Summary: Wilmot had fun in his life, but at what cost?
Pairing(s): Wilmot/Elizabeth Wilmot
Author's notes: Not mine, none of it is mine and aside from a couple of lines none of it belongs to anyone else since these people actually lived and history is open to all of us if not read by very many. Also, this is sad because the real events are sad.
Disclaimer #1: No profit made or sought in the production of this sad little gem.
John had to squint, trying to make sense of shapes in the dark miasma surrounding him.
In the distance a little to his left was a bed. Ah, yes. There was usually a bed.
He walked toward it, taking note of its occupant and wondering about the person lying there with back turned to him. John could not decide if it was a man or a woman, not that it mattered. He had bedded both with equal enthusiasm.
What did matter was an interesting optical illusion making it seem the more steps he took toward the bed the further away it became. John stopped, his eyes narrowing. Either his depth perception was failing him or something very strange was occurring.
He took another step, then another and one more for good measure watching as he grew no closer to his destination.
Very odd and entirely unamusing.
Irritated, John called out, but the figure in the bed did not move. He loudly cursed it having learned in his youth antagonism was difficult for would be ignorers to let pass.
The figure on the bed remained still.
Curious now in addition to irritated, John changed his approach. He took a step to the side. The bed's angle shifted as was natural. He took another step with the same effect and shortly was on the other side of the bed, if still just as far away from it, looking full face at the figure lying there.
What he saw gutted him.
Elizabeth. His Elizabeth.
Yes, two of his daughters and several mistresses were also named Elizabeth, but the poor soul festering abed was his wife.
The miasma faded like scales falling from his eyes and John was forced to face the unfacable.
Before entertaining any of the host of ideas attempting to consume him, John Wilmot remembered he had died.
He remembered the utter betrayal of his body, the pain, the blindness, the pervasive scent of his own rotting flesh. He remembered his sudden renunciation of atheism and embrace of the church he had once scorned. As part of his recantation he had asked his mother to burn his papers.
John remembered being abed, trapped in reeking agony, begging for the death he had always feared. He had broken before he died. Elizabeth had witnessed his destruction. She had sat beside him, touching him, reminding him of happier times. She retold the story of her abduction, a story he had always loved, at his request.
She was his first and greatest conquest, the prize of his youth, but when death came for him John willingly abandoned her story mid-telling.
He had not known she was ill, but he should have.
He had returned from Paris with kidney stones. The pain had been intense, but with treatment he had recovered. It was not long after he had gone home to meet his first child. He had been treated for kidney stones twice more before he finally admitted to himself he had the pox. By then he had produced three more children and, apparently, had passed on his disease to his wife.
"The fault is mine," he said aloud, tasting the words he had never been willing to say in life, but which governed this moment.
His Elizabeth had been a much sought after bride. She had fortune, breeding, spirit and an indefinable quality he had fallen for. There had been many lovers and fucks in his life, male and female, often young, occasionally rather old, and yet he had always returned to his wife. Even when he despised her neediness and her nagging, he had always known safety in her arms. Elizabeth had been special. He should, perhaps, have told her more often.
Looking at her now, John wanted to weep.
He had brought her to this. Elizabeth had always been thin, too thin in John's opinion, but she was little more than bones now. Her flawless milk white skin was fouled by sores and her nose was mostly gone.
There had come a point in his disease John fell victim to his vanity. He had the mirrors covered and refused to look at the ruin of his beauty. Blindness had been something of a blessing once his skin erupted with lesions that no longer healed.
If Elizabeth opened her eyes John knew they would be the abalone white of blindness and he doubted Elizabeth would see the blessing in it. She was far too practical to allow vanity to hold sway.
Did she finally hate him?
Were he honest about it, John wanted to be as loathsome in her eyes as he was in his own. First she had loved him, later she feared him, and in the end she had pitied him. He would have preferred to be hated.
