I Saw Three Ships
December 23, 1811
Wickham cursed under his breath as the coach brought him closer to the London docks. He had terrible luck before, but he had always counted on Darcy’s need for privacy and his familial pride to save him. It kept Wickham coming back time and time again.
The strangeness of the repeating days merely allowed him to hone his plans. He kept meticulous notes, and while he had no memories of the events, he had recorded them all. Whatever was going on centred around Darcy and the Bennets. There was only Bennet who could interest Darcy: Elizabeth.
Wickham had to admit, Darcy had exquisite taste. It was one reason why as children, he always sought to emulate his chum. Elizabeth was a fine specimen of a woman. He could have asked Darcy for anything, and the man would have offered it to him to ensure her safety. Wickham had not expected Elizabeth to act so courageously.
Of course, even when she did, Wickham triumphed. Darcy had not pursued him. Mr. Bennet had not pressed charges. That he had not been invited to Longbourn again served as enough fact that they had either regained their memories or left their own means of recalling them. Just when he was planning to slip away, Colonel Forster began having him watched constantly. In time, he might have figured out a way to leave the area. However, Wickham had not considered that Darcy would share the information with an outsider. Nor could he have guessed that Elizabeth Bennet’s London uncle had the means of silencing him.
This morning, when offered the choice between debtors’ prison and Australia, Wickham eagerly chose the latter. Even more surprising was Darcy’s treatment of him.
“Why, George?” he had asked quietly.
He shrugged. “I told you, I felt entitled.”
“Do you remember that night?”
“No,” Wickham answered truthfully. “After I fled Longbourn, I returned to my room. You may not guess, but I keep scrupulous notes on things. It’s how I can always fleece people out of money and favours.”
“By people you mostly mean me.”
“Not just you.” Wickham shrugged. “You did not get me into the militia.”
“No, I had quite washed my hands of you and thought you were afraid enough of my reaction to stay away.”
“I was,” Wickham confessed. “At first. But then you did nothing, as you always do, and I grew comfortable.”
“That night, though. You seemed crazed.”
“I had been reading my notes in the morning and growing more confused and desperate by the repeating days. Since I have no memories after December twenty-second, I really cannot say how I felt, but in my journal, I was becoming unhinged.”
“What has stopped you from acting that way now?”
“I do not know.”
Wickham affected a shrug, but the truth was he hated feeling like he had no control over his behaviour and actions. He had often played the victim and claimed to have no control over his destiny and situation in life, but this was far worse. It was as though he had strings attached to him and someone else pulled them.
“Would you have really hurt her?”
The smallest remaining sliver of remorse and compassion, of real humanity, in his heart was stung by the feeling in Darcy’s words and the look of mourning that entered his eyes as he thought about the woman he loved dying. At that moment, Wickham felt disgusted with himself for the first time in half his life. Darcy had been his friend and playmate before jealousy reared its ugly head.
“I want to say no, I would not have, but I cannot promise that.” Looking down at his hands for a moment, he wrestled with his next words. Finally, he lifted his head and looked Darcy in the eye. “You ought to send me away. I cannot control this compulsion to harm you, it seems. I am always begging for you to save me; this time save yourself. Save me by saving yourself.”
Darcy held his eyes for a long time, then slowly nodded. “You would have a chance to truly start over. Transform your life. No more Darcy name and money to rescue you.”
Wickham slowly exhaled. A few weeks ago, the thought would have been insupportable. He should not have to pick himself up by his bootstraps and make a life for himself while others, ones he was raised with and did everything better than, had everything. But he could lie to himself no longer. Perhaps with an ocean and continents between them, he might live to the potential that Mr. Darcy and his father had seen in him. He might cease comparing himself to his old friend.
“Thank you,” Wickham said as he stood to leave. It was too simple to convey all he felt and owed, but gratitude was a new sensation.
Darcy nodded and told him to get ready, that they would leave in a matter of minutes.
Now, four hours later, Wickham saw ships at port and smelled the stench of the Thames. God help him. Spending months at sea in winter and during a war was no easy task. If he made it to land, he would be a better man.
The carriage came to a stop, and Mr. Gardiner exited first. Wickham moved forward on the seat, but Darcy stayed him for a moment.
“I have been deciding if you should know this or not,” Darcy said. “I hope I am not making a mistake. You were not entirely to blame for your actions that night.”
“I wasn’t?” Wickham looked at Darcy in disbelief. “I was drunk or drugged, I suppose you will tell me. Well, it’s never happened before.”
“I would not know your behaviour under the influence of such things.” Darcy scowled. “You did not press for information about the repeating days.”
“I would rather not talk about that madness. It is over, and I have a ship to get on.”
“In a moment,” Darcy sighed. “You may have guessed that those of us at Longbourn and Netherfield have discovered the truth. Others in your unit did not. You were always so clever, George.”
Wickham tipped his head in acknowledgement, knowing it was not an easy confession from the man.
“In your journal as you recorded events, did they vary drastically?”
“Well, I did not take them very seriously,” he said. “I thought I must be going mad, or at the very least recorded dreams which I no longer recalled.”
“So, they did vary?”
“Not usually. There was one where I had eloped with Lydia Bennet. Of all the stupid things.”
“Then your next entry returned you to Meryton as though nothing had occurred?”
“Yes, we also have suffered from strange occurrences. It seems our fates were linked together. The more I ignored your presence and its potential problems for the Bennets, whom I had wanted to reject as unworthy of my notice and fought my love for Elizabeth, the more havoc was wreaked. One day, you had eloped with Lydia, abandoned her, and she bore your child. I never knew. Bingley and I had left the area and saw nothing of the Bennets for years.”
Wickham scrubbed a hand over his face. Would he do something like that? Probably. What was Darcy’s point?
“However, there was another day when you were not involved at all. Mr. Collins had died, and Bingley could not court Jane because she was in mourning.”
“What are you getting at?”
“The things we experience during this time loop are only glimpses of what might have been. When I fought returning to Hertfordshire, I made everything worse. When I insulted Elizabeth in a proposal, you attacked us that very night.”
“You blame yourself?” Wickham’s mouth hung open. He had always known Darcy took on too much responsibility, but this was the height of stupidity. He could not play on his guilt this time.
“No.” Darcy shook his head. “Lizzy is teaching me not to blame myself for everything. No, I merely mean to say they were only what might have been.”
Wickham continued to stare at Darcy, uncertain what he meant.
“You are not mad, George,” Darcy said with a sigh followed by a small smile. “Neither are you a murderer. Your actions that night propelled me and many others into better decisions, but they are not a reflection of what you absolutely are. You have a choice.”
“I have a choice?” It felt like a thousand pounds had been lifted from his shoulders.
“Get on that boat and change your life.” Darcy pointed out the window before exiting.
Wickham followed suit. It suddenly occurred to him how alone he was in the world. The man who could have been like a brother to him now saw him go with no regret. Not one soul in England would miss him. Yes, it was time to change.
Settling for a nod to Darcy and Gardiner, he walked up the gangway to the boat and was directed to the correct chamber. In the distance, he heard church bells ringing, and Wickham had no choice but to collapse in his bed as his senses swirled.