it was better that they remain frugal. After all, the funds they had now had to last them through to the younger Darcy and Elizabeth's wedding or engagement or whatever it would take to solidify that line of the future.
Things had not changed yet. Darcy knew his younger self to be culpable in this, as there was a great deal of insecurity in his heart. That, combined with his stubbornness, led to a situation in which his younger self wanted to seek Elizabeth out, but couldn't. The young Darcy was a walking case of frustrated yearning. If it hadn't been Darcy's younger self, it would have been amusing. As it was, he wanted to hit himself over the head and tell himself to get on with it. Quite obviously, there were problems with that solution.
Elizabeth, who had been looking out the window at the passing scenery, glanced over at him now and smiled. "We're nearly there," she said.
Darcy acknowledged this with a nod and grimace, and she chuckled and turned back to the window. She seemed happier now, and no wonder. The younger Darcy had come to save the day in London; Lydia and Wickham were married; the Bennets were no longer under the shadow of scandal and ruination; Bingley was, like them, on his way to Hertfordshire. And he, Darcy, had trusted her.
It was astonishing, he reflected, how different his life had become since he had given up control of it. For all of his life, he had been a prideful, selfish being. He had gained good principals from his parents, but as an only son and, for many years, an only child, he had been spoiled and allowed to be the center of the world. He had learned, through overt and implicit teaching, to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond his own family circle and to think meanly of all others. When his father died, and even before that, Darcy had been given great responsibilities and, for the most part, left to oversee them without direction. He was unchallenged in his control and so became used to having things his own way.
It was not until this adventure that he began to see that he could not direct everything. The lesson came slowly at times and at others with sudden, painful clarity.
There were his struggles to undo the past in London and Ramsgate, and later when he and Elizabeth were trying to disengage her from Wickham; his brief exile at Rosings and the resulting proposal; his experience in Brighton and at Pemberley, and the final confrontation in London. In those moments, he understood the importance of giving up the iron grip he maintained on what he believed were the reins of his fate.
That isn't to say that he lacked all control or that he were simply a piece of flotsam in the current of time. He could effect change -- but he had to allow that it was not only his change that mattered.
The concept seemed difficult -- to be able to trust others, to be able to trust in fate. And yet when it came to the moment in which he chose to cede control, there in the alley behind the pub as he looked into Elizabeth's eyes and sensed her confidence, the decision was easy. In love, he had gained the ability to believe in her. In giving her his heart, in giving her himself, he also gave her the power to control his destiny. It had taken him some time to realize, but in the end he began to understand it.
And he did not regret this alteration of thought.
The past few weeks had been a slice of heaven. In the time in which they waited for the Wickhams' wedding and subsequent visit to Longbourn, and then for Bingley to make his way into the countryside, he and Elizabeth had spent their hours sans time machine going to the theatre, visiting museums, and exploring the capital's many parks. As Mr. and Mrs. Winterbottom, they experienced the opera and viewed art; they strolled the paths during the fashionable hour. At Astley's, Darcy watched the expressions that crossed Elizabeth's face at the entertainments and trick riding. On the street corner, he bought her a posy and smiled at the light in her eyes. When he bid her goodnight at the door to her suite at the inn, he relished in the kiss she always placed on his cheek.
He respected her and he trusted in her love. And, loving her as he did, he knew that everything was going to work out in the end.
That was what brought them to Hertfordshire; that was what brought them from the moment in which Elizabeth tore the heart out of the time machine and smashed it upon the floor of her room at the inn. Without a working time machine, she said, no one would be able to alter time from without. But she trusted him and she trusted herself, and, by extension, she did the same to their younger counterparts -- so things would work out as they should.
Wickham had accepted the shell of the time machine without question and, even when Darcy had warned him it did not work, he merely laughed. He had disappeared down the alley, and Darcy and Elizabeth had returned to the inn. Their paths had not converged since.
And now the Wickhams were on their way to Newcastle, and Elizabeth and Darcy were on their way to Hertfordshire. They would pretend to be the Winterbottoms and allow their younger selves to find their way in love. Unknowing of when their own timelines would become untenable, unknowing of when their younger selves would make their marriage an inevitability and allow their older selves to disappear, they would wait and they would hope.
"Ah, we're here!" Elizabeth said gaily as the carriage rattled and jolted to a noisy stop in the yard at the Meryton inn. Darcy dismounted first and handed her out, returning her smile with an enthusiasm enhanced by his pure physical relief.
"'Tis Mr. and Mrs. Winterbottom, is it not?" the innkeeper said as he came forward to usher them into the inn. "Welcome back to Meryton."
Darcy thanked the man and ushered his "wife" into the inn, sending her with the innkeeper's wife to the rooms as he signed the book. "We're here," Darcy said, clearing his throat of the lie, "to assess the suitability of the neighborhood. We were thinking of purchasing an estate."