God knew he deserved…
In the shadows he saw his children. He took several steps toward them, wanting nothing more than to fold them in his arms and remind them their father loved them.
He could not reach them. They remained as untouchable as his wife.
John sank to the floor, no longer able to stand.
Once his emotions were back under control he looked at his children, terrified of what he would see.
His eyes were first arrested by the Lady Anne, his first born and favorite, pretty as her mother, beatific in her grief. She had always been a joy to him.
After a long moment he turned his attention to his other daughters, Elizabeth and little Malet. Malet was too young to understand what was happening and she was struggling to free herself from the confines of her grandmother's arms. John smiled a little, seeing his own need for freedom in his youngest and it occurred to him he hoped his daughter found a purpose in her life. John never had.
He had come to see the world and his life as an endless, horribly unimportant and uninteresting series of moments devoid of meaning. Nothing mattered. His decisions and choices were ultimately inconsequential.
Although, looking at his family, perhaps he had assumed incorrectly. His decisions had certainly affected them.
John's eyes turned to his mother's face. Stoic as always but for a few tears, her face was much the same as it had always been. Not exactly beautiful, but arresting none the less, his mother had always been a force to be reckoned with. Anne St. John Wilmot, Countess of Rochester, the rock upon whom John had sought shelter, but found ruin. How often had he run to the brothels in defiance of her?
John had never thought his mother liked his wife and yet she grieved. Perhaps watching Elizabeth die was too familiar for her.
It would grow more familiar still, John realized looking at his son. Charles had been born sickly and John had always feared the cause.
John's head fell, his hair closing over his view of the floor. When his affliction had moved through a series of willfully unrelated illnesses John had refused to alter his habits. Later, when he had no choice but recognize the realities of syphilis, he had looked back on the previous years and seen his physical problems for what they were. He had still tried to pretend the only one suffering was himself, but now he was watching his wife die in the same horrible way and it was obvious his son would soon follow her into the afterlife.
He did weep then. He sobbed as he had only done once before in his life.
When he regained control of himself, John tried to find solace in his mother's presence. He stared hard at her searching for signs of weakness, but she appeared healthy. His children would not be without guidance or protection. She would see to them.
The Countess was a hard woman, a devout woman, and one who, no doubt, had set her mind against allowing John's children to follow in his godless footsteps. He had always admired her passion wishing he too possessed the capacity for absolute faith.
Where he lacked faith in God, he did have faith in is mother. He knew she would protect his children and ensure their fortunes and appropriate marriages. John's heart sank at the realization he would not see his daughters as brides or advise his son about the duties of a husband. He would never watch grandchildren at play or…maybe he would always seem them in this way.
Maybe this was his personal hell; to watch but never influence or touch. Perhaps he was damned to be the eternal spectator. If it must be, then let his mother guide them better than she had him. Let them be more malleable to her will…in some things.
Startled, his attention swung back to his wife.
Elizabeth's voice sounded alien to his ears and John faltered as he tried to move closer to her intent on offering what comfort the cause of her suffering could. Once again, he could get no closer to his wife. Frustrated, John circled the bed before returning to face his dying wife.
"John," she repeated, his name feeling like a knife to his heart.
He could not get to her, but his mother could and she moved to Elizabeth's side, taking his wife's pox deformed hand in hers. "Soon you will join him in heaven."
The Countesses words grated as they always had. John instantly questioned the validity of heaven and almost articulated his belief that this was hell. He wanted to throw her piety back in her face. His anger seethed within him and it was only the knowledge shouting would be fruitless which held his tongue.
"John?" His Elizabeth was staring past his mother's shoulder, milk white eyes pointed in his direction.
"Elizabeth," he whispered her name, unable to find his voice.
She smiled, revealing rotted teeth, and coughed. The fit went on for some time, too long, and when it passed she was left wheezing in painful squeaks that brought tears to John's eyes. With what breath she had she said, "I am not content, John."
