Darcy walked up the ramp to the freshly painted door. He made certain conditions at the cottage were maintained perfectly. Though other areas of the estate might suffer neglect, this place saw none of it. The gardens were tended and walking paths maintained with the same attention devoted to the big house. The inside had been refurbished with the most modern conveniences and contrivances, all installed with the occupant’s condition in mind. No detail was left unattended.
“Good morning, Mr. Darcy,” the plump woman he hired as both housekeeper and nurse to George greeted him.
“Good morning, Mrs. Able. How are you?”
“Tell Darcy he needn’t mind the pleasantries, Hatty,” the familiar voice called from inside. “If he did, he wouldn’t be here at all, for nothing about his visits are ever pleasant.”
“Hello, George,” Mr. Darcy replied, entering the cheerful front room. Wickham sat by a large window that framed the pleasing landscape bounding the cottage’s south side, examining the scene with a determination born out of a refusal to face his guest.
“What do you want, Darcy?”
“I have something I need to tell you.” He remained standing, staring at the back of his former friend and longtime enemy’s head, which suddenly twitched to the side, revealing the briefest glimpse of profile.
“Oh, do sit down man! Still stubbornly formal, I see. It’s a trait I’ve always detested in you.” Darcy perched himself upon the nearest seat, but he could not abandon his rigid posture, quite necessary for his endurance of this ordeal. “What have you to say?” demanded Wickham, with renewed focus on the scene outside.
“I’m leaving Pemberley for a while, and I am not sure when I will return.”
“What! Will you deprive me of your precious company?” he huffed. “I didn’t think you had much occasion for mixing with the world anymore.”
The wheeled chair in which Mr. Wickham sat suddenly lurched forward and around to confront Mr. Darcy directly. Unwillingly, Mr. Darcy flinched at the sight of George’s scarred face. “Then where do you go!” he demanded.
Mr. Darcy looked him directly in the eye, trying not to stare at the disfigured flesh. “To a mad house, if you must know.”
“A mad house?” the harsh visage softened with incredulity. “You mean you go willingly?”
“The man who runs it offers hope, and I have none other before me.”
“You must be mad, Darcy, to consent to such a thing! And if you aren’t, you surely will be before long. Do you not know what happens in such places?”
“I have spoken to the doctor myself, and he has described his methods. I know what to expect.”
“Like hell you do! Good riddance to you, then. We shall not meet again.” He turned back to the window.
“I am not leaving for some weeks.”
“I see no reason to beleaguer our goodbyes.”
“Nevertheless, I will come see you before my departure, and I’m sure I will see you again before the year is out,” Darcy told the balding head before him, rising to leave as he did so. Upon receiving no response, he continued, “I will leave instructions regarding your needs.”
A bitter laugh escaped Wickham. “I did not think you would leave me unguarded.”
“Take care of yourself, George.”
“Just go, Fitz.” He moved towards the door, but hesitating he turned back and stood for several moments, staring at the rigid head. “Oh for God’s sake, Darcy! What is it?”
“The man who runs Ramsey House is an old friend of Lord Matlock,” he said softly.
“And why should that matter so to me that you must stand there in silence like an imbecile?”
Darcy forced the words out. “The matron who works beside him is called Mrs. Bennet.
The head twitched. “I see,” Wickham said.
“So you do recall the name?”
The crippled man spun his chair around with surprising force. “Of course I remember the name, Darcy! What do you take me for?” he spat angrily.
Numbly, Darcy replied, “The kind of man who would destroy an innocent, wreaking havoc upon an entire family in the process.”
“Oh, yes!” Wickham smirked. “I had forgotten about that.“
Darcy felt his hatred for the man swell up for the first time since the fire. “I do not see how you could,” he said through clenched teeth.
“Yet you just expressed surprise that I recall the name Bennet! Do make up your mind, Fitz: am I a complete heartless cad, or will you grant me the humanity of having a conscience?”
“Do you?” Darcy asked wearily.
Wickham held his eye. “It does not matter how I reply. You made up your mind as to my character many, many years ago.” He turned back round to the window. “So you think Mrs. Bennet is a relation to those of Longbourn?”
“It seems possible,” Darcy admitted reluctantly.
“Be sure to send her my regards, should she prove an acquaintance.”
“You make me sick, George.”
“I have no desire for your presence, either, Darcy. Do take yourself off already.”
Darcy left without another word. Once he heard the door shut, Wickham rolled himself over to the front window, where he watched Darcy mount Jason and ride hastily away. Had the master of Pemberley bothered to turn round, he might have perceived the vigil, one silent tear making its bumpy way down a distorted cheek.