"So the country then spoke t'ye, last time you were 'ere, did it?" the innkeeper said with a ruddy grin. "If'n I weren't born and bred 'ereabouts, sir, I'd 'ave no doubt done the same. 'Tis the best county in all England, and no doubt."
Darcy thought he might disagree with such an opinion, but couldn't think of a way to easily explain his preference for Derbyshire. "Indeed," he prevaricated. "There will be a house agent meeting us here tomorrow. Would it be possible to have a private room in which we may consult with him before we depart?"
The innkeeper was more than happy to oblige, and Darcy thanked him and made his way up to their rooms. They were the same rooms as the last time he and Elizabeth had stayed here, and as he entered he shot a glance at the chairs by the window where he recalled Elizabeth waiting for him one night, and then at the dressing table where he had sat as Elizabeth trimmed his whiskers.
He was startled when the door to Elizabeth's room opened, and he looked up to see her standing embarrassed in the frame, one hand still on the handle and the other holding his valise. "Oh, I apologize," she said, her cheeks tinting with a light blush. "I didn't mean to intrude without knocking. I thought you were still speaking with the innkeep."
Darcy replied that he had only just entered and waved her into his room. She left the door behind her open and stepped through, crossing to the bed to set down his bag. "The servant who had brought up our luggage left this in my room," she said. "I thought you might need it."
"I will eventually," he said, looking at her expression keenly. "Are you well?"
She bit her lip for a moment, her gaze on her hand as it slowly slid from the bag. "I am well," she said. "I think perhaps only a little thoughtful."
"How do you like being back in Hertfordshire?" he asked. "We were last here, true, when you tried to convince your sister not to go to Brighton, but before that it was your home, some dozen years from now. Have things changed?"
Elizabeth shrugged, her hand trailing lightly over the bed frame and bed posts and chair back as she made her way to the window, where she held back the curtain and looked out over the street. "Things mostly stay the same in small towns such as these," she said. "It is the same butcher, it is the same blacksmith, it is the same innkeeper and his wife. True, they are younger here and the milliner is still alive -- his son has not taken over the business yet -- but it is mostly as usual, and just as I recall it all those years ago."
He smiled, coming towards the window, as well. "That is just how I felt when I returned to Pemberley the first time. Time is resilient."
"Indeed it is," she murmured. She gazed out the window for some time more, then reached into the pocket of her gown and pulled out the notebook. "Did you ever read this fully?" she asked, her fingers tapping lightly on the cover as she looked over her shoulder at him.
"Of course," he said with a chuckle. "I wrote most of it."
She shook her head, smiling. "No, this isn't ours. This is Wickham's. I have been reading it since we took it from his room in Brighton."
Cocking his head thoughtfully, Darcy reached out and accepted the offering. "I did read it when I first saw it, but only briefly," he said, flipping open the cover to gaze at the spidery writing of the first Wickham. "I had not the time to do more than scan its contents."
"I think you should," Elizabeth said softly. "He wrote quite a bit at the beginning about his life -- and about ours. As you did so much to make our past possible, I think you would appreciate it."
Darcy looked down at the notebook. In truth, he didn't want to read it. He wanted to throw it in the fire, to destroy this memento of his old friend, of the bitter hatred that had driven a man to such extremes. The bruises had long faded, but there would always be tenderness in the wounds Wickham had dealt him.
At last he looked up at Elizabeth, who had been watching him steadily the while, and asked, "Does it end happily?"
A smile curved Elizabeth's lips. "For us, for many people -- but I think you know that. Wickham would not have gone back, otherwise. It isn't our happiness I find so intriguing, though, but rather the path we took to get there."
With gentle fingers, Darcy turned a few of the pages. "Does it tell us what we have yet to do?"
"No," she said, with a slow shake of her head. "But it tells us that we have done well. I think you were right when you told me that we must let the past and the future be our guide. The rest will find a way."
She gave him another smile, which quickly turned into a yawn she tried to hide behind her hand. "Oh, my," she laughed. "I think I shall take a brief rest before we sit down to dinner. We are to meet with the agent early tomorrow, are we not?"
Darcy nodded. "Indeed," he said with a small twitch of his lips. "I am greatly looking forward to the exercise. I quite like the sound of Ashworth, or the great house at Stoke, though his letter makes the drawing-rooms seem quite tiny, or perhaps Purvis Lodge."
Elizabeth laughed again as she made her way to the door, and she stopped in doorway to turn back to him, her eyes twinkling. "Oh, no, my dear. The attics there are dreadful."
He smiled in return, and as she disappeared into the other room he made his way over to a small table and set the notebook down. He opened the cover and began reading it, his heart filling with a strange emotion as he read the story, between the lines of Wickham's bitter recollections, of how Elizabeth and Darcy had met and had fallen in love.
Twenty minutes later, he pulled out his traveling desk and began to write.
Catherine Bennet was not an observant young lady. She had never been known for her incisive comments or her firm grasp of other people's underlying meanings -- or, occasionally, their spoken intent. When once she had made up her mind on a point, it was difficult for her to dispose of that notion if clues to a different perspective came about. In truth, she often did not even realize such clues existed.