Never a contented wife until he made her a much respected widow he had said. The cruelty of it was singular. How had he ever said such things to this woman? Wishing he could take her suffering onto himself John choked out inadequate words. "I'm sorry."
The smile on Elizabeth's face was that of a saint, luminous as a tear trickled down her cheek. John would have sold his soul to wipe it away.
"Elizabeth, Father Burnet is here to pray with you."
John turned to look and found his deathbed confessor moving toward his wife. Burnet was the angel of death come to take Elizabeth home.
For a moment John panicked. He was not ready to leave this woman. He did not want to let her go. It mattered not that he had no idea how he was here, why he was here or how long he would remain. All that mattered was being here with her, being able to admit he missed her, wanted her, needed her.
Burnet would free Elizabeth's soul, but where would that leave her husband?
Burnet took up residence beside Elizabeth as John sought a new position where he could still see his wife's face. He found a spot, but then his mother called his children to Elizabeth's side and he was moving again.
Unable to find a place that suited him, John gave up and sat on the floor, listening to Burnet tell Elizabeth things he had not told John. The words were different because the listener was different.
Elizabeth had always been faithful, though for the duration of their marriage she had been a catholic. Apparently she had abandoned Rome and returned to the protestant fold since last John had seen her.
He had returned from his Grande Tour of Europe with a taste for Rome and had insisted his wife convert though he did not. Were he honest about it, John knew it was not only curiosity but a need to force his headstrong young bride into a position of weakness. In a country brimming over with anti-catholic sentiment, her conversion made her a persona non gratta. She needed him to protect her from protestant indignation.
To lend power to the blow, John had insisted their children be raised in the protestant tradition.
Looking back, John realized Elizabeth had done many things at his insistence that she would never had done on her own. He had demanded much and given little.
A high keening sound knifed through his thoughts and he turned toward the sound finding his daughter Anne red faced and red eyed.
John acknowledged he had robbed his children of their mother.
His excesses had orphaned them.
Something wet and warm traveled the length of his cheek and John brushed it away, reminding himself he was not prone to emotional outbursts unbecoming his rank. It took him long minutes to realize he was praying with Burnet more ardently than he had at his own deathbed.
A hand caressed his face and John looked up, finding himself beside his wife, staring into blind eyes.
John put an arm over his wife's frail shoulder and moved in close to her ear while sending thanks to whatever power had decided he could be beside his wife. The moment was a beautiful one feeling her breath against his cheek, her hand on his arm and all John wanted was to take back the horrors he had inflicted on his wife. "For all that I have wronged you, you were my only true love."
"Speak to me of abduction," she whispered as her hand slid from his arm.
John smiled. Elizabeth had always thrown his words back at him and why not? They were the sharpest blade she could weald, death by a thousand cuts, his insight turned against him. He had never enjoyed arguing with his wife. No matter now. He would suffer the blow gladly if it brought her a moment's peace and himself a modicum of forgiveness. "You were a virgin heiress worth…." The money no longer mattered. It had not saved them. "Everything. I had to have you. I…."
"Worth 2,500 a year. You abducted me in your…" her voice was so quiet John could not hear her finish the sentence.
Her chest rose and fell and John found his attention arrested by the hope it would rise again, and again and she would keep living like she was supposed to….
His attention focused on Elizabeth's face, but it was slack and….and…lifeless….
"John, look at me."
He turned on his knees and stared up at the radiant beauty of his wife. His shock must have shown on his face because she giggled reminding him of years before when things had been easier between them.
"Did I finally surprise you, my love?"
"Elizabeth," he said her name like a prayer and wrapped his arms around her legs burying his face in the taffeta folds of her skirts.
Her fingers twined in his hair, gently combing through curls he had not possessed since his youth. His grip on her legs tightened and before he realized it he was sobbing into her knees and incapable of caring about the indignity of it.
"Oh, John," she sighed coming to her knees and putting her arms around his shoulders. He continued to sob into her chest.
