Carol Cromlin

Jane Austen's Men


Fitzwilliam Darcy was born into a family whose lineage spanned many centuries of refined and noble blood lines. At the age of eight and twenty, he stood as patriarch of the much esteemed, Darcy family. This monumental responsibility would have been, to some, a burden too great to bear; but Darcy, throughout his entire life, had been most carefully prepared for his duty. To him, it was simply what Providence meant him to do. That he did it creditably, at so young an age, lent him tremendous distinction.

Having since a child, been given to keen observation and deep reflection, Darcy was universally recognized as a man of extreme gravity and taciturnity. Knowing the circumstances of his life, one would most certainly understand from whence came these traits. Alas, there were amongst his acquaintance some in want of such knowledge.



Falling, more than sitting, on a trunk that stood next the door, Wickham thought, “I am challenged!  Great God, I am done for. I must find a way out. There has to be a way out.”

It would seem injury was to follow close upon injury, for Wickham soon realized he knew but one man who would feel obliged to acquiesce if asked for his assistance, and that was the very man in whose debt Wickham least wished to be. He thought harder, but there truly was no one else. Knowing there was nothing for it, Wickham betook himself to Darcy’s rooms. He rapped loudly at the door and even as it was but half way open he sprang in, letter in hand.

“I have been challenged.” he exclaimed.

Still further injury was to be visited upon him, for Darcy was not alone. He and his cousin had only just returned from a day’s shooting on the fens. Rennie, who had been industriously cleaning his fowling piece at the far side of the room laughed and without turning about he joked, “What are you playing at Wickham? I do not doubt there have been many occasions in your life when you ought to have been challenged, but you are far too artful to ever actually get caught out.”

Wickham certainly did not wish to tell his tale before Rennie, but he had not the luxury of awaiting a more opportune time. Despite the gravity of the situation he attempted to assume a bit of swagger and continued, “I would not joke about a thing like this. I have been challenged to a duel.” Actually speaking the fateful words had affected Wickham severely. At the last, his voice had even cracked slightly.

Rennie, in some surprise, stopt what he was doing and turned round. To Darcy, who had been watching Wickham since letting him in, the man’s distress had been evident. Handing Wickham a glass of wine, he said, “Here; this should help steady your nerves.”

Wickham sat to table and drank the glass down, refilling it for himself when it was empty. Some time, and quite a bit more wine was wanted before he could recover the disorder of his mind. When he was no longer able to avoid the issue, he began again. “What has happened is certainly not as I would have wished… None of it is…” With a forced chuckle he concluded, “You see, I really have not much idea how it all happened.”

Darcy’s back stiffened and he replied, “How can you possibly, ‘have not much idea how it all happened’ when you have evidently embroiled yourself in some very serious affair. It would seem you have greatly overreached yourself.” Wickham went again for the wine bottle but Darcy removed it from the table demanding, “Speak.”

Rennie, who had been keenly observing the scene advanced, saying, “I’ll take that.” and accepting the bottle from Darcy, refilled his own glass as he walked to a chair at the edge of the room in which to settle himself for what promised to be some fine theatre.

Finally Wickham began, “Last night I supp’d at the Hall.”

“That is a credible start.” Darcy thought. He did not have to ask which Hall, for of course Wickham should find his way – and often – to the one particular Hall at Cambridge which at that time had the misfortune to house students of a most riotous nature.

Ignorant of the unspoken censure he had elicited, Wickham continued, “I was playing at Loo and I had been losing far more than I ought, whilst others kept winning more than they ought. After I had been looed for a second time I was in sad straits for somehow it seems to have been decided that we were to play at Unlimited Loo – or so it was said.

Well, that is when I started to watch more closely. Hopkins was always fiddling with his cards. He kept dropping them and having to pick them up again so that I was sure he was somehow switching cards. Smyth and the others said nay but how else could he have kept winning? I was convinced of it and I said so.” Flinging the letter crossly onto the table, he concluded, “Now I find I am challenged for having defended my honour against a cheat! Hopkins has named his seconds, and now I must find seconds of my own.”