But for the past week, she had been certain -- absolutely certain -- that there was something wrong with her previous understanding of the relationship between her sister Elizabeth and that tall, dark friend of Mr. Bingley.
It had all started the day Mr. Bingley came to call on them at Longbourn, three days after he had come back into Hertfordshire. No one else had said anything regarding the oddity of this near stranger coming to call with his friend and performing an impression of a block of wood for half an hour in their drawing room, but Kitty had certainly been confused.
She had studied him, taking note of his frequent glances at her eldest sister, and thought that perhaps he had taken a fancy to her, but this idea she discarded after several hours of sporadic thought. Everyone knew that Jane was already nearly spoken for by Mr. Bingley, no matter he was gone for a while.
And then there were the brief, seemingly nervous glances he shot at Elizabeth when he was doing other than staring blankly at a wall or glowering at their mother, and the way Elizabeth jumped into the conversation as if she were being shot out of a cannon. It was horribly strange and, if Kitty were one to recognize patterns, she might have said that it reminded her of the time they stopped by Netherfield when Jane was sick. As it was, she merely thought the whole situation seemed familiar.
In fact, she might not have thought about it any more than that, for the rest of her life, if she had not had a few other experiences later that brought up the memory.
The first was when she and Mary and Maria Lucas were in Meryton, browsing in the milliner's for ribbons. She had just turned back to a hat hanging in the window, after Maria had shown her a clever piece of lace she'd found, when she caught sight of a couple across the road. The woman had come out of the inn first, and for a moment Kitty would have sworn faithfully that it was her sister. That impression was magnified when, behind her, half-hidden by the woman's bonnet as he ducked under the lintel, a man emerged who looked extremely like Mr. Darcy.
"Is that--" she exclaimed.
Mary, who had come up beside her, peered out the window in the direction Kitty's finger pointed and made a sound of disinterest. "The Winterbottoms are back, I see."
Oh, yes. Kitty could now see that herself, as the woman -- who was much older than her sister, really -- moved towards the carriage in the yard and the gentleman -- who had a mustache and beard, of all things! -- followed behind. She had a vague memory of them visiting at some time. A year ago, perhaps? It was difficult to recall.
Again, as before, separately this situation might have passed through her mind and into the abyss where her thoughts generally collected. Instead, it watered the seed that had been planted by that first visit.
That is to say, the whole of the possibility was not yet apparent and even what little she could grasp, when she had thought to consider it, was as vague and hazy as a white sheet in a morning's fog.
But never let it be said that a lack of understanding made Catherine Bennet hesitate to open her mouth.
"The Winterbottoms are back in Meryton, Mama," she said when she and Mary arrived at Longbourn a few hours later.
Mrs. Bennet nodded sagely. "Indeed, I did hear that from my sister Phillips," she said, disappointing Kitty in her hope that, for once, she would be the first to know something. "It is said they are searching for a house to purchase in the area. I daresay, even though Mr. Winterbottom is already married, they would be a good addition to the neighborhood. No doubt they will host dinners and throw parties themselves, and bring you girls into the paths of rich, single men." She paused in thought. "I wonder if Mr. Winterbottom has a brother."
It was a pity, though, she said after some time, that the Winterbottoms were not able to come to the dinner party that night. It was always good to have one's neighbors in one's debt. In that way, it was simpler to prevail upon them for favors such as balls and dinners.
Kitty nodded, making note of such important details. It was amazing how much there was to think about and plan in the social whirl. Her mother's wisdom would no doubt stand Kitty in good stead when she was married and had to arrange these things.
At the moment, however, she was content with simply enjoying the fruits of her mother's work. The party that evening was joyous, as usual. Maria was there, as well as Annie and Dorcas Long, and there was plenty of conversation and news. Annie let slip that her aunt said that Mr. Winterbottom had five brothers, and she was petrified that she would be forced to marry one of them. Maria said it was unlikely, as she had heard from her own mother that all of the brothers were old and married. Mary opined that they should do better not to gossip, which put a damper on their discussion for some time, but only until she moved away. The girls quickly resumed the debate once she was out of earshot.
The Winterbottoms were by far the most interesting thing to talk about, as the other remarkable topic couldn't be discussed while Mr. Bingley and Jane were present at the party. So perhaps -- just perhaps -- that obsession with the topic might have been the reason for the apparition Kitty saw as she went past the window in the drawing room after dinner.
She was on her way to have Elizabeth refill her cup of coffee, as Vincent Goulding had approached their group and Kitty availed herself of the opportunity afforded by her empty cup to avoid his persistent and awkward advances. As she crossed in front of the window, her shadow overtook the glass and allowed her to see dimly through in the deepening twilight. She at first barely spared it a glance, but when the impression she had gained from that one glance filtered through to her brain, she stopped and turned, her jaw dropping.
