Posted on 2013-11-21
Over breakfast, the three dozen workers sat murmuring among themselves. The atmosphere was grave as the room buzzed with news of the incident at dawn. Edward sulked in a corner.
Their meeting concluded, the solemn assembly gathered around Richard outside the stable amongst the wafting odour of charred wood.
"The circumstance which has brought us here this morning is the unfortunate result of Mr. Lucas' poor choices. The punishment for such an offence is two dozen lashes," Richard announced, proceeding with the standard custom of a flogging. "Step forward, Mr. Lucas."
The young man tentatively emerged from the edge of the crowd with his eyes downcast.
"Do you have anything to say for yourself?"
Edward slid his shirt over his head, hands shaking and fear in his eyes.
"Bind him to the fence posts--spread eagle." Without a word, two burley workers secured the lanky man's wrists around the posts with leather straps.
"Is there anyone here who will speak on this man's behalf?" Richard's gaze swept the crowd.
"Mr. Lucas, would you prefer to forfeit the lashes?"
Edward turned his head, his brows drawn in a quizzical expression.
"Would you prefer to forfeit the lashes, Mr. Lucas?" Richard spoke each word with emphasis.
"Yes, sir." Edward's voice wavered. The crowd stirred.
"Is there anyone who will take his punishment for him?" Scanning the gathering, Richard snapped the whip. The men remained silent. "Cut him down. I will take the lashes."
A murmur fluttered through the crowd. Edward looked stunned.
Richard removed his waistcoat and pulled his shirt over his head, the contorted red flesh on his chest exposed to all, drawing more murmurs from the observers. His eyes burned into Edward's as he handed him the whip. "Two dozen lashes."
"Two dozen lashes, Mr. Lucas."
Richard grasped the posts, splaying his broad, bare back across the gate. Edward Lucas stood incredulous and shaking.
The young man startled. He surveyed the gathering of men. They stared back. With no other option, he raised his arm and brought the nine tails of the leather down across Richard's back.
Richard flinched with a grimace, the knots gouging his flesh.
With a pained expression, Edward brought the whip down again, then once again. Richard groaned with the infliction while his flesh quivered under the force of the blows. Welts puckered; blood oozed. Edward searched for an escape.
"Harder, Mr. Lucas."
Edward was near tears as he smacked the next nine blows across the shredding flesh.
"Two dozen, Mr. Lucas." Richard emphasized the quantity, his voice strained.
With defeated, tormented howls, Edward wept as he dispensed the last twelve blows. Throwing the whip to the ground, he sank to his knees and sobbed.
Blood clotted over the fiery lacerations. Richard staggered to face the men, agony in his eyes, his voice controlled over heavy breathing. He shifted his gaze to Edward. "Will you accept my punishment on your behalf, Mr. Lucas?"
"I-- I--" Edward stammered, wiping the back of his hand across his eyes.
"Should you not, you shall have to pay the price with a scourging of your own. Mine shall have been in vain. Will you accept my punishment on your behalf?" Richard's voice cracked.
"Yes, sir." He lowered his shameful face to the ground and studied the dirt.
Richard addressed the crowd with an anguished expression. "The earthly consequence of this man's action was a flogging. The account for his offence was settled by accepting my punishment in his place. Likewise, in the end, each of us will have to pay for our unrighteousness, yet we can do nothing on earth to atone for it. But Christ, the perfect sacrifice, offered Himself to pay the price and offer us full forgiveness. Should you not accept His atonement, you shall have to pay the price on your own for eternity. As this man accepted my payment, I suggest you all accept Christ's payment on your behalf. Do not let His sacrifice for you have been in vain." Retrieving his shirt and waistcoat, Richard limped to the house, feigning a strength he did not feel.
Once inside, he braced a forearm against the door and leaned his head against it. He drew deep breaths, his back burning and throbbing.
"That was noble, sir."
Richard startled, then expelled a pent-up breath. "I hope Lucas understood my point, Godfrey."
"I did, sir." The valet's mien was reverent. "How may I serve you now?"
"Help me clean up and get some salt. Then I would like to rest--on my stomach." A smile tugged at his lips.
"Yes. Unfortunately packing the wound with salt is the best way to prevent infection, though I don't relish the additional torture of feeling like my back is afire."
"It is unfortunate that Mrs. Collins left--"
"No!" Richard snapped his head around, surprised at the abruptness of his own words, but then grimaced, realizing he missed seeing her off. "I would not want her to see me like this. Thank you all the same, my friend."
Richard had not noticed the captain hovering at the edge of the crowd nor Charlotte who returned to her departing carriage, muffling sobs in her sleeve.
The sight of Richard taking the lashes on behalf of her brother and his words afterwards branded her soul. She would never forget what she had seen and heard. She was sure she could never be worthy of such a man.
Mid-morning two days later, Godfrey admitted Aunt Genia to Richard's chamber. "I had to come see you for myself, Dearie. You are the talk for miles around."
Richard returned a sheepish smile. "My intent was merely to impart some wisdom to the young man and perhaps the others as well."
"It seems you did that all right. Well, with Mrs. Collins being called away unexpectedly, I came to look in on Mrs. Clemson. I see that you are well cared for, so I will leave you to your rest."
With Godfrey and Sadie nearby, Richard lay abed for a week, his back too raw to be covered with more than a sheet. The valet carefully tended the wound and watched for any hint of infection while Sadie lent him her sympathetic company.
Richard used the time to revise his lists, write to Bingley, pray, review ledgers, and anything else he could do from his confined position. Though the rest was good for his body, the faint cries of the newborn nearby were constant reminders of Charlotte and his own longing for a family.
Finally Richard was able to be up and about. The third morning after returning to conduct the eight o'clock meeting, he noticed Edward lagging behind. As the last worker exited the dining room, the young man approached him with his head hanging low. Richard waited.
At last Edward spoke, his gaze remaining fixed on the floor. "I wanted to apologize, sir, and tell you I have seen the error in my ways." He cleared his throat before looking up. "I have given much thought to what you said that day. Sir, I do not want to live the life of a reprobate."
Richard smiled. "Apology accepted. I appreciate your frankness. As I have said before, becoming the man we want to be requires change--often painful." Richard placed a guiding hand on Edward's shoulder and moved towards the door. "I assume you are familiar with Mr. Wickham; let me tell you about a Mr. Martin..."
Richard ambled away from Pemberley atop Prometheus just before the new year, his breath a white cloud in the frigid morning air. Light snow spread a gentle hush over the land, muffling the steps of the stallion.
It was hard to believe only six weeks had passed since Edward's transformation. Richard had never witnessed such remarkable change in a man. Lucas was now respectful, committed, and one of Richard's best workers. The young man had taken it upon himself more than once to seek out supplies and oversee to their delivery himself. Where he had applied his hand in the garden, the vegetables thrived. How ironic--as Edward now flourished, Richard languished.
He hunkered into his coat and reflected on the holiday spent with his family at Pemberley. He had hoped the festivities and merriment of a houseful of people would elevate him from the gloomy solitude into which he had slipped, but he found they served only to magnify his black void of loneliness. Darcy and Scott were no longer his carefree bachelor companions; both now shared his life with a woman he loved. It pained Richard to see Darcy's enraptured enthusiasm over Elizabeth and Scott's doting affection on Anne. He wondered if Charlotte shared his sense of lonely estrangement in Hertfordshire.
Georgiana was also thriving, her transformation apparent in her performance at the pianoforte each evening. Elizabeth's influence had brought her from a shy child to a charming, confident young lady, at last willing to be presented to society. They performed several duets, a feat unthinkable only a few years ago.
He would proudly stand beside Darcy at her coming out in the spring. He wouldn't think now of the possibility that her hand might be sought in a matter of months. But she was eighteen, well of marriageable age.
He crossed a bridge, and his thoughts turned to Aunt Genia. Though an unlikely pair, a gritty colonel and an old widow, she was a solace in his dark time and seemed to appreciate his company as well. They spoke freely of life, Charlotte, his father, her loss of husband and children, and the horrors he had seen in battle. As the tree decreased and the woodpile increased, he spent less time chopping and more time conversing. Richard had no intention of terminating the visits when the tree was gone. Much like Mr. Martin, her faith was strong, her years having added to her wisdom.
One frigid morning in January, Richard galloped into Aunt Genia's yard and instantly knew that something was amiss. No smoke twisted from the chimney, and all was quiet. He flung himself off the stallion and burst in the door. She lay dead on the floor. Her familiar apron was crumpled against her, a spoon still clenched in her hand. He gathered the tiny woman into his arms, rocked her back and forth, and wept as he had never wept before. This woman of no particular consequence to the world had changed his. Sadie whined and licked his tears.
Eventually he laid her on the bed and looked around the small cottage. So many fond memories had been cultivated there, sitting at the small table, eating whatever she had, learning from her pearls of wisdom, and sharing life. It looked the same, but without her liveliness, it felt stark. Few had so profoundly affected his life.
When he composed himself, he stepped outside. Even the day's greyness seemed to lament her passing. Once the mourning bells were rung to announce her death, little more was accomplished that day as so many grieved her loss.