The thought of Wickham as innocent victim was not particularly easy to comprehend but Darcy was willing to reserve judgment for the time being. “What sort of man is this Hopkins?”

“He can be pleasant enough when he is sober but drink changes him.”

Darcy was determined to ignore the supreme irony of Wickham’s words, but seeing his cousin lift up his eyes, it became difficult to school his features, “And what of Smyth and Williamson?”

“They are friends to Hopkins but I have had no quarrel with them.”

“Were they playing as well?”


“And were they amongst those who kept winning?”

“They won, yes; but not near so much as Hopkins.”

Taking up the letter, Darcy read and offered, “You are not challenged outright for it appears a simple apology will satisfy this Hopkins fellow. I beseech you to consider apologizing, for if you did publicly call the man a liar, you are lucky you find yourself with an option.”

“But he cheated me. I am sure of it and if I apologize I will be taken for the greatest fool. I will not be able to shew my face in town again.”

Darcy wondered at the absurdity of the whole situation. “George, are you truly willing to risk being sent down now? You are almost finished at Cambridge for it is already well into March of your Questionist year. At the end of the month we all leave for Easter vacation, after which you will have a mere three months left before you take your degree – if you have managed it. You have kept all your disputations, I hope?”

Rennie interjected, “Good question, that. There was no ‘Wickham’ entered on the backs of the first tripos papers. But then, perhaps you will pass on Thursday and make it onto the second.”

Wickham replied simply, “That is taken care of.”

Darcy looked askance at Wickham but not wishing to invite information he would regret being privy to, he simply proceeded, “Then you are soon to finish at Cambridge and need never find yourself back in it again; not in the university, the town or the county. Can you not resolve to keep to a smaller society for so short a space of time as three months?”

“I see no reason why I should.” When buoyed by drink, Wickham could be intractable.

Rennie, swirling his wine and looking nonchalantly into space interjected, “You do know, I presume, that many gentlemen keep a fine Spanish blade and when one keeps his blade well oiled and polished, it can in one swift stroke quite easily slice through to the bone. I myself have actually seen a swordsman have a devil of a time to pull his blade free again… But then, I hear the preference these days is for pistols. How are you with a pistol?” Rennie knew full well Wickham was proficient with neither sword nor pistol and he certainly had carried his point for Wickham was now as pale as a corpse, but alas, sitting in the presence of two other young men, how was Wickham to back down?

“I guess I shall just have to take my chances.” he declared.

Exasperated, Darcy tried a new tack. “You well know that in Loo, play moves forward largely as chance may direct; besides, things are not always what they appear, so it is possible you may have been mistaken. You said no one else saw things as you did. Are you ready to die in defense of what may be a false claim?” Wickham gave a start at the word die but he obstinately maintained his resolve. Clearly he would not be prevailed upon by logic so Darcy gave over the argument for the time being.

Thinking on how untoward a situation Wickham must have embroiled himself in Darcy was mortified, for all of Trinity, nay all of Cambridge more like, knew of his unfortunate connection with Wickham; it seemed the harder Darcy worked to preserve his family’s good name, the more Wickham did that could besmirch it. Some of Wickham’s past offences crossed Darcy’s mind and this consideration compelled him to address the issue of propriety. “Wickham,” he said, “I cannot begin to fathom how you can so far have insinuated yourself into the circles of a gentleman as to now find yourself in this situation.”

More and more lately, the topic of Wickham’s lower birth was become an irritant to him and thus baited he was quickly set off. “Your own father finds my company more than suitable. Why should not every other gentleman?”

“Take care what you are about Wickham. You may be tolerated and even thought amusing by my father; you may be suffered to move amongst some of his connections, but do not think it anything more than the extreme kindness of an extraordinarily good man.”

Wickham smirked and said, “Your father is hardly alone in acknowledging me and finding my company agreeable. I have moved freely amongst the first circles since arriving at Cambridge.”

“The sovereigns you place upon the card table will be just as welcome as the next man’s coin, but it is folly to reach too far above yourself. If Hopkins has challenged you he must be a gentleman. If he is such, you very well know that if blood is shed over this matter you alone will find yourself held accountable by the law.”