"John, it's beautiful."
John heard her speaking close to his ear but was so consumed by the arms around him he could not care what she said. She was real and she was holding him. Nothing else mattered.
She sounded insistent and he cringed back bridling as always at being dictated to. He glared at her, but she was not looking at him. Her attention was turned to his left and the soft glow of…heaven?
She turned toward him again, her smile certain as if she had expected to see the light of a forgiving God in this moment and repeated, "John, it's so beautiful."
John stared at the light, soft, luminous, like a thousand candles swaying in a breeze and waited for it to burst into the flames he deserved.
She seemed to read his thoughts. "You are forgiven, John. The light is for you."
As always John wanted to believe. He stared at the reality of some sort of afterlife and wondered about it. Terrifying as it was for his inner Protestant child, John's intellect questioned the reality of God. Elizabeth would argue the light before him was the strongest evidence he would ever encounter and perhaps it was, but still John doubted.
He doubted his own deathbed conversion. A man would say anything while dying and John felt sure he had been the victim of fear, not faith. So if there was a God, he would not be seeing heaven's light, he would be engulfed in hell's flames.
He looked again at the light, undulating, inviting, and John asked himself were the balancing darkness was. He looked over his other shoulder but saw only the remnants of his family surrounding the shell of his wife. Surely that picture damned him.
A hand on his cheek returned his attention to Elizabeth. Her eyes were like the light. She had found peace. Love shined out from her, untainted by anger, doubt or greed and John shrank away from it. He did not deserve her love, her forgiveness.
Elizabeth sighed. "You have always questioned away life's opportunities, my love."
"I have never doubted you, Elizabeth." He snapped, feeling his anger rise.
She flinched but pressed on, "And yet you…"
John was on his feet, pacing away from her. He would not let her do this to him again. "Do you feel vindicated, my little martyr? I brought you suffering and death and now you weald the blunt edged sword of guilt as though my flawed character will fall before your righteous indignation. You are mistaken."
She walked to his side and the earnestness of her expression made him want to slap her. He restrained himself, but it was an effort. This woman he loved had always brought out the worst in him. He hated himself in her presence.
"John, I have no wish to fight. I seek understanding between us."
She sounded so reasonable and yet his reaction was to walk away, to refuse to listen. He did not want to understand her. He had spent years being tortured by her needs. Was he to spend eternity the same way? If so this surely was hell.
"We are yoked together in marriage and yet you have never shared the load. You sought to shield me from your burdens rather than let me share them, but I was never so fragile you needed to cloister me away and suffer alone."
She was never fragile and he had done little to shield her. He had made a few early attempts to hide his mistresses from her, but she found out anyway and it was easier to live in the open than hide from her disapproval. Instead it was she who hid from him. She stayed in the country, rarely joining him in London and always leaving after only a few weeks unable to stomach what she saw in town. "You hated London."
She shook her head. "It was never London I hated. It hurt me to see you struggle and seek solace everywhere but with me. It was not until after you…left me I realized my efforts to help only piled more expectation upon you. I gave you no choice but to love me from a distance. I have been a poor wife to you, but you must understand I have only ever loved you."
It was the first time Elizabeth had ever said anything so close to an apology and it moved him. Their relationship had always been contentious, a pushing, pulling struggle for dominance and control. At a distance they could work out a truce but together it was always a battle. There had been a time in the beginning when he was concerned with her needs and desires, but when she insisted he provide for them John had dug his heals in and made her go without. "I was a terrible husband."
"No, John. Let us speak again of abduction." She put a hand on his cheek, the lightest caress. "Consider, I was a virgin heiress worth a great deal of money and I was courted by many powerful men."
John had heard this before. If only she had married one of those stupid bastards….
"I was a much sought after bride and I watched men humiliate themselves for the chance of marriage. I became accustomed to men catering to my desires."
He knew all this. He had been there, watched the blathering idiots fawn over her and known the secret to winning Elizabeth Mallet.
