Pamela Aidan

Duty and Desire

To my sons,

Nathan, Marcus, and Zachary —

my gift to the future

Chapter 1 

Natural Frailty

 “…through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.”

Darcy recited the collect for the first Sunday in Advent, his prayer book closed upon his thumb as he stood alone in his family’s pew at St.——— ’s. The morning had dawned reluctantly, appearing determined to shroud its rising with a fog drawn up from the snow-covered earth. It seeped, cold and pitiless, into the bones of man and beast and seemed to cling to the very stones of the sanctuary. Darcy shivered. He had almost forgone the services, his temper unimproved by the passage of the night, but habit had pulled him out of bed, and knowing his staff had arisen early in the expectation of his attendance, he had dressed, broken his fast, and departed.

His dark green frock coat buttoned high against the chill, Darcy surveyed the richly appointed hall, its architecture and furnishings encouraging his eye to travel upward to the soaring ribs of the ceiling and the grandeur of the colored light that streamed from the great windows. His gaze falling, he noted with little surprise that, although this day marked the first Sunday of that season of joy, the church was not overfull. It rarely was. Few of the families whose names graced sumptuous gifts of panel, stained glass, or plate deigned to grace the repository of their munificence with their actual presence. That, however, had not been the Darcy family’s practice. And although he stood alone, in his mind’s eye Darcy could well imagine his forebears in sober reflection in the pew beside him.

The first Scripture reading of the morning was announced, and Darcy opened his book to the selection for the day.

“Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law…”

The click of boot heels and rattle of a sword in its sheath echoed in the vastness behind him, distracting Darcy from the text. In the next moment, he was forcefully nudged down the pew by a scarlet-clad shoulder.

“Good Lord, it is wretched weather! Thought you might stay home this morning. Need to speak to you,” Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam whispered loudly into his cousin’s ear.

“Quiet!” Darcy whispered back tersely, half amused, half annoyed at Fitzwilliam’s characteristic irreverence. He skewered a corner of his book into his cousin’s arm until he surrendered and reached for it. “Here…read!”

“…if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself…”

“Ouch! Fitz. Is that bloody ‘loving thy neighbor’?” Fitzwilliam looked at him reproachfully as he rubbed his arm.

“Richard, your language!” Darcy murmured back. “Just read…here.” He pointed to the place, and Fitzwilliam bent his head to the text, a large grin on his face.

“…let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness…”

“That leaves out the Army,” Fitzwilliam quipped out of the side of his mouth. “Navy, too.”

“…not in chambering and wantonness…”

“Down goes the peerage.”

“Richard!” Darcy breathed menacingly.

“…not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.”

“Finished off the entire ton with that one.” Fitzwilliam glanced over his shoulder. “But none of them are about, so here endeth the lesson.”

Darcy rolled his eyes and then stepped heavily on his cousin’s booted foot, for which encouragement to piety he was rewarded with an elbow in his side. They sat down, Darcy putting space between himself and Fitzwilliam. Another grin flickered across the Colonel’s face as the two turned their attention to the Reverend Doctor’s sermon upon the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 21.

By the time the good Doctor came to the multitudes of Jerusalem spreading their garments and branches in the way, Fitzwilliam had leaned back and, with crossed arms, fallen into a pose that could well be mistaken for a nap. Darcy shifted his position, placing his boots closer to the foot warmers, and assayed to attend to the sermon, which had departed from the text and now drifted into the realm of philosophical discourse. It was rather the same sort of plea to the rational mind and self-interested morality that he had heard expounded innumerable times before. The “infirmity of the nature of man” was lamented, and the “occasional failings and sudden surprises” of the petty transgressions he was heir to lightly touched upon and softly laid at the feet of the “natural frailty” that resided in the human breast.