In spite of his melancholy, he disciplined himself to his standing appointment before the fire. It was the only spark of encouragement that prevented him from seeking consolation from a crystal decanter. It was said that character is forged in the hard places. He was feeling every blow of its shaping hammer.
In the dim light of a bleak March morning, Richard's frustration peaked as he stared at the master suite's expansive, newly-plastered ceiling. Ledston's renovations were nearly complete, and the Bingleys were scheduled to arrive in a month. Would he ever occupy his own master suite? Or would he continue to merely reside in the hospitable chambers of others: his family's house in Town, Rosings, Pemberley, Ledston?
He recalled Darcy's satisfied expression as he spoke of waking beside his wife. Soon this room would belong to Bingley and his wife. He could imagine her giggles, their sharing morning kisses and embraces here. Richard felt the familiar ache in his groin. He turned his head--only an empty expanse of bed beside him. Frustration mixed with anger ignited. God, I am not cut out for this! I am not a solitary man. He flung back the bedclothes and stalked to the dressing room.
His scowl revealed he was in no mood for morning pleasantries with Godfrey. He jerked off his nightshirt, the reflected motion capturing his attention. Squaring his shoulders, he beheld his bared body in the mirror. The sight of contorted red flesh on his chest, the graze on his thigh, and the red stripes from his back snaking around to his sides caused him to grimace. And then there was the droop at the edge of his eyelid, stubble on his chin, and unkempt hair that reflected back.What woman would want that? It is beastly looking! His shoulders sagged.
Dejected, he dressed and dropped into his morning chair, staring into nothingness. Could he ever have an estate of his own? Not without a handsome dowry he wouldn't. And hefty dowries came with women from the Ton. He longed only for Charlotte. Bingley had offered to lease him the dowager cottage. They could get by on his army pension if they lived simply. It would not be a country home, but at least she would be beside him. Would he defy wisdom and his father's wishes? But what would he do? Would he sink to become a man of trade? He dug his fingers into his hair. This 'round and 'round thinking was maddening!
Out the window, the flailing vine-like branches of a weeping willow in the distance caught his attention, beckoning him to the glass. Weeping. The tree was aptly named. His thoughts went back to the picnic some five years ago. It was under a weeping willow that he had first walked away from Charlotte. At the Hunsford stream after their dance, the crows had ascended from a dead tree. It seemed the trees had always been a metaphor for the standing of their relationship. Even now as he looked out, the trees were barren, lifeless.
With a sigh he returned to the chair and flopped the Scriptures open on his lap. Could he pray today? He certainly did not feel spiritual or inspired. Did God even hear? Should he press on or let it all go? Doubts swam in his head. But who else would he turn to? He recalled reading a similar sentiment from a disciple: To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Certainly walking with God through this desolation was preferable to walking alone.
His thoughts drifted to the purple flower, the answered prayers, Mr. Martin, the timing of Matthew for Anne, and he realized that even when he could not see it, the Master had been at work all around him and on his behalf. The One who so freely gave, only asked for trust and obedience in return. Oh God... help me trust... help me wait... a wife...
Sadie nuzzled his knee with a whine. "Come here, girl." He bent to scratch her ears and blinked back tears pooling in his eyes.
His thoughts turned to Edward. With the project coming to a close, Richard had promised the young man he would make some inquiries for him. It was ironic Richard was attempting to aid anyone. Edward had his metaphoric sword raised in victory while Richard wielded his in a desperate attempt to slay despair. Perhaps Mr. Martin could help. He would write to the rector--on Edward's behalf and his own. He needed the elder man's wisdom. They were both poor correspondents and had not exchanged a single letter since his coming to Ledston.
At the sound of footsteps, he turned to see his valet standing at the door.
"The post arrived for you, sir."
"Thank you, Godfrey." Taking the letter, Richard recognized Mr. Martin's writing. Dropping into a chair, he broke the seal and read the post. Then he read it again. In the blink of an eye, his life changed. With a huge smile on his face, he let out a whoop of joy, then threw back his head as deep laughter rumbled from within. He would have just enough time to stop in Matlock, then situate Edward, and travel to London before his final meeting with Bingley, scheduled for March twenty-fourth in Hertfordshire.
Posted on 2013-11-25
A sharp gasp escaped from Charlotte. "Richard Fitzwilliam, you nearly scared the life out of me." Her hand flew to her chest. "Don't you know it is ungentlemanly to startle a lady?" She rose from the rock where she perched in the centre of the stream.
"And don't you know it is unladylike to be parading about barefoot?"
"I had just finished gathering herbs on the bank there. When I came to rinse my hands, I discovered a small school of minnows in an eddy. It reminded me of our childhood days in Derbyshire. Come and see."
He removed his coat and picked his way across the stones to meet her, mindful of her pink toes peeking from beneath her hem.
He crouched near her and focused where she pointed but saw nothing. Suddenly scooping her hands into the water, she flung it in his face with a squeal and giggle.
Startled, he stumbled backwards and plopped into the stream. "Charlotte Collins!" He slapped the icy water and shook his head. After pushing a wet lock from his forehead, he loosened his sodden cravat.
Her laughter trickled in her wake as she skipped back to the bank. Coming after her, his grin turned mischievous. "It is a fine time to get me back after all these years," he called.
"Race you to the copse at Netherfield," she challenged over her shoulder, already mounting her horse.
"You little devil!" She was twenty yards ahead when his heels urged the flanks of Prometheus. "A woman and a side saddle are no match for a soldier on a stallion!" His booming voice carried across the field.
Her face beamed with delight as she turned to see his sopping figure gaining on her.
Easily passing her, he smiled and slowed his mount to allow her to reach the copse beside him.
"I suppose you have had the last word after all, Richard." She was breathless and bright-eyed. "Next time I will take the stallion and leave you the side saddle."
Barking a laugh, he swung down. "Oh, no. I shall quit while I am ahead." With his hands on her waist, she slid to the ground. "I shan't risk a humiliating defeat." Now inches apart, their teasing eyes met; their attraction ignited. Sensing their intimate proximity, his playful lightheartedness vanished, and he stepped back, an awkward void hanging between them.
"Wh-what brings you to Hertfordshire?"
He looked everywhere but at her. "I--I have come for a final meeting with Bingley." He passed his sweaty palms over his thighs during the ensuing silence. "Shall we walk?" He gestured before them, then fell in beside her, clasping his hands behind him. "How is your father's health?"
"He is much better, thank you." She suddenly seemed formal and shy. "He and Mama seem relieved to have me home to help care for him."
With so much to say, why could he not find the words to begin? They strolled several more paces in silence.
She twisted her fingers. "So your work at Ledston is nearly complete. I heard the Bingleys will be vacating Netherfield within the month. Where will you go?"
He stopped. "Charlotte, the army--"
"No! Please do not tell me." She pressed her palm out to halt him.
There he stood before her, waistcoat sodden, cravat discarded, and shirt plastered about him. Random drops from his tousled hair seeped down his face.
"Richard, I do not care to know--" She shook her head. "I mean, I cannot know. This last time--the not knowing if you were--" She bit her lip to quell the tears. "I cannot do it again." She quickened her pace.
"Charlotte--" he took two hurried steps and touched her hand.
"No, Richard!" She shot him a teary glare, jerked her hand away, and continued on.
"Charlotte, please." He touched her hand again. "Will you allow me to show you something?"
Slowing her pace, she relaxed her shoulders in acquiescence.
He took her arm and led her to the copse's edge. "What do you see?" Speaking just above her ear, his damp locks brushed her cheek.
"Charlotte, what do you see?" he implored her as he pointed into the distance.
"Netherfield." She gazed at the home, the late afternoon sun illuminating the brilliance of the stone. "The loveliest home in Hertfordshire," she added, her voice barely audible.
"No, Charlotte, your home." He squeezed her hand.
She met his eyes, her questions written there.
"Our home. If you will marry me." A hopeful smile tugged at his lips in silent entreaty. "I am no orator, nor can I pen romantic sonnets, but you know who I am. I have loved none but you for as long as I can remember."
She stood dumbfounded as if she could not believe he had just proposed and offered her Netherfield.
"Will you take this old soldier, tattered and torn as I am?" He held his arms to the side and scanned his scarred and dishevelled form.
Charlotte stepped towards him with tears in her eyes. She touched the contorted red flesh visible through his damp shirt, then brushed his cheek with her fingertips and smoothed the scar at his brow.
His heart quickened at her tender touch. He lowered his gaze and took several deep breaths to steady himself as relief washed over him.
"Richard, I love you just the way you are." She reflected his very words back to him from the fateful picnic nearly six years ago. "I will take you--soldier, scarred, rich, poor--all that you are. I have always loved you."
Their eyes fused. Like a floodgate opening, the hope so long deferred was now to be fulfilled. Drawing her to himself, he bent and savoured her lips--once, twice, three times--each kiss deeper than before. Overcome, he crushed her to his chest, unable to satisfy his hunger. He felt a hand on his back, another fingering his hair as her eager affection responded to his every motion. He hoped she felt not his wet clothing but only his reverent passion.