There, through the window, she saw her sister Elizabeth. Their eyes met, and Kitty knew -- she simply knew that it was Lizzy. In the halflight behind the figure, she also caught a glimpse of a man, though she couldn't see his face because of the lit reflection of the interior of the room. The man's hand went to Elizabeth's upper arm, hastily pulling her backwards, and they were gone. Ignoring the small spill of coffee she had made when she dropped her cup, Kitty took the two steps between her and the window and cupped her hand over her eyes, trying to see out. But there was no one there.
Shaken, Kitty turned to the room behind her. No one appeared to have noticed Kitty's alarm. Guests continued talking with each other, sipping at their drinks, and in the corner she saw the servants preparing to set up the card tables. Where the coffee was, Elizabeth was filling Mr. Darcy's cup as he awkwardly towered over her. That particular scene was so odd, so curiously intriguing, that Kitty continued to watch as her sister dropped sugar cube after sugar cube into the coffee as Mr. Darcy asked her something and she replied with apparent nervousness. When at last he reached out to take his cup, Kitty startled as she recognized his hand. If not for the ring on the man's hand in the apparition she saw, Kitty would have sworn it had been Mr. Darcy's hand!
Was this too fanciful? It was like something in a Gothic novel, but Elizabeth was always telling her that things like that never happened in real life. Was she imagining things or had she truly been witness to a vision?
"Do you believe in phantoms, Mary?" Kitty asked as her sister came up beside her, coffee in hand.
Mary did not have a quote ready in answer.
"Would a ghost give a glimpse into the future?"
Mary seemed to recover. "I truly doubt such an idea, Kitty," she said. "And it seems far too fantastic a notion, even for you. While I suppose there is a possibility that angels were present during the biblical times, it seems highly unlikely that most of the creatures and monsters of myth and legend exist elsewhere beyond the boundaries of an author's imagination."
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Miss Bennet, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Startled, both Mary and Kitty looked up to see that Mr. Darcy had stopped before them. They stared at him, their expressions baffled by the intrusion of this usually reticent man into their conversation. He glanced from one to the other of them and casually took a sip of coffee. In an instant his face screwed up and he looked down at the cup in disgust before shooting a bemused glance in the direction of the coffee pots.
"Not to your taste, Mr. Darcy?" Mary said, finding her voice.
A curious expression of what Kitty might have thought to be sadness, crossed his face as he returned his gaze to his questioner. "On the contrary," he said, his voice for the first time in Kitty's recollection seeming slightly strained, "I have never found it more palatable, but I am rather afraid my feelings on the matter might not be shared by someone else."
Such an enigmatic answer could not fail to mystify, and again the two girls remained silent. At last, he asked why they were discussing ghosts, and Mary glanced at her sister before replying. Kitty, however, could not partake fully in the discussion that followed. She was simply too distracted by her own thoughts, which flitted wildly from speculation to speculation.
These thoughts consumed her throughout the night and through much of the morning, as well, particularly as she no longer had Lydia to discuss them with. She searched all around the outside of the window, noting a few footprints that may or may not have been from her phantoms. She had no idea whether ghosts left footprints, and these shapes could just as easily have been made by a fox or a badger, for all she was able to determine.
In the end, though, it was easier to forget all about it, and it soon passed from her mind again. Kitty was not one to dwell overly on something she could not puzzle out, and soon enough she was content to work on retrimming one of Lydia's old bonnets to her own taste.
But then, amazingly, this riddle came to her again some days later, as they were sitting in the drawing room. Mr. Bingley had called for the second time in two days, and Kitty was reflecting that, rather than the apparition being a foreboding of something between the most unlikely pair of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, perhaps it was meant to signal that her sister Jane and his friend Mr. Bingley were to be wed. Kitty couldn't quite arrange her thoughts to fit this supposition comfortably, but did her utmost. Unfortunately, before she could come to a satisfying conclusion she was disturbed from her reverie when she caught sight of her mother. For more than a minute, at least, Kitty watched in fascination as her mother winked, as if to clear something from her eye. Slowly she came to the realization that perhaps her mother was not in pain, but that it was some sort of signal. But what?
Kitty could think of no better way to discover the reason for this signal than to ask. "What is the matter, mama? What do you keep winking at me for? What am I to do?"
"Nothing child, nothing. I did not wink at you," her mother replied with some asperity, and it slowly dawned on Kitty that perhaps she might have made a mistake. The next few minutes drew on interminably as everyone else in the room attempted to carry on some sort of conversation after that bit of awkwardness, and Kitty was relieved when her mother suddenly stood and told her she wished to speak with her.
Kitty's disturbance of mind was quickly answered when Mrs. Bennet explained, once they were out of the room, that she was attempting to arrange for Mr. Bingley to have some time alone with Jane to propose. Of course! Kitty could understand now, and was quite content to go along with the scheme.
And while later they discovered that the engagement did not happen in that instance, despite Mrs. Bennet's stratagems, it was simply a matter of time, her mother explained.