Wickham was now nearly beside himself. He wanted very much to refute anything Darcy could put forward, but here he was stymied. He had not considered this point, yet he did know it to be true and that angered him. Pride, that sometimes false friend, led him to respond, “Do not worry about me Darcy. I can take care of myself.”

Darcy held his tongue but Rennie saw no reason to follow suit. “Excellent care you have taken thus far.”

Wickham pursed his lips but thought better of responding. Rennie was not one with whom he chose to match wits.

Darcy asked, “Have you considered the likelihood you shall either be fatally wounded, else brought before a magistrate for having done harm to a gentleman?”

Wickham said under his breath, “I wonder which outcome would better suit you?”

Wickham could be so thoroughly vexing that it was difficult not to reply in high words, but Darcy managed to rejoin evenly, “I am trying to make you see sense!  For all you know, Hopkins may be an excellent shot. If he is, there is a high probability you will be seriously injured and likely killed. If you kill him, you will be hanged; either way, what is there of good in it for you?”

“Should I die, there will be an end of it, but if I live, I will be raised up by having defended my honour against a gentleman.”

Darcy now asked, “But at what cost? The odds are seriously against you.”

“So have they been my entire life.”

Darcy was speechless. “Never in your life have you been denied anything. For heaven’s sake, four years of a gentleman’s education have just been lavished upon you. You ungrateful wretch! How can you dare make such a statement?” Not only was it thoroughly delusional, it was supremely insulting to the entire Darcy family. It was at that precise moment that Darcy’s disappointment in Wickham turned to outright indignation and his feelings warred within his breast for insincere and ungrateful as Wickham was, Darcy could not, would not, just throw him over. He had to support him; it was what his father would expect.

With artificial calm, Darcy asked, “Wickham, are you sure this is what you want to do?”

“It is what I am forced to do.”

“Really?” asked Rennie. “I see no vise round your head.”

You may not see it, but I feel it.”

Rennie replied coolly, “That is no vise you feel. It is drink.” Without giving Wickham time to respond, he continued matter-of-factly, “As the challenged party, it is for you to chuse the weapon. What is your choice?”

After some deliberation Wickham said, “Pistols, I think.” for he felt he had a better chance of survival with pistols.

Rennie continued, “It is also for you to provide the weapons. Have you a set of dueling pistols, Wickham?”

“Do not make sport with me Fitzwilliam. You well know I have not.”

Rennie said, “I am sure I can get my hands on a pair for you.”

“Thank you, but you need not sound so gleeful.”

Rennie replied in a most patronizing way. “Not gleeful; I am only pleased to be of assistance.” Wickham deserved a barb after the insult he had thrown at Darcy and as Darcy had not taken the bait, his cousin was more than happy to step in.

By refusing to apologize, Wickham had officially accepted the challenge and so it was decided that Darcy and Rennie would act as his seconds. There was little left to discuss after that so Wickham soon took his leave. No sooner had Wickham’s footsteps faded down the hall than Darcy observed, “This is grave indeed. He will be killed and I shall have his blood on my hands because I could not stop him.”

“He does not wish to be stopt; or so he now thinks.”

“Had I carried my points more effectively, could not I have made him think differently?”

“Not likely, but be not alarmed. He shall live.”

“How can you be so sure?”

With a wry smile, Rennie said, “Because I shall see to it. We provide the weapons and decide the place…  He will live. That I warrant you.”

“I would not ever doubt your veracity Rennie, but I am afraid I cannot share your confidence. You know what a poor shot Wickham is.”

Chuckling, Rennie said, “He is an abominable shot, but you must have faith in your cousin Rennie.”

There was no logical reason why this statement alone should have brought Darcy such relief as it did but he trusted his cousin; implicitly. His spirits began to lift almost immediately. “By the bye,” Darcy asked, skeptically, “have you truly seen a swordsman have to pull his blade free?”

“Of course not!”

Darcy laughed then and accepted the offer of his own wine that Rennie held out to him.