At last he pulled back, their breathing hard. He needed to read her eyes, see her soul. He saw relief--relief from the years of bitter heartache and pent-up longing. Taking her face in his hands, he pressed his lips on hers one last time with all the respect and love he could convey. Cradling her head to his chest, he held her close. His painful days of avoiding her were over. She would now be his. He closed his eyes, and a heavy burden seemed to lift from his shoulders. A passionate will to love and protect her surged through him as he whispered, "I love you."
How long she stood engulfed by him, his strength and comfort filling her, she knew not. Time stood still in the sacred moments. She wished never to forget the serenity and euphoria of his touch about her.
As the sun descended on the horizon, a songbird twittered a melody from the copse's colourful canopy bursting with life.
Pulling away, he squeezed her hand, his voice low and gentle. "We should go. It is growing late." A contented smile filled his face.
"Richard. Did you mean what you said about Netherfield?"
"I did." They moved towards their mounts. "I have already made arrangements for purchasing it."
"Purchasing it? Richard, how--?"
"It is all most unexpected. Do you recall the blockade ship my men and I captured? I was its captain if but only for a quarter of an hour. It was filled with gold, sugar, brandy, rum, munitions, as well as innumerable other troop supplies. The captain's portion of the prize, coupled with what I have saved, is a more than generous amount to afford me the life of a gentleman. Anything the estate earns will be more."
"I can scarce believe it."
"Neither you nor your family shall want for money."
She stopped to face him. "So you shall never have to be a soldier again?"
"No more long absences, casualty lists, injuries, or mangled limbs?"
Tears welled in her eyes as she swallowed hard. "I never dared dream. I had resigned myself to live with the fears."
He brushed her cheek with his thumb. "The timing has been impeccable. I received a letter from Mr. Martin some ten days ago. Mr. Harlow had collected his share of the ship's prize, and Mr. Martin congratulated me on my own good fortune--which I was not even aware of myself. With all of my moving about, the army has had a time keeping up with me. I had just enough time to secure my father's blessing, situate Edward in Kent, and then stop through London before coming here."
"How did you claim the prize?"
"In London, I found a letter hidden under papers in the townhouse library that had missed being forwarded. I had only to take it to the prize agent to claim the fortune, then visit Netherfield's owner and make him an offer, which he readily accepted. My meeting here with Bingley afforded me lodgings and an opportunity to ask for you." He stepped back and cocked his head, teasing, "Now that I think of it, I am most fortunate you accepted, for I should have become owner of Netherfield in your backyard."
She rolled her eyes with a sly grin. "Richard, how could you have doubted?"
"Well, we soldiers are taught never to count our eggs before they are in the pudding." The twinkle in his eye turned serious. "These past five years have been difficult, Charlotte. Walking away from you at that picnic was one of the hardest things I have ever done. But it has all worked out for our good. God used those difficult years to forge us. Without the trials, I am not sure we would have found Him."
She took his arm, squeezed it, and they began walking again. She leaned her head against his shoulder, contemplating all he had spoken.
After a few moments he spoke into the stillness. "Georgiana's coming out is next month. I shall be pleased to introduce you as my betrothed if you shall come."
A smile spread across her face which he did not see. "I shall be honoured."
Lady Matlock observed her sons engaged in pleasant conversation before the drawing room mantelpiece. Perhaps their life-long animosity was at last giving way to a brotherly affection. She could see Lady Royston's countenance reflected in the mirror over the fireplace. Even she seemed contented on Andrew's arm. Was that a swelling at her midsection? She had spent the entire winter with him in Matlock... She smiled at the thought of a grandchild.
A few days earlier she had sat in this same room, reflecting on all the pomp and ceremony of Georgiana's presentation before the queen. Tonight the family was gathered to attend the girl's coming out ball at Darcy House. The cousins had all grown up so quickly. It was past time for a new branch of Fitzwilliam's to take their place on the family tree, and not only from Andrew's side.
Shifting her gaze to her second son, a surge of joy swept over her. At last he was claiming the woman of his affections. The past several years had chiselled away at him, leaving their marks, but she was proud of the man that had emerged. The cloud of heaviness that had hung over him was gone, and in its place was a firm steadiness. He would make a devoted husband and a good father. She could see him eyeing the door, eager for the sight of his beloved.
When Charlotte entered the room, his breath caught at her soft presence, and the speech of his expression spoke more than a hundred words. No longer in mourning black, she glowed in a stylish garnet gown with white crepe overlay. Tiny garnet rosettes circled the empire waist and edges of the cap sleeves. Her eyes sparkled with joy in receiving his approval. The affection between them was unmistakable.
Lady Matlock joined the gathering, and as Charlotte exchanged greetings with the group, rapid footsteps preceded the entrance of Lord Matlock. "Forgive my tardiness, I nearly forgot this." He held up a box while walking towards his family. "Now that we are all together, allow me a moment to present this gift to my son's betrothed." He smiled at Charlotte.
Setting down the box, he lifted the lid, revealing a stunning necklace. A ruby pendant hung from a strand of pearls interspersed with smaller rubies. "It was chosen to complement your dress, my dear." He exchanged a smiling glance with his wife.
Charlotte's eyes widened. "Oh, sir, I could not have chosen anything so perfect myself."
Stepping behind her, he clasped it around her neck and turned her shoulders to face the mirror where her face, radiant with gratitude, smiled back. He kissed her cheek. "Welcome to the family."
Lady Matlock pressed her hand over the jewels gracing her own neck and smiled, recalling the evening her father-in-law had first clasped it around her neck, using those same words.
"Well, that taken care of, I believe we are ready to depart. Shall we go?" The patriarch ushered them towards the door.
"You take my breath away," Richard whispered as he offered Charlotte his arm, hanging back to let the others proceed first.
"Richard, I can hardly speak." Her speech was breathy. "This is all so unexpected." She fingered the pearls as they moved to the door.
"I look forward to carrying on the Fitzwilliam family tradition and presenting our son's betrothed with a necklace. Will you help me pick it out?"
She eyed him with a giggle. "Perhaps we should pick out this son's name and christening gown first."
He laughed aloud.
The couple followed the others down the hall amidst the hubbub of conversation. "Nervous?" He spoke above her ear.
"With all the elegant guests so practised and polished, of course I am. I am afraid they will scorn me, a simple country girl from Hertfordshire."
He chuckled. "They'd better not. They will be insulting their hostess as well."
"I had not thought of that." She fingered the jewels again.
"You are sufficiently elegant yourself when you are not fidgeting."
A quarter of an hour later, the Fitzwilliam party ascended the steps of Darcy House. Inside, they were welcomed by Darcy, Elizabeth, and Georgiana before moving to join the guests already present.
Charlotte's heart pounded as they approached a cluster of well-dressed ladies and gentlemen. She twisted her fingers, wondering how they would react to the news of her upcoming marriage to the son of the Earl of Matlock. Richard placed a calming hand on her arm, and then she heard his jovial voice beside her.
"Lord and Lady Harrington, I heard your thoroughbred made quite a showing at Ascot last year. Sir William, Lady Watson, it good to see you again as well. May I present Mrs. Collins? She has done me the honour of agreeing to become my wife."
Five pairs of eyes turned to her. She curtseyed and heard herself return a polite greeting. The next half-hour was a continuous blur of bobbing baubles, swooshing satin, black coats, and crisp cravats. Richard's recollection of names and his relaxed manner in the crowd were remarkable. Charlotte's heart swelled at the privilege of having secured his affection. He could have had any number of charming young ladies, but he had chosen her.
At last Georgiana was formally announced, and a handsome viscount led her to the top of the set. Darcy and Elizabeth fell in beside them with Richard and Charlotte nearby. Richard observed Darcy out of the corner of his eye. A rare, sustained smile lit his cousin's face as he watched his graceful sister and her partner performing the steps.
Darcy had reason to be proud. After nearly losing Georgiana three years ago to Wickham at Ramsgate, Richard had hovered nearby with Darcy. But beloved as they were to the young girl of fifteen, there was only so much comfort two bachelors, more than ten years her senior, could offer her. Her companion, Mrs. Annesley, had been an improvement, bridging the gap, but the girl's real transformation had come under Elizabeth's influence.
Richard observed his own partner and smiled. Their lives had gone through a different sort of transformation over the last two years. And although the process had been difficult, he couldn't be happier with the outcome.
When the music ended, he offered Charlotte his arm, and they followed Darcy and Elizabeth to the edge of the crowd. Darcy turned aside to speak to an acquaintance, and Charlotte and Elizabeth engaged in conversation. A moment later Georgiana joined them and her partner bid her adieu.
Richard took her gloved hand in his. "Congratulations, cousin. Now the young men will be swarming. Your brother and I shall have to beat them off with a stick."
"Oh, Richard, I am so glad you could be here tonight. Thank you for everything." Her countenance was radiant as she kissed his cheek.
I would dance with you myself if there weren't so many eager young men here vying for a turn to stand up with you." He leaned forward and spoke in low tones. "Is there one you have a secret preference for?"