And it was some time: it was nearly two interminable days later, in fact, when the news at last broke upon the house that Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennet were engaged. It was quite a happy evening, though, quite making up for the wait, and Kitty went to bed that night with a smile on her face. The next morning, she was able to share the news with Maria and Lady Lucas, who had not yet heard. With the joyous celebration of the house no doubt extending Mr. Bennet's generosity, Kitty had asked and obtained permission to go with the Lucases into Meryton to shop for ribbons. They were at the milliners when Kitty remembered the reason for the joy and told it to the others, who were quite suitably impressed with Jane's good fortune. They talked of nearly nothing else the entire time.
As they prepared to depart for home, a light rain began to fall and soon enough it was coming down steadily. Kitty was grateful for the carriage she and the Lucases piled into, and she recalled how often she and Lydia would have to run for home with their precious burdens when the weather turned like this. In fact, there was a certain tree they would often stop under to attempt to wait out any passing shower, and as the carriage came over a small rise, Kitty's eyes immediately turned in its direction.
She was startled when she saw a figure beneath the distant tree, and in wonderment she stared. The tall figure seemed familiar, but strange -- as if it were wider than it should be. She watched as they passed, coming within a few dozen yards, and the figure seemed to grow in width suddenly, and she realized it was not one figure, but two, one wrapped in the other's embrace! With wide eyes, she recognized the face that now turned toward the carriage, and surmised that the tall man in the hat must be the very one she had supposed it to be in the apparition at the dinner at Longbourn.
"I knew it," she breathed.
"Knew what?" Maria asked, overhearing the whisper.
Kitty's eyes darted from Maria's to Lady Lucas'. She was unsure how to explain without seeming as mad as Mary had thought her that other evening. "Well," she said slowly, "I suppose it is only that I had been thinking, what with Mr. Bingley becoming engaged, that it is likely the rest of us will no doubt have better chances of marrying, too."
Lady Lucas nodded her head. "Indeed, I imagine your mother has plans for all of you to marry as well as your eldest sister. As they say, one wedding leads to another."
"And with Lydia married already," Maria added excitedly, "surely the rest of you have more opportunities, as well."
"True," Kitty said. She hesitated, unsure she should mention it, but then it all came out in a rush: "You see, I think there already is another of us going to be engaged soon."
Lady Lucas sat forward, intrigued, and Maria clapped her hands and begged her to tell. "I don't have any proof, of course," Kitty said slowly. "It's only a feeling, but I've been noticing that Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth have been spending more time around each other lately."
"Oh, yes! And they certainly spent time together while we were in Kent," Maria added.
Lady Lucas turned with thoughtful eyes to her daughter. "Did they really?"
Maria nodded. "He was always coming to the parsonage, and then I know I saw him escorting her back to the parsonage a few times, and Charlotte had told me that she suspected Mr. Darcy had taken a fancy to Elizabeth, but nothing seemed to come of it, because she said your sister was very against him, and I could understand that because I thought he was rather frightening, too. He was almost as frightening as his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh," Maria added breathlessly.
"Fascinating," Lady Lucas said, sitting back with a thoughtful expression.
"And when my aunt was telling Mary and I of the holiday she, my uncle, and Elizabeth took in the peak district," Kitty added, "she said that they had visited Pemberley. She said they had met Miss Darcy and my uncle had gone fishing with Mr. Darcy, and everything."
"Hmmm," Lady Lucas murmured. "Perhaps I shall write to Charlotte. She and Miss Elizabeth were always close friends, and perhaps she knows even more about the topic."
Kitty and Maria shared matching grins, and for the rest of the ride Kitty dwelt on the happy prospect of being the bridesmaid at two weddings, and not just one.
In the next few days, this thought occasionally recurred to Kitty's mind, and she found herself more often than not happy with her current state in life. She only needed to look at Mr. Bingley -- Charles, as he told all of his future family to call him -- and Jane to be reminded that there would be plenty of celebrations in the coming months to look forward to, and perhaps even a number of dinners or balls in their honor, as well!
The only downside to this was that Elizabeth seemed a little out of sorts, but Kitty assumed that was merely because Mr. Darcy was in town again. Kitty thought this a strange way to maintain a courtship, but then she recalled that her mother had said Mr. Darcy was very rich, so it must mean he was also a very busy man, as well. It was no wonder Elizabeth was disturbed; Kitty would be, too, if the man she loved always had to be away for business.
But then, about a week after Charles and Jane were engaged, Lady Catherine de Bourgh visited them to speak with Elizabeth. Though she was, indeed, as frightening as Maria had said, Kitty thought, it was very kind of one of Mr. Darcy's relations to show such an honor to Elizabeth. No doubt he had sent her a message through his aunt.
It was only a few days later, though, that Mr. Darcy came himself with Charles one morning, and it was soon decided that they would all walk out. Mrs. Bennet was not taken to walking and, of course, Mary was inclined to finish practice on the piece she had purchased the other day, so it was a party of five that began their walk. Thinking more quickly than usual, Kitty made a resolution by the time they had all made it down Longbourn's drive.