"Then along came John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, dashing, handsome, brilliant and completely indomitable. Rather than submit to me like the others had, you abducted me. You took what you wanted, you asserted your will over mine and you made me love every moment of my submission."
It had been clear to him a grand act of passion would do it. She wanted to be swept off her feet so he had done. He had chosen abduction because it was passionate and more importantly, it set the tone. It said he would do whatever he had to do to get what he wanted. It said he was a free spirit, unexpected, wild.
The message of the act had been completely lost on her. She might have enjoyed the moment of submission but it was the last one not dearly earned. Since then he had had to break her to force her to submit and the effort hurt him more than he thought she knew. "Elizabeth…"
"No, let me finish. I have thought of nothing else since you left me. I knew you drank to numb the pain. I knew you bedded whores to escape. I hated how you only came to me as a last resort without understanding I had created the distance between us by never trusting you to lead."
She pressed a kiss to his lips and it was a struggle for John to accept it. She had stated what he had long known. He had never possessed the trust of his wife. At first he sought to earn it and later he decided to use the lack of it. If she already judged him guilty then why not be guilty? He did what he pleased with no thought of her feelings because she always assumed he was working against her interests anyway.
"I will trust you now, John. I will go where you go without argument or complaint."
Ah, he had heard that before and understood it for the manipulation it was. He took her shoulders and turned her toward the light asking, "And what of your precious light?"
She never so much as glanced at it, turning around in his arms and looking up at him. "Heaven for me is in the arms of a contented husband."
"I want to watch over my children, see to it my mother guides them better than she did me." He said immediately. It was part challenge, part sincerity. He did want to watch over his family. He was here. He could. And it was what he wanted. God and His light could wait.
Let Elizabeth show her true colors and leave him behind, he thought as the light began to fade.
She nodded and put her arms around his waist, burying her head in his chest. "Then so it shall be."
John's rock hard certainty of abandonment faltered a little as her arms squeezed around him and her lips brushed the hollow at the base of his throat. He took a breath and watched the light dim further.
Elizabeth never looked up but her grip on him grew tighter as the light went out.
John was gob smacked. Elizabeth Mallet, her pious ladyship, had elected to forego heaven to stay with her reprobate husband as a ghost in her own home.
"I love you, John." She whispered the words against his flesh and they hit him like a physical blow.
John's arms tightened around the tiny form of his wife and he buried his face in her hair feeling tears fall again. He had cried more in the last few hours than he had in his entire life.
After a long moment he looked up at his family, the reason he had denied Elizabeth heaven, and it occurred to him they would not be alone long.
Charles was pale as parchment, tiny and hunched, clearly in pain of a physical sort. The boy had been born with the pox, John's horrible gift to the next generation, his sins to be reaped by his children.
John was the angel of death for the Wilmot family. He brought death to his wife, soon to his son and God knew he had probably driven his mother to an early grave. He didn't know if he could bear to watch their suffering.
They should have gone into the light where, he assumed, he would not have had to watch his children die. He did not think he could endure it. He should not have asked Elizabeth to stay with him. "Perhaps when Charles…joins us, the light will come again."
"Perhaps." Elizabeth agreed.
"I'm so sorry." He muttered into her hair, hating the smallness of the words, the total inadequacy of them, but he could come up with nothing better.
"I know, John. So am I." She tipped her head up and kissed him without revulsion or hesitation. There was forgiveness in it and passion of a sort he had not felt from his wife in many years.
When the kiss broke she smiled with tears in her eyes. "We cannot change what has already occurred or what will result from past actions, but we can look forward to being reunited with our children. Think of how beautiful it will be to see them whole, beautiful and without pain. We have joy in our future."
"I never knew you to be an optimist, my dear."
"It is such a marvelous thing to be forgiven, how can one not feel optimistic?"
As always feedback pro or con is welcome. Thanks for reading! Cheers, Free