She smiled sheepishly under long lashes."There are a great many handsome young men here. Do you have a recommendation?"
"That depends on what you are looking for."
"I suppose someone as wonderful as you or my brother."
Richard threw back his head with a laugh. "You'd better decide. There is a gulf of difference between your brother and me."
"Perhaps I shall see who should find me, as Fitzwilliam found Elizabeth."
"That might be wise as well."
Just then Richard felt a presence at his shoulder. Turning, he nearly bumped into a red uniform. "Stevens! What a pleasant surprise. Georgiana, you recall my former aide-de-camp, Captain--excuse me--I see now it is Major Stevens."
With a shy smile and curtsey, Georgiana addressed him. "Congratulations, Major. I am pleased you could join us this evening."
He returned a bow. "It was an honour to have received your invitation. I believe this is our dance." He held out his hand.
Richard saw her blush as she took his gloved hand and moved towards the centre of the room.
Shaking his head with a smile, Richard recalled the spark he felt nearly ten years ago when he had escorted Charlotte to the dance floor in another London townhouse for their first dance.
The music began, drawing the attention of Charlotte and Mrs. Darcy. Richard turned to his betrothed. "May I dance with my favourite partner?" Richard extended his hand with a bow.
"Now that you are to be mine, propriety allows me to dance with you as often as I please. Will you oblige me?"
"How could I deny such charm? Of course."
They spent the greater part of the evening together, enjoying the festive atmosphere.
Near the close of the evening, while Charlotte danced with the earl, Richard lifted a glass of wine from a passing footman's tray, took a sip, and came to stand beside Darcy. Georgiana's smile beamed as she glided through the dance, opposite another handsome young man.
"Proud?" Richard spoke at Darcy's shoulder, their eyes fixed on the swirling couples.
"I am. Immensely."
"You should be. You have been a good brother. Your father would be proud of you."
Light laughter wafted from Georgiana as she circled with her partner.
"Can you let her go?"
"Don't push me, Richard. One thing at a time. Let me first become accustomed to her coming out."
They watched the couples in silence for several moments.
"You know you shall be repeating this in seventeen years or so with Jane."
Darcy's eyes met his cousin's with a grin. "Would you let me enjoy my little Jenny Wren? She is only now just walking."
Darcy shifted. "You laugh now, but in another year, I may be at liberty to similarly harass you."
Richard turned serious. "I hope so. A jack-in-the-box next year would suit me fine. I waited a long time for Charlotte. I hope the wait for my own little Jenny Wren is not so long."
They watched Georgiana and her admiring partner for a time in silence.
Richard sipped his drink, their gazes still fixed on the swirling couples. "What persuaded your father to appoint me as co-guardian for Georgiana? My father was the more likely candidate."
"My father was wise. He chose someone he felt was level-headed and would work alongside me in making decisions for her. He wanted someone Georgiana regarded highly as well." Darcy's gaze darted to Richard. "You know she adores you."
A chuckle floated out with Richard's breath.
Darcy swirled the wine in his glass. "Your father, though he loves her, is much like Aunt Catherine. I believe my father thought Georgiana might be frightened by him. Can you imagine your father's rage had she been forced to face him after Ramsgate? She was so fragile."
The two fell silent recalling the incident. After some moments Darcy turned to Richard and clapped his back. "I owe you a debt of gratitude. There were some hard months back then. I don't think I could have managed her on my own."
Richard returned a sheepish grin as the music ended. "It was my pleasure."
Charlotte joined the men, having finished the set with the earl. "What has you two so engaged?"
"I was just congratulating Darcy on his sister and myself for having secured you. May I have this dance?" Richard bowed and extended his hand.
"I would be honoured, Colonel."
The rousing reel went on for some time, there being so many couples. Flushed but beaming, Charlotte fanned herself. "That was wonderful!"
"Shall we get some fresh air?" He led her down the balcony stairs to the courtyard below.
"What a splendid evening." Charlotte gazed at the near full moon. The drifting music from the ballroom and trickling fountain enhanced the setting.
"Indeed." He offered his arm, and they strolled among the roses before stopping under a budding cherry tree.
She turned to face him. "It reminds me of our first ball at my aunt's townhouse when we stood on the balcony together. Do you remember?"
"I do. And even then, I so wanted to do this." Cradling her face in his hands, he gathered her lips in his.
"Richard!" She jerked away. "What will people think?" She scanned the courtyard for witnesses.
"They will think that I am eager to have my wife to myself." He flashed a smile. "In a fortnight, I shall."
Her return smile held a hint of censure.
He drew her to sit beside him on a bench. "I have been looking for an opportunity to give you something." He fumbled in his waistcoat pocket and drew out the smooth rubbing stone.
"The stone, you still have it?" She laughed.
"I do." He chuckled, still fumbling. "That stone has been to the continent and back several times, but that is not my gift. This is." He held out a gold ring with a single ruby set among tiny gold rosettes with engraved vines trailing around the flat band. "Proverbs says a wife of noble character is worth far more than rubies. You are my woman of noble character." He slipped it on her finger.
"Darcy gave it to me last summer in London. It had belonged to Grandmother Fitzwilliam. He and I adored her." He took her hand and brushed the stone with his thumb. "Now it belongs to another I adore."
Edward leaned on a hoe outside the Hunsford parsonage, surveying the freshly turned rows of exposed earth, now full of potential. There was something satisfying about the order displayed in a garden. Order. For the first time, his life had a sense of potential and order, and it, too, was satisfying. He shook his head. His heart had been like that fallow ground--crusty, hard, and unyielding, producing nothing but weeds. Edward had always thought that being his own master, free from restriction, would result in fulfilment. But all it had brought was an insatiable appetite for more self-gratification, making him a slave to his appetites. Realizing that the Master had bought him and set him free from his self-imposed chains had changed everything. He would now serve Him not out of compulsion, but out of gratitude. In that, Edward was now finding what he had craved all along--real freedom and self-respect.
"Lucas," the towering rector strode over, interrupting his thoughts, "the garden looks to have a splendid start."
"Yes, sir. The soil appears rich. I hope to give you an excellent harvest."
"The children will much appreciate it. Perhaps you can assist them in another way. I hear you have quite the talent for procuring supplies. A houseful of orphans, all needing the basic necessities, is quite a job. Might I enlist your expertise? After you return from your sister's wedding and an extended visit with your father, of course."
Edward beamed. "I would be happy to, sir."
"Well, if you have a moment now, I have some answers to those questions you asked yesterday..."
The night before Richard's wedding, Scott made made a sweeping gesture of Netherfield's library with his hand. "So, Fitzwilliam, how does it feel to be the owner of your own country estate?"
Richard sat back in the upholstered chair. "It is most gratifying. You know I have long desired a country home, but I always assumed it would be purchased with dowry funds." He dipped his head with a chuckle. "I suppose the Lord has a sense of humour--answering prayers in ways we cannot fathom. It keeps us on our toes."
"Well, when I prayed for a wife, I certainly never dreamed she would be an heiress and the granddaughter of an earl. And speaking of surprises, I was surprised that you didn't purchase a derelict property and refurbish it just for the amusement of it--now that you are such an expert."
Richard laughed. Swirling his port, his gaze swept the library's still sparse bookshelves. "There is room for improvement here. But this particular home has special meaning to my wife. If it makes her happy, then so am I."
"You are a wise man. And although it has neither the soothing sounds of the sea nor the arresting views of the ocean, there is a certain comfort here, unusual for a country manor."
Just then the clock chimed the hour. Scott loosened his cravat and cast a sly grin towards Richard. "I believe I shall join my lovely wife upstairs and see about partaking of some of her comforts."
Grinning, Richard shook his head as Scott moved towards the doorway.
Later, Richard lay staring at the expansive ceiling of his master suite. Tomorrow Charlotte would lie beside him instead of the smooth bedclothes. He shifted, his body eager in anticipation. Just over two years ago, he had been a guest in this house on the eve of Darcy's wedding. Anne had been sickly and shy then. Now, as his guest just down the hall, she lay with her husband, his friend to whom he owed the biggest change of his life. Indeed, his mother was right--what a difference a year can make.
As the sun lowered in the sky, the decorated open carriage pulled away from the wedding celebration at Lucas Lodge, leaving a wake of waving well-wishers behind.
Once out of sight, Richard leaned over and spoke into her ear. "At last I do not have to share you with anyone." He squeezed her hand. "I dismissed all the servants... Perhaps I should have dismissed the coachman as well--and all of the horses except the stallion. Sweeping you away on Prometheus would have given Mrs. Bennet and her sister a real tale to tell."
Charlotte laughed and nestled close to him. "I do like the idea. After the dreadful incident with the highwaymen on our journey to Derbyshire, I felt like a princess rescued by a valiant knight."
"You liked that? I thought you were too frightened to notice anything."
"Once you sat beside me on that rock, I knew I was safe, and I noticed everything."
"Perhaps I can rescue you again."
"You already have."
They rode in companionable silence for a time longer before Charlotte spoke up. "I do have one request now that we are married." She looked at him with a playful smile. "Might we race on horseback? But you must allow me to ride Prometheus astride."