"Could we, perhaps, walk in the direction of Lucas Lodge?" she asked, and then repeated her question more loudly so that Charles and Jane, who walked much more slowly, could hear it. "I would like to call on Maria."
The proposition was agreed to, and they set off in that direction. Again, Charles and Jane soon were far in the distance as they lagged behind, and Kitty inwardly prided herself on her cleverness. Her mother would be proud of the way she carefully let the couple have some time alone. Their own trio, however, could not be separated quite yet, Kitty knew, so they walked along quietly. Elizabeth seemed too nervous to speak, and Mr. Darcy was his usual reticent self, and Kitty, for her part, was too full of planning to be of much use to any conversation.
When they arrived at the lane where she would need to turn off, she quickly excused herself. "But you should no doubt go on without me," she said. "Maria and I have quite a lot to talk about."
She noted Elizabeth's somewhat agitated nod, and Mr. Darcy's awkward throat-clearing, and then they set off again. Kitty grinned and began to make her way down the lane to Lucas Lodge. She couldn't wait to tell Maria what she had done, and perhaps by the time she got home again there would be more news to share!
On this thought, Kitty paused in her skipping and glanced back down the lane. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth had gone some yards down the road, but were still easily visible. They had stopped in the road and had turned to each other, but it was not to them that Kitty's eyes were drawn. There, on the other side of some trees and hedges that lined the road at that spot, was another couple, almost a mirror reflection of the first.
The couple on the road seemed to speak for some time, and then, in what seemed to Kitty's eyes the most romantic scene she had ever seen, Mr. Darcy raised his hand to brush back a lock of hair from Elizabeth's face, and then took her hands in his and raised them to his lips for a tender kiss.
It was then that she noticed the change happening to the couple behind the hedges. No sooner had Mr. Darcy kissed Elizabeth's hand than the other man and woman seemed to dissolve from her view. At first, Kitty wasn't sure what it was she was seeing, but slowly the couple became more and more indistinct as she watched. As they faded like mist, the man drew the woman into his arms, spinning with her in a circle. A trace of laughter, fainter even than a whisper, so faint she thought she might have imagined it, carried on the breeze to her ears. Kitty blinked -- but all she saw now was one couple, who, arm in arm, were now moving away again along the roadway.
It was the strangest moment yet, but the more Kitty thought about it, the more it seemed that she had been right all the time. It had all been an apparition -- ghosts! And she was right about Mr. Darcy and Lizzy, too! She giggled, clasping her hands to her mouth in glee, and then turned and skipped her way down the lane on her way to Lucas Lodge. Oh, Maria would love to hear about this!
Outside the little workshop in London, the rain fell steadily as the lamplighter came by and the nighttime gaslights spluttered off one by one. The day would no doubt be another dismal one, the inventor thought before returning his mind and gaze to the machine before him.
It was almost complete, but there seemed to be something wrong and he couldn't quite target the problem. He looked at his sketches and notes, laid out across the table, and then at the machine, and then leaned his elbow on the table and his chin in his hand. He had been up all night trying to puzzle it out, and the weariness was beginning to get to him.
His man-of-all-work, a withered, ancient old man who'd been with him several years now, had just come in a few minutes ago and was sweeping on the other side of the workshop. The steady swish, swish of his broom made a pleasant complement to the sound of raindrops on the window.
This project had been many years in the making -- nearly as many years as his man-of-all-work had been with him, the inventor realized as he glanced up and nodded in greeting to the faithfully punctual old man. He had been sporadically researching the theory for most of his inventing career and had drawn up some design ideas, even, but it wasn't until he came down one morning and found this shell of a machine sitting mysteriously on his worktable that those theories and ideas began to take shape. He recalled the surprise he had experienced on seeing the machine -- so similar to one of his most promising plans. Part of him still wondered if he had not possibly descended the stairs during his sleep and his unconscious mind, as the poet had called it, had done his work for him.
Since then, though, it had been a difficult journey. He'd had a few challenges and setbacks -- this latest only one of many. But he had persevered, and he was certain he would find the answer this time, too.
But he was getting tired, he admitted, laying his head down on his folded arms for just a few seconds. His eyes felt heavy, but it was no wonder. He hadn't gotten much sleep lately, consumed by this project as he was, and he'd worked all night. The lure of sleep was so tempting. So very tempting...
His head snapped up and he stared in shock at the machine in front of him. He must have slept. How long? He glanced at the window, and noted that the day was already begun. The dim lighting on the rain-drenched streets had grown, but certainly no more than an hour or two's difference from earlier. His man-of-all-work was winding the clock in the corner.
The clock! Could it have been so simple? The workings of his dream returned to him in a rush, and he took hold of his spanner and opened the panel on the side of the machine. With only a few adjustments, he achieved his aim and sat back, staring at his work. That could have been it.