Natural frailty! Darcy stirred at the familiar expression and looked down at the tips of his boots, his lips compressed in an unforgiving line as he tested the appellative against his own experience at the hands of a certain other. The exercise produced unwelcome implications. Was he tamely to accept “frailty” as the explanation — nay, the excuse — for behavior as invidious as that which George Wickham had visited upon his sister, Georgiana, and himself? Was he expected to pity Wickham for his weakness, succor him? Resentment, as bitter as it was cold, reawakened in his chest, and the Reverend Doctor was attended to with a more critical ear.

“In such times,” intoned the minister, “we must lay hold of the unqualified mercy of the Supreme Being, who will, in nowise, hold us to an account so strict as to end in our disappointment, but who offers us now in Christ the cordial of a moderated, rational requisition of Divine justice. If sincerity has been your watchword and the performance of your duty has been your creed, then with justified complacency you may rest upon the evidence of your lives.”

Evidence! What complacency could Wickham’s “evidence” afford him? Surely, he is beyond any claim to mercy! Darcy’s umbrage protested, a niggling unease attacking the edges of his certainty. He leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest, mirroring in knife-edged attention what his cousin did in slumber.

“And, if exempt at least from any gross vice,” the Doctor continued, “or if sometimes accidentally betrayed into it, on its never having been indulged habitually, you may congratulate yourself on your inoffensiveness to your Creator and society in general. Or if not even so” — the Doctor delicately cleared his throat — “yet on the balance being in your favor or, on the whole, not much against you, when your good and bad actions are fairly weighed, and due allowance is made for human frailty, you may with assurance consider your portion of humanity’s contract with the Almighty fulfilled and the rewards of blessedness secured.”

Darcy stared at the pulpit, his mind and body forcibly communicating afresh to him the odium of Wickham’s deeds, and his re-animated rage forged new links in the chain of his soul-deep resentment. Would Wickham escape even the bar of eternal justice? “On the balance…not much against…fairly weighed…due allowance!” Wickham himself could hardly have pled his case with more eloquence and sympathetic appeal! Darcy’s jaw tightened — a dangerous, darkling eye the only relief from a chilling, stony countenance.

The Reverend Doctor continued. “To that end, ‘Know thyself,’ as the philosopher says, and in prudence of mind, conduct yourselves according to the advice of St. James as to useful good works and, certainly, in the performance of your duty. But always, my dear congregation, moderately, as befits a rational being. Thus endeth the lesson. Amen.” The Doctor closed his Bible upon his notes, but Darcy could not so easily shut up his roiling anger and indignation. His whole being demanded action, but he could neither move to relieve it nor guess what course would satisfy its demands.

The choir stood to sing, the rustle of their unison movements and the triumphal chords of the organ rousing Fitzwilliam from his inattention. He sat up straight and blinked, owl-like, at his cousin. “Did I miss anything?” He yawned as they came to their feet.

“It was much the same as always,” Darcy replied, averting his face from his cousin, who would need but a glance to know something was amiss. Taking advantage of Fitzwilliam’s ritualistic endeavors to shake loose from the effects of slumber, Darcy slowly retrieved his hat and book. A diversion was required. With a studied carelessness, he turned to his cousin. “Save for when His Grace, the Duke of Cumberland, ran down the aisle, confessing to the murder of his valet.”

“Cumberland!” Fitzwilliam’s eyes sprang open, and he swiveled halfway round before catching himself and turning on Darcy. “Cumberland indeed! Badly done, Fitz, taking advantage of a poor soldier worn out in the service of —”

“In the service of the ladies of London, shielding them from the terrors of a moments boredom!” Darcy snorted. “Yes, you have my unalloyed sympathy, Richard.”

Fitzwilliam laughed and stepped into the aisle. “Shall you mind me stretching out my boots under your dinner table today, Fitz? His Lordship and the rest of the family left for Matlock last week, and I am sore in need of a quiet meal away from the soldiery. I think I’m getting too old for kicking up continually.” He sighed. “Settled and quiet would, I believe, answer all my ideas of happiness. In truth, it is beginning to appear highly attractive.”