"I shan't hesitate to grant you that wish, so long as I am the lone witness."
Still smiling at him, the carriage halted in front of Netherfield, and Richard vaulted over the side. "Welcome to your new home, Mrs. Fitzwilliam." In one grand gesture, he unlatched the door and swept a deep bow.
Taking his hand, she stepped down with a broad smile. "Thank you, sir. It is truly a dream come true."
Richard brushed the blossoms from his coat. "Now that we have been anointed by the tree, shall you come in, or are we to spend the afternoon admiring the stone exterior?"
She cocked her head with an inviting, impish smile.
He threw back his head with a bark of laughter, then plunged towards her and scooped her up. Ascending the stairs, he burst into the entrance hall, their laughter echoing in the expansive space. After setting her down, he cupped his hands like a speaking trumpet and announced, "Mrs. Richard Fitzwilliam, Mistress of Netherfield."
With a shriek of delight, she spun in a circle, arms outstretched. Dizzy, she fell into his embrace, their laughter ringing.
Still holding her, he began swaying and humming the tune from the stream two years ago. Moving her towards the grand staircase, his voice and movements amplified until he was singing vociferously and leading her in a new, unashamed, improvised dance. As her laughter sprinkled throughout, he moved her up the stairs one by one, dancing and twirling about her on each step. When at last he came to the grand finale, he grabbed her hand, and they darted to the top. Bellowing the final notes, he threw open the door of her chamber and guided her inside. Their joyful presence filled the smaller room. "May I get you anything? A glass of champagne, perhaps?" he asked between breaths, a smile still lighting his face.
She returned his delighted expression and smoothed her gown. "Oh, I don't suppose so. I believe I had plenty earlier this afternoon."
"Well, if you have everything, then I shall leave you to change." He clicked his heels and bowed gallantly. "I shall make myself comfortable in the chamber there. Come in when you are ready." With a final adoring look, he turned away and began loosening his cravat.
"Mmm?" He turned his shoulder to her. The space between them ignited.
"I am not reticent." She spoke into the stillness.
He stepped back to her. "You have no reason to be." He caressed her cheek and kissed it, his eyes meeting hers in reassurance.
He turned again and made it to the door, sliding the constricting linen from his neck.
He faced her.
She twisted her fingers. "I do not believe I can manage the tiny buttons in the back."
He paused and dipped his head to compose himself. "I shall try my hand at it." Draping the cravat over a chair, he moved behind her and focused on the tiny buttons, his warm breath billowing the fine hairs escaped at her neck. He fumbled with the fittings until at last they unfastened, the silky fabric falling away from his fingers. Breathing in her familiar scent, he leaned down to kiss her exposed skin, but instead closed his eyes to regain his self-control. At last he reached the final button at her waist. Placing his hands on her shoulders, his breathy voice spoke above her ear. "I believe you can manage now." She was intoxicating.
He pulled away and made for the door again.
"Charlotte, I don't believe I can endure this much longer. I only have so much restraint."
With her head cocked, her expression betrayed a hint of a beseeching smile. She said nothing.
He returned a questioning look and faint smile of his own. Was she teasing him?
Her smile only broadened as she gazed at him under her dark lashes.
"Oh, I see." He strode towards her and nuzzled at her neck. "You are trying to tell me you don't require time to... uh... prepare."
She nodded her head.
With a hearty laugh, he swept her off her feet again and kissed her soundly. Still cradling her in his arms, he strode into the master's chamber and kicked the door shut behind them.
Posted on 2013-12-02
Coming together for Easter had become a family tradition. Every year, the three cousins gathered at Pemberley, Netherfield, or Seaforth Manor with the Bingleys, Charlotte's siblings, and Georgiana often joining them. This year found them at Netherfield. The Bingleys were expected to ride over from Longbourn later, but with Charles' easy manner and their brood of children, they could always be counted on to be late. Georgiana had married Major Stevens, now the Earl of Carlisle, but having just borne her second child, they were unable to attend. Though Mr. Thornhill was still steward, Edward had taken over supervision of the thriving Rosings Children's home as Mr. Martin had all he could do as Hunsford's rector.
Charlotte reclined beside Anne on a blanket spread beneath a lawn tent overlooking Netherfield's picturesque pond. As a gentle breeze stirred the tent on the pleasant March afternoon, a family of ducks pressed ripples over the water.
The sleeping infant in Charlotte's lap stirred, and she fingered the delicate white embroidery on the babe's gown. She touched the slumbering child's cheek and smiled. Adelade was her fourth child to wear the tiny gown so lovingly stitched at the parsonage many years ago. She would thank Richard again for saving it for her. Her time in Hunsford had been painful, yet it made her all the more grateful for the happiness she now enjoyed with the man she had loved for so long. Turning to Anne, she broke the silence. "Back at Rosings, could you ever have imagined yourself here, now?"
Anne smoothed a stray hair from Faith, her redheaded toddler, sleeping in her arms. "Not in all my dreams. You know I had resigned myself never to marry, much less have children. I believe the delight of grandchildren would have softened my mother."
Happy voices drew their attention to the water's edge. Dr. Scott held out a frog before a flock of children belonging to the Fitzwilliams, Darcys, and Scotts. Sarah, his seven-year-old daughter, who looked just like Anne, gave a commentary on the creature. Darcy, usually impeccably attired, had a rumpled cravat and traces of mud on his trousers as he held his four-year-old son. His other arm was draped around Jane, nine, who was hesitant about the creature.
Charlotte saw a smile spread across his face. Following his gaze, she saw Lizzy coming from the house, clearly in a family way. Charlotte rose and made her way over to her friend, who had been resting for the past hour. She wondered what was keeping Richard. Mr. Brock had summoned him about an urgent matter a few hours before.
"Lizzy, are you feeling refreshed?"
"Yes, thank you." The two linked arms and began walking. "You know, there is something almost magical about Netherfield which I hadn't really noticed until just now."
"You think so?" Charlotte was surprised that her beloved home could mean anything to Lizzy, who lived in one of the grandest homes in England.
"It was here that my sister fell in love with Charles. And were I to be honest, I believe it cast a spell over me as well, though I could not see it at the time because I thought Mr. Darcy so arrogant." She stopped and took Charlotte's hands in hers. "It seems to nurture your husband's regard for you as well. I see how he looks at you, Charlotte. Clearly he adores you."
Charlotte lowered her gaze with a bashful smile. "Yes. I am very fortunate. There was a time when I thought I would never know happiness. Returning home to care for my father was particularly difficult, but God has been good. As Richard is fond of saying, 'Who can know what a year can bring?'" The two ladies resumed their stroll and joined Anne under the tent.
Richard strode out the front door and passed the massive oak tree overhanging the drive, intending to join his family.
"Papa, you are back!" John, his eldest, and two other boys stopped short in front of him, breathless. "We want to play capture the blockade-runner. Will you hoist us up into the big tree?"
"Well, I suppose so, as long as the guns all fire in the proper direction. Have I told you the story--"
"Yes, Papa." John looked to George, his cousin. "You can be the captain. I just want to climb the mast and be the lookout."
Matthew, Richard's five-year-old piped up, "I want to ring the bell!"
The father boosted the boys up into the mighty oak and chuckled as they climbed. He and Darcy had played the same sort of games as young boys.
He heard a tiny voice behind him and turned towards the house. The bobbing brown curls of his adorable daughter with her last traces of toddling bounded towards him. Sadie was beside her while the nursemaid brought up the rear. He knelt just in time to catch her up and swing her around.
"Gracie! How is my best girl?" He burrowed his nose in her neck then kissed her cheek.
"Throw the stick, Papa. Watch Sadie run."
Taking the stick from her, he hurled it. As Sadie bounded after it, he set the girl down, and she went after the small black dog who was no longer as fast as she'd been back in Yorkshire. He sighed recalling his time there. Mr. Brock had now been his faithful steward at Netherfield for eight years. He still teared up thinking about Aunt Genia. He'd heard Captain Clemson had bought a country home in Northamptonshire for his houseful of children.
A happy shriek drew his attention. Grace was now on the ground, giggling as Sadie licked her cheeks. His gaze roamed the setting before him and stopped on his wife. He could just see her sitting inside the tent with Adelade cooing in her arms. He felt a sudden urge to hold Charlotte and tell her how thankful he was for her.
Still surveying the scene, he was struck by a recollection of the evening at Ledston when he had observed Leah with Sadie, and Charlotte holding the captain's newborn son. He had prayed--pleaded--that night for a family of his own and wondered if he would have the thrill of seeing his child playing with a dog, and his infant in the arms of his wife. He stood in awe at how specifically his prayer had been answered. Sometimes I pray, the words echoed in his mind, and he shook his head. How his response to those three simple words had changed his life.
The two older boys dropped out of the tree and ran towards the pond. Richard turned to help Matthew down, but he was too late. The small boy tried to swing down alone but fell, crying. Examining the scraped knee, Richard tried to console him but then had an idea. He walked a few paces over to the gravel drive and chose a smooth stone. Coming back, he knelt before his son. "Rub the stone and be brave, my son, like a good soldier should."