With a shaking hand, he flipped the lever on the front of the machine. Immediately, a soft, barely perceptible hum filled the room. He had done it.
He had done it! By God, he had done it! The inventor stood, strong emotion filling him, and backed up a step. He had really done it! Biting his knuckle, he paced a few feet away, then turned and looked at the machine. His machine. His time machine.
But did it work? Yes, it seemed to work. It started as he'd expected, but could it really make a man travel through time? What if it didn't? What if this was all it could do? What if he'd done nothing more than created a vibrating, humming machine? And a rather unwieldy one, at that.
He would have to test it. He would have to take it and go somewhere in history and prove that his theories were correct.
The inventor still stood where he had paced across the workshop and stared at the machine. He wanted to move, but he could not. His fears held him frozen.
He needed a walk. He needed to get out of this room. He needed to think, to put some distance between him and all of the hopes and fears that were tied up in this machine. He needed some exercise to clear his mind.
With determined steps, he strode across the workshop and took his coat from the stand in the corner. He fitted his hat to his head and pulled on his gloves, then reached for his umbrella, his hand pausing over it as it lay on the counter. Yes, this was the right decision, he thought, grasping the accessory and sliding his grip to the sensible wooden handle. He would take a brief walk before returning to test his machine.
With a sigh, the inventor flipped down the lever on the front of the machine and the faint hum ceased. "George, I am out for a brief perambulation," he said, adjusting his hat and turning to the door. "I will return in less than half an hour."
"Very good, sir," the old man said, tugging his forelock.
The inventor put his hand to the doorknob, but before he could grasp it he was surprised by two knocks on the wood. It took him a moment to recover before he opened the door and looked out. A postman stood on the step, his expression miserable as he stood out of the pouring rain under the shop's awning. He appeared surprised at the prompt response to his knock, but recovered swiftly.
"Beg pardon, sir, but we have a letter for you," the man said.
"A letter?" the inventor echoed, taking the proffered missive and glancing down at it. "It seems rather roughly handled."
The postman grimaced. "Yes, sir. It appears it has been sitting for some time, as it appeared misdirected at first. Our record of it was that it was sent more than five decades ago, and when you could not be found here --"
"I've only lived here for a little more than ten years," the inventor murmured.
"-- it was left with the other unclaimed letters in the London office. According to the notes on the outside, it seems the sender did not exist or could not be found, and it was considered a dead letter, but somehow it escaped a dead letter's usual fate."
"Destroyed, sir. We found it last week in the back of a desk that was being cleaned out, and it was a bit of a puzzle we had around the office. Your name was recognized by one of the men yesterday, and so we thought we might bring it around to you."
"How curious," the inventor murmured, turning over the letter and studying the various marks on it. A note of it being a dead letter was dated from 1812. He had not even been born yet -- how would someone have known his address here in London?
With a feeling of disquiet, his gaze went across the room to the time machine. No; it was impossible.
"That will be a two bob bit, sir."
The inventor turned back to the door in surprise. "Two shillings? For losing my letter? Highway robbery!"
The postman's cheeks flushed. "We have been holding it for fifty years, sir, and there is no stamp. It seems only reasonable..."
With a disgruntled sigh, the inventor pulled his purse from his pocket and handed the postman a coin. The man could have demanded twenty pounds, and the inventor would have willingly paid it. The possibilities of this letter were too intriguing to miss.
The postman, relieved of his duty, tipped his hat and departed, and the inventor closed the door and turned slowly back toward the room. He went to the desk and picked up a letter opener, breaking the crumbling seal. The paper itself was fragile and yellowed, and he unfolded it carefully.
I beg your pardon for the impertinence of addressing a letter to a man I have never met, but if this letter has found its way to your hand, circumstances have dictated this intrusion necessary. I write in the hope of averting a tragic chain of events that would plunge many a person, myself included, into lives of bitterness, pain, and regret. I write to beg you to destroy your time machine.
Stunned, the inventor staggered backwards, falling heavily into his chair at the desk. He set down the letter, his hand resting limp beside it, and stared unseeing at the wall. His thoughts whirled, trying to reconcile what he knew with what he had just read. How could this person have known--?
No, the name at the bottom of the letter meant nothing to him personally. He recognized it, surely -- the man and his family were well known, particularly among charitable organizations and those, like himself, who sought funds for research. But he had never sought funds from the family, nor had he revealed to anyone outside of his shop the nature of his current research.
He would have thought it a practical joke, had it not been so mystifying and had it not come at such a time.
This may, no matter when you have received this, come as a shock. Let me assure you that I am in earnest. You may recognize my name; possibly, you have even met Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley: I do not know the fullness of the path that has led to your present. However, I am not he. I am, rather, what he could have been had life turned out differently, had he not found the redeeming gifts of love and happiness.