Instantly the boy stopped crying and inspected the stone, rubbing its contours.
Richard patted his back. "Shall we try our hand at flying those kites Uncle Darcy brought? Looks like we have a fair breeze today."
The small boy slipped the stone into his pocket, then wiped at his eyes and followed his father.
"Hello, beautiful. As much as I enjoyed our visitors this afternoon, I have been eager to have you to myself." Richard leaned against the mantelpiece in the master's chamber twirling the stem of his wine glass perched on the polished surface.
"Oh, you scared me!" Charlotte's brown eyes twinkled.
He released the glass and moved towards her. "I missed having coffee with you before the fire this morning."
"Yes, well, with the baby up early and your appointment..." She twisted her fingers looking everywhere but at him.
He wrapped an arm around the waist of her silky dressing gown and fingered the single braid falling over her shoulder with his other hand.
"Richard?" Her inflection expressed her sheepish surprise at his romantic aggression.
He slid the tie off the braid and combed his fingers through her unbound hair. "Do you know how much you mean to me? I waited so long. I do not ever want to take you for granted." Their eyes locked.
She smiled and dropped her gaze.
He raised her chin until their eyes met. "I love you." Tilting his head, he kissed her tenderly, drawing out her upper lip, then again beheld her eyes. Seeing her awed expression reminiscent of their first kiss, he was overcome with passion. He drew her close, closed his eyes, and touched his mouth to hers, his kisses deepening as she melted in his arms.
"Richard," she pulled back, breathless, "what has come over you?"
He threw back his head with a hearty laugh. "You." He swept her off her feet and deposited her on their bed as their combined laughter filled the room.
Later, her loving gaze admired her sleeping husband in the candle's glow. She pushed a greying lock from his forehead and kissed his brow before sitting up. Smiling, she blinked back tears, took a last look at her beloved, then blew out the candle. For many years, hope deferred made their hearts sick. But desire fulfilled was truly a vibrant tree of life.The End
- A deleted scene,
- The requested expansion of the scene when Richard hits rock bottom
- Pix of some faces that inspired a few of my characters
Deleted scene: This would have been while Richard and Charlotte were in London with the Darcy's before Anne's wedding. Anne was to come to London to order her wedding gown.
Two weeks later, Anne was in London to be fitted for her wedding gown. She chatted comfortably over her embroidery with Charlotte, Elizabeth, and Georgiana in the Darcy's salon.
"Excuse me, madam." The butler bowed and addressed Mrs. Darcy. "There is a young French girl below stairs. I am unable to make out what she is saying except that she keeps repeating the names Miss de Bourgh and Miss Darcy as if she is insistent that she would be recognized by them. But her appearance is unkempt and tattered. Shall I send her away?"
The ladies looked from one to the other, puzzled.
Elizabeth looked back to the dignified man. "You may send her in, Smedley."
A moment later a young girl of twelve or so in a worn dress stepped into the room wide-eyed surveying the posh surroundings.
"Madeleine!" Georgiana's embroidery slid off her lap. "I have encountered her on several of my trips to the modiste."
Anne then recognized her as well. "Yes! I saw her the other day." She asked the girl in French why she had come.
In a combination of French and English the girl replied, "Oh Mademoiselle, I knew not where else to go. My mother has recently died leaving me and my sister alone. Mrs. Kerr has let me stay on as I am good at stitching hems. But my sister is ill, and I have no money to help her. When you came yesterday, I thought with eyes as kind as yours that perhaps you would help me. When you gave the address for the gown's delivery, I recalled it from having come in he past to attend Miss Darcy's fittings."
The three ladies looked from one to the other.
Anne's heart broke for the poor girl. "What seems to be the matter with your sister?"
"It is a terrible cough--like a barking dog. She can hardly breathe. I am frightened for her!"
Charlotte looked to Anne. "It sounds like it could be the croup."
"Where is your sister?" She spoke to the girl again in her familiar tongue.
"In an abandoned building on Fleet Street, near the prison."
"You have no home?" She could not believe children would be living in an abandoned building.
"Not after we were evicted when mama died. There are many like us living there. We take care of one another."
"Can you not go to an orphanage?"
"They are full."
Georgiana looked to Charlotte. "Might you help her, Mrs. Collins? She could die without treatment."
"I believe I can, if the gentlemen will escort me."
The girl was sent below stairs to be fed and cleaned while the ladies appraised Richard and Darcy of the girl's plight. The ladies received a pledge from Darcy for a carriage and several footman, while Richard volunteered to be the escort.
An hour later Richard, Anne, and Charlotte accompanied Madeleine to the building. They were astounded that anyone could live in such a squalid place. The fine carriage and well-dressed visitors drew a huddle of a dozen children. Richard shooed them away. Entering the decaying building, the ladies covered their noses with their handkerchiefs. They found Adele curled in a corner, coughing under a thin blanket. Charlotte administered some pulverised ipecacuanha and a ginger root poultice, at last bringing some relief to the girl.
Anne was nearly in tears at what she observed as she gave out rolls she had brought from Darcy house. Children of all ages, filthy and tattered, devoured the simple food.
The group returned several times until Adele was well. For many days afterwards, Anne was haunted by the children's empty stares. She thought of Sally, Mr. Martin's adopted daughter, working in an orphanage for children like these and wished she could make a difference for them as well.
The expanded scene: The new addition is between the little markers like this ~~~*~~~ ~~~*~~~ I've included the whole chapter in case you would like to have the full context. (If you don't read it all, don't forget to skip down to the pix.)
The townhouse was quiet in Scott's absence. A fortnight later Richard still felt uninspired to venture out or receive visitors, and he certainly had no interest in balls and parties with the Ton.
He poured himself a drink from the decanter in the library and smiled, recalling the high spirits of his men and their feeling of triumph as they had made their unlikely escape some two months ago. Crossing to the large window, he swirled the ruby-coloured liquid in his glass and took a sip. He stared blankly into the twilight as his restless emotions converted to thoughts: War was ugly... Blood. Suffering. Persistent fear. Half-rotten food. And grime so thick it became a part of a man. But somehow the sense of purpose, bravery, and camaraderie had made it honourable and worthwhile. He tugged at his cravat and took another sip of port. How satisfying it had been leading those men! It had made him feel like a man--like he was doing something, worth something. But that was now all in the past.
He expelled a deep breath and moved towards the large desk. After a swig he perched on the corner of the polished mahogany. Circling his left arm, he groaned, his face pinched with pain as the movement pulled at the scarred skin near his armpit. In an instant he had been reduced to a near invalid. No longer able to lead anyone, he had no purpose; he merely existed.
He tipped the glass back and emptied it. After refilling it, he dropped into the desk's chair. What was he to do now? He unbuttoned his waistcoat and propped his hessians atop the desk, swirling the port again. The army had no use for him, and he was unsure if they ever would. He had no wife, no money, no property. He took a sip, weighing his situation. He could return to Matlock. He rolled his eyes and grunted. His father would surely remind him what a failure he was. Another mouthful disappeared.
This uncertainty and suffering were the very reasons Charlotte had vowed never to marry a soldier. It was a good thing she was not saddled with him--yet he was partly to blame for her marrying that fool. He shook his head. He should have cut her loose sooner for her own good.
For the next hour, he nursed his drink and then finished another before retiring for the night. The next several evenings passed in a similar fashion.
~~*~~ ~~*~~ ~~*~~
A week later he passed out on the settee. The following morning Richard awoke in a stupor to the sound of delicate footsteps and the clatter of clanging glasses. Turning over and opening his eyes, he immediately recoiled with a loud groan as the bright sunlight assaulted him.
A feminine gasp rose from the other side of the room. Richard raised himself on one elbow and squinted towards the sound, wondering who had the audacity to disturb him so early in the morning. His gaze met the wide eyes of a young maid standing frozen, holding a silver tray topped with the evidence of his indulgence from the night before.
Her voice quivered as she spoke. "I--I am so sorry, sir. I did not know anyone was here."
"Well, you do now," he growled in a gravelly voice. "Get the hell out."
Bobbing a hurried curtsey, she hastened towards the door.
"And close the damn curtains before you blind me!" he barked as he lay back down.
The tray skimmed onto the desk, and her quick footsteps scurried to draw the curtains over the room's two large windows. She rattled the glasses retrieving the tray, and Richard grimaced, his head hammering with the racket.
When the door clicked shut behind her, he swiped his palms over his face, then massaged his temples. What a blasted headache. I feel wretched.
Now awake, he replayed the encounter. The girl's panic-stricken expression was seared onto his conscience. He released a sigh and slowly sat up. No wonder she had been terrified. Never had he spoken so harshly to a servant. He rather prided himself in his characteristically easy manner with servants, knowing first hand that honey draws more flies than vinegar.
Steadying himself, he rose and surveyed the room. The desk was littered with papers and the crumpled remains of three failed attempts at a reply to Georgiana's letter received a week ago. He exited the room and lumbered up the stairs, leaning heavily on the railing. Once inside his chamber, he swung the door closed, then fell onto his bed and back into tranquil slumber.