The time machine you created, in the hands of a man whose only purpose was to destroy those blessings, changed that destiny. Even he, at the end of his life, regretted that action. While I cannot regret the journey through joy, sorrow, and growth that I have undertaken in setting the past to rights, I do regret the pain the change first wrought by your time machine inflicted on not only myself but those whom I love and those whom I should have loved more.
Our history has been set to rights. The written testimony of the very malefactor himself reveals the truth that I believe will come to be in this time: that the history of the marriage of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet will soon be restored and complete. This return to a proper fate must, of necessity, soon result in my own passage from this world, as an artifact of a time that is no longer, but I fear it not. We have found happiness, Elizabeth and I, and I believe now that we must trust in Fate to see our love through to its fulfillment.
This letter, if it is in your hands, is a sign of that blessing, for it is not chance which could have brought it to you across these years. Our story, and the love and happiness that must of necessity flow from it, is intended.
The choice to follow that path, however, is within your hands. If you have begun plans for a machine for transport through time, I urge you to destroy them. If you have built the machine, dismantle it completely. I have seen the past and the future of your actions, and I pray God that this letter will have reached you in time to forestall its repeat, but I can only trust that you will see the wisdom of this advice.
A time machine may, in the most saintly of hands, be a tool that can benefit humanity, but in the wrong hands it can be used for selfish gain. Even on a journey through time for the perceived common good, the moral questions surrounding such a mission are considerable. Who are we, mere mortals who cannot even reliably recall the past, to set ourselves the task of altering our future? Who are we to believe we know what is best for all? This technology, through which we see the capability to improve our lives, has come from our human intellect, but it does not necessarily follow that we have the knowledge to use it wisely. There is danger in the prideful belief that we can control our destiny.
If you retain any doubts, I assure you they can be answered, but by only one other man who is aware of all that has transpired and has no doubt prepared well to see his plans come to fruition. When you speak to George Wickham, tell him that Elizabeth and I are happy. We have found love.
The inventor remained still for some time, his eyes on the letter in his hands but his mind elsewhere. At last, he looked up slowly to see his man-of-all-work across the room, dusting a shelf.
With unhurried movements, he folded the letter and placed it in his vest pocket, then stood and walked to the bench where his newest invention sat. It was beautiful, he thought. It was amazing how such a seeming chaotic mass of tubes and gears and brass fittings could, through such innovative and advanced technology, be used to alter the tapestry of time. It was a work of genius. But one, sadly, that would never be shared with the world.
"George, would you mind stoking the fire?" he asked offhandedly as he studied his machine. "It is getting rather damp in here, I think."
The other man went obediently, if hesitantly, to the fireplace and threw more coal into the grate. As he did so, the inventor, with a regretful expression, opened a panel of the time machine and began removing pieces one by one.
"Here now, what are you doing?"
The inventor looked up to find his man-of-all-work limping hastily towards him. He shook his head slowly and pulled out the heart of the machine, setting it beside him on the table and then hitting it with a hammer. Metal flew everywhere, stopping the other man in his tracks. "It is done, George," the inventor said, brushing away a few shards that had landed on his coat sleeve. "I have decided I should not have created this." He then collected his papers together, crushing them as he bundled them, and went to the fire. There he threw them in and watched as the flames curled around the edges, greedily eating away at his life's work.
"But why?" asked the other man, his voice hoarse with desperation. The inventor turned to find him staring helplessly at the destroyed machine.
"Because they are happy, Mr. Wickham," he replied, and saw the startled guilt in the old man's eyes before anger and annoyance replaced it. "Because I have done enough."
"You are not the only inventor in the world," George said. "Someone else will be able to replicate your work."
The inventor nodded sadly. "That is true. But not today." He paused, one hand on the workbench, and gazed at the ruined machine. When he turned his eyes to the other man, his expression was full of grim determination. "We change time through every choice that we make, George," he said. "This is the mark I have chosen."
It was a moment before the old man seemed to collapse, his shoulders slumping and his head falling forward in resignation. "So he has won."
"I suppose so," the inventor said, his voice only a whisper above the sound of increased rain outside on the street.
The workshop was quiet for some time, the inventor and his assistant as still and silent as the machines that stood on benches and shelves around the room. The ticking of the clock in the corner steadily countered the beat of the drops on the windows and the distant sound of cabs clattering by on the cobblestones of more fashionable streets.
"I think," the old man said, his gruff voice breaking the stillness, "I think I shall go for a walk."
The inventor nodded and watched as his man-of-all-work put on his hat and coat and shuffled out the door. When he was alone, he returned to his machine and, piece by piece, reduced it to its component parts and sorted them into his bins. When all was done, and the workbench clean of any trace of the time machine, the inventor flattened out the yellowed letter in its place and read the fading ink once more. At last, with a look of regret, he fed that, too, into the fire.
"Our time is a very shadow that passeth away," he quoted, watching as the smoke rose from the burning paper. And once the last of the page had been turned to ash, he banked the fire, locked the outside door, and snuffed the lights. He had done enough for today. He would start afresh tomorrow.The End