The repeated gentle chiming of the clock in his room roused him. He rolled over, still suspended in the twilight between wake and sleep. Dozing for several more minutes, his stomach growled, bringing him to full consciousness. He knew he should rise as his head would feel better after some breakfast and strong coffee, but he was not sure it was worth the effort. It was easier just to remain abed, preferably asleep. In the oblivion of slumber, time passed blissfully, devoid of any nagging expectations or bleak thoughts. His dry mouth and another rumble from his stomach finally propelled him from the bed.
The clock hands indicated it was past noon. He rang for Godfrey before crossing to the washbasin in the small adjoining dressing room. After splashing tepid water on his face, he reached for a towel, catching his reflection in the mirror. He grimaced at what he saw--hair projecting out at odd angles, a wrinkled shirt, and breeches with a stain on the front. Turning away, he dried himself and then drained two glasses of water.
A moment later, Godfrey arrived and held out a cup of coffee. "Good morning, sir."
Richard took the beverage and grunted a reply.
"Shall I order you a bath, sir?"
Taking a mouthful of the strong coffee, Richard thought for a moment. He probably needed one but couldn't be bothered today. Besides, what difference did it make? He was essentially alone in the house. "Maybe tomorrow. Let's get on with the shaving business. Then fetch me something to eat. I am famished."
Richard sprawled in the familiar shaving chair, sipping the soothing liquid as Godfrey frothed the shaving soap into a lather. Some minutes later he sat in silence as the valet scraped away the last of the whiskers. Anxious to be finished, Richard turned to look at the clock just as his valet put the razor to his face.
"Ouch! Damn it. Watch what you are doing!"
The valet pressed the towel over the cut. "I beg your pardon, sir. There was one last--"
"Never mind." Richard snatched the linen from the man's hand, rose, and flung it onto the chair. "Just find me something suitable to wear."
Richard wrestled off his rumpled shirt while Godfrey selected fresh attire. Why was he so ill-tempered? Was it more than just the dull thud in his head?
With clean clothes on, Richard raised his chin as the valet fashioned his cravat into an elegant knot. "Pardon my short temper, Godfrey. I don't know what has me in such a foul mood today."
The servant slid Richard's waistcoat over his shoulders and then met his master's eyes in the mirror. Pressing only a thin smile, he said nothing.
With the waistcoat fastened, the valet held up a handsome blue tailcoat. Richard shook his head. "I believe I will dispense with that formality today."
Half an hour later Richard pushed back from his lone spot at the dining room table and crossed his ankles under the table. With his fingers laced over his chest, he surveyed the quiet room. His eye caught sight of a vase on the sideboard, flooding him with memories of Grandmother Fitzwilliam. She had loved flowers, that vase a particular favourite. He recalled the last time he saw her--it was in this very room. He had taken commission in the army, and the family celebrated with a farewell meal before his departure for the continent. Two months later she was dead. The heart-breaking news had resulted in his first drunken stupor, a vain attempt to dull the pain. She was always quick to lend an encouraging word followed by a kiss and a hug. Now she was gone.
He absently rose and made his way into the drawing room in search of her portrait. Staring up at the soft smile on the young woman seated beside a stone-faced man, he wondered how she had maintained such a gentle spirit living with his grandfather, who was said to be harsh. Apparently his own father and Lady Catherine took after the calloused earl, whereas Lady Anne, Darcy's mother, had been more like Grandmother. He chuckled recalling childhood Easters spent at Rosings. Each morning she gathered all the grandchildren into her bed, opened her worn Bible and read them stories--Daniel and the Lion's Den, Noah, Jesus Feeding the Five Thousand. He smiled. There was a comforting warmth about her. He saw traces of her character in his cousin Anne--gentle, sweet, understated.
He walked to the window and stared out, memories of the beloved woman wafting though his mind. Reining in his focus, he came face to face with his own reflection in the glass. Who was he like? What sort of man would he become?
Dismissing the questions, he turned away and sought the crystal decanter.
~~*~~ ~~*~~ ~~*~~
"Mr. Godfrey." Mrs. Cooper stopped the valet in the hallway below stairs. "Might I have a word?" She drew him aside. "I am sure Master Richard's condition has not escaped your notice. I am quite concerned. I have been expecting the good doctor to return, but it has already been more than a month. Do you have any news?"
"The colonel mentioned a letter. Apparently Mr. Scott has had several unfortunate delays. He was abed for a week with an illness, and some unfavourable weather has hampered his travel. If all goes well, he is expected to return in a week or so."
"I saw the Darcy's housekeeper in town yesterday, and she said that in two days Mr. Darcy was expected for an overnight stay. He generally never misses an opportunity to see his cousin. But with such a short visit, what shall we do if he does not call? I am sure our Colonel would listen to Mr. Darcy."
"Perhaps I should send a note to Mr. Fletcher, his valet. He and I have become well acquainted over the years."
"Darcy, old man! What brings you here at this late hour?" Richard clapped his cousin on the back. "Sit down." He gestured to a pair of tapestry upholstered chairs before the fireplace.
One glance at Richard told Darcy something was very wrong. His cousin was well into his cups. "My apologies for the late call. I had business with my solicitor and wanted to see how you were getting on."
"I am well satisfied with my arm's condition, thanks to my excellent doctor. I expect him back within the week. Will you join us for dinner to make his acquaintance?"
"Unfortunately, I return to Derbyshire in the morning."
"Cigar?" Richard held the burl wood cigar box open towards him before taking one for himself.
Darcy studied his cousin, wondering how to broach the subject of his uncharacteristic behaviour and slovenly appearance.
"So how do you regard your wedded state now that you are an old married man?" Richard poured two glasses of port before settling into the chair beside his cousin.
Darcy expelled a cloud of smoke. "I highly recommend it. It is amazing what the presence of a good woman can do for a man." He eyed his cousin and swirled his port. "You ought to consider it. You are not growing any younger."
"Ah! Well!" Richard puffed on his cigar in between words. "I have no objection at all." He waved his cigar in the air leaving a trail of smoke. "Show me a woman the calibre of your lovely wife with a thirty-thousand-pound dowry, and I shall be at the altar directly."
The two men chuckled.
Darcy turned serious. "You will not find a wife while holed up in this house drinking yourself into a stupor. The Season has several weeks yet; you should consider showing yourself around Town. I assume you have no lack of invitations. Your charm and happy manners should afford you the pick of the Ton."
Richard's mien darkened. "I care nothing for those gilded, pretentious women to be merely an ornament about my neck. It would strangle me. A simple country girl with good sense and a handsome dowry shall suit me fine."
Darcy leaned forward in his chair to confront the eyes of his cousin. "That does not appear to be your only concern. You have consumed an excess of alcohol. By the looks of you, this has been a habit for some time."
Richard sat back expelling a breath.
"Is it the injury?"
Richard took a deep drag on his cigar, then expelled the smoke with his words. "That and-- Damn it, Darcy." He palmed the chair's arm. "I am thirty-one years old, and what do I have to show for it?"
Darcy put his hand on his cousin's shoulder. "Get a hold of yourself. Do you recall last summer when I was crying in my tea over Elizabeth? You roughed me up a bit to bring me to my senses. I took a hard look at myself, made some changes, and a few months later Elizabeth herself arrived at Pemberley."
The clock on the mantelpiece chimed the hour.
"I have an early morning." Darcy rose. "Will you join us for an extended stay at Pemberley? Georgiana speaks often of you."
Richard stood and shrugged his shoulders. "I shall consider it." Bidding his cousin a good evening, he flicked the butt of his cigar into the fireless grate.
Alone again, Richard resumed his post at the window. Get a hold of himself? Get a hold of himself for what? Darcy had Elizabeth, Georgiana, and Pemberley. And when he tired of Pemberley, he could come to his home in London or travel anywhere he liked. Richard looked at his glass, then swallowed a mouthful of the soothing liquid. Darcy had been free to have any woman of his choosing--rich or poor. And he had no father frowning on his every turn. Mulling over the thoughts for a time longer, he drained his glass... and then the decanter.
"Is there trouble, Mrs. Cooper?" The butler took his hat.
"Sir," her voice was low as her eyes darted back and forth to ensure their privacy, "it is the colonel!"
"Is he ill?"
She shook her head, but her wide-eyes warned him that something had changed in his absence.
"Scott!" They heard the booming voice as the colonel rounded the corner. "You're back. Join me in the library for a drink, and tell me all about your venture."
Fitzwilliam's dishevelled appearance and the dark circles under his eyes did not escape Matthew's attention. He glanced back at the housekeeper before turning to his friend. "Yes, well... it is good to be back." The two entered the library.
"Sit down." Richard indicated the chair that Darcy had vacated four nights before. "May I pour you a glass?" He held up the crystal decanter. "Fine stuff."
"N--no. No, thank you." Clearly something had changed in his six-weeks absence.
"Would you like some refreshment? Tea perhaps?"
"Yes, tea would be fine." Matthew spoke over his shoulder.
Richard rang for the tea and dropped beside him with his glass. "Did you locate anything suitable?"
"After all the delays, I toured several homes but found nothing I plan to pursue."
"Perhaps south of Plymouth in Fowey or Exmouth you may find something more to your liking. I have a distant cousin there. I hear it is popular for sea-bathers."
"I may make inqui--". He broke off his words, shaking his head in scolding. "Fitzwilliam, we have been friends for some time now, and I am your physician as well. I cannot dismiss the evidence before me as if nothing has changed in my absence. Clearly you are troubled for you to--"
"Damn it! Not you as well. Darcy already raked me over the coals. Can a man not have a few drinks with his thoughts and be left in peace?"
"Certainly he can." Matthew reminded himself to remain calm. "But perhaps it would be wise to consider if his thoughts were merely accompanied by pleasant drink, or if the pleasant drinks were merely accompanied by the thoughts. In the past I have known you as the former; today, it appears, and I am told, it is the latter. I have not known you to be a man of excessive libation--until now."
"Why should it matter to you how I spend my days? You have your violin, your inheritance, and are on your way to the seaside for a new life. What do I have?" He raised his hands and shrugged his shoulder. "A scarred arm, a meagre army pension, and the expectation that I marry well." He spoke the latter with sarcasm, slapping his palms on his thighs.
Fitzwilliam was feeling sorry for himself. Half the men in England would give their arm to have the life the colonel enjoyed. What he needed was a change of heart, but in his semi-intoxicated state, now did not seem to be the time for a rational conversation. Matthew rose and spoke calmly. "I shall refresh myself upstairs. Please have the tea tray sent to my room." With a thin smile and nod, he took his leave. Struck with a thought as he passed through the door, he halted, then spun around and targeted his eyes into Fitzwilliam's. "Sometimes I pray." He shut the door.
"Damn!" Richard kicked a small footstool, sending it clattering across the floor. He raked his hand though his hair and noticed a fresh port spill on his sleeve. More expletives escaped with a grunt. Parking his glass, he dabbed the spot with his handkerchief, then walked to the window, fuming. How dare they! What problem is it of theirs?
The problem is you, he heard from the inner recesses of his mind.
His shoulders slumped as he let out a deep breath. The problem is me? he asked, testing the validity of the statement. Is the problem me? He braced a hand against the window frame and stared out, contemplating the idea.
The next morning, Richard studied the ceiling in silence as Godfrey removed the night's traces of whiskers. The admonishments of Darcy and Scott had left him unsettled in both mind and body.
In his foul state, he had no intention of breakfasting with the doctor in their usual fashion. Thinking a brisk walk might bring some clarity to his inner turmoil, he sought the kitchen for nourishment before quietly slipping out the door.
The out of doors arrested his senses with a gentle summer breeze, the buzz of activity, and the cacophony of sounds. He had only been out on a handful of occasions since his arrival more than three months prior.
All right Darcy, I am getting out. Does that please you?
Having nowhere in particular to go, he headed for a nearby park, tipping his hat with a feigned smile to various passers-by. Everyone appears purposeful. Do any feel as adrift as I? "Get a hold of yourself." Darcy's words echoed in his mind. How do I get a hold of myself? Do I have the strength, the will to get a hold of myself?
His thoughts were then silent as he approached the park. Carriages rattled by, and couples passed in pleasant conversation, leaving him keenly aware of his own solitude.
He circled the pond, taking in the serenity of the expansive grounds. Sitting on a bench, he watched in amusement as two children attempted to fly a kite in the sparse breeze. At last the elder boy had it airborne in the overcast sky, the smaller girl running behind with shrieks of pleasure at their success. An image flashed in his mind--a long forgotten memory of another young boy flying a kite across a Derbyshire field and a certain brown-haired girl running behind.
A rush of emotion overcame him as he recalled the occasion. That was the first incident that had bound him to Charlotte. After that, he had always sought her out during those long-ago days of his childhood, playing and riding at her aunt's. They became the best of friends. Without thinking, he reached for the stone.
His pocket was as barren as his heart.
Dropping his chin, his focus turned inward, and he heard Darcy's words again. "Get a hold of yourself... I took a hard look at myself, made some changes...." And then the words of Scott came to mind, "Consider if the thoughts were merely accompanied by pleasant drink, or if the pleasant drinks were merely accompanied by the thoughts.... Sometimes I pray."
The last three words pierced his soul like a knife thrust in his chest and pressed a gasping breath from his lungs. Something akin to a dam broke inside. Tears sprang to his eyes. Oh, Lord, I cannot do it! I have nothing. I feel hopeless. I know not how to get a hold of myself. I am an utter failure. All the wrong that I have done... God, forgive me... There is nothing left of me but a broken man filled with sorrow.
The truth of his confession reverberated throughout his being. Eventually his mind filled with recollections of long-ago lessons from Grandmother Fitzwilliam--a loving God who gave His Son to redeem mankind. I need redemption. I cannot save myself. God, I need You--take me. If You can do something with me, I am Yours. He released a pent-up breath, blinked back the tears, and scanned his surroundings, expecting an audience to have witnessed such an unlikely event. Yet everything was as it had been. The only change had happened inside of him.
Unsure what else to do, he rose and resumed his stroll. The knot inside began to loosen. A smile curled his lips, and he nearly chuckled out loud. I gave my life to God today. His burden felt a bit lighter; a ray of hope kindled within.
Rounding the corner to his family's home, the sun broke through the parted clouds, illuminating the way before him.
As he entered the house, he was struck with an unexpected inclination that propelled him to a cabinet in the library. Retrieving a large wooden box, he placed it on a nearby table. He took two steps back and stared at the object for a moment, afraid of the contents within. Before proceeding, he raised his left arm to perform the circular exercises. He winced at the pain caused by the stretch as he had neglected the prescribed motion for over a week.
With it stretched, he stepped back to the box, unlatched it, and threw back the lid. There it was. His cello which he had not seen in more than ten years. His father had insisted he take lessons that he might accompany his brother, who played the violin. Andrew was an excellent musician and took great pleasure in it. For Richard, it was a symbol of discord with his father. He had been coerced to learn, not for his own enjoyment, but to enhance Andrew. When the family had guests, the brothers were called upon to perform. Richard hated the niggling over his attire and the expectation that he make a good impression. He felt like a horse on display whose teeth were being inspected to judge its worth. Naturally he perceived that his brother was always deemed the more valued.
He lifted the instrument and smoothed its graceful curve with his hand. Sitting, he plucked the strings one by one to tune it, then glided the bow across the strings. As the familiar, resonant sound filled the room, he stopped, unsure he wanted to continue. His father was not there. He was not bound to play. He could stop whenever he pleased.
He drew the bow again, this time playing a familiar melody, and found it satisfying. He went back to the cabinet, brought out a stack of music, and chose a simple piece. Soothing sounds flowed again.
An hour later, Mrs. Cooper appeared at the door. "Sir! I had to see for myself. I had forgotten you played."
Leaning the cello against his shoulder, he flexed his sore fingers. "Yes, it has been many years."
"Will you and Mr. Scott be attending the opera this evening and dining out?"
He had forgotten about the opera. The Season would be over soon. "I believe so. Thank you."
His conscience prodded him to apologize to his friend. He returned the instrument to its place in the cabinet, ascended the stairs, and tapped on the physician's door.
Richard hesitated before turning the knob, uneasy with the forthcoming encounter.
"Fitzwilliam!" The physician's greeting was warm.
"Scott." Richard nodded, remaining solemn. He dropped his gaze to gather his courage before addressing his friend. "I must apologize for my behaviour last night. I want you to know I have taken your three word admonition to heart."
A slow smile stretched across the doctor's face. "Ah, so you have sought the Master?"
"I have." His mien remained sombre.
Approaching him, Scott placed his hand on his shoulder. "Giving my life to God was the best decision I ever made. My life has not been the same since. I am truly pleased for you."
Richard returned a weak smile.
"But I have a confession, Fitzwilliam. Last night I said sometimes I pray. The truth is, I seek the Master every day, a standing appointment of sorts." The doctor clapped him on the back. "Now, shall we go downstairs? I'd like to have a look at that cello you had humming a bit ago."
Pix--Character inspiration: Now don't look if you are afraid it will ruin what you conjured in your own mind : ) I'll give the links first, then a bit of commentary.
Richard: I watched Master and Commander, the Far Side of the World as part of my research and the movie really grew on me. In fairly short order, I became a Russell Crowe fan. The more I thought about it, the more his character Jack Aubrey embodied my vision of Richard--tough, gritty, with glimpses of a heart under that hard exterior. (Richard is a bit younger, I didn't envision the long hair, and the uniform is the wrong color : ) If you are interested in the Napoleonic era, this film is an excellent 'replica' of the era. Somewhere along the way, I watched/read interview(s) with the guy who was the historical naval consultant for the movie. Very interesting.
Lord Matlock: As I wrote the earl, I just pictured Donald Trump in my head. His scowl says it all.
Anne: Melanie from Gone With the Wind was the perfect model for my Anne. Lovely, gracious, oozing sweetness. Coincidentally, Gone With the Wind was on TV over Thanksgiving and it reinforced that indeed Melanie was 'my Anne.'