Welcome to the third excerpt from my Pride & Prejudice alternate history! My plan is to post the first quarter of the book in weekly segments. That’ll take you through the point which will answer some of your biggest questions.
Elizabeth continued to limp for the remainder of the evening, but in the morning she declared her ankle much improved. Otherwise her imaginary injury might interfere with her visits with Jane, and she did not want that.
Fortunately she was still in the house when Mr. Bingley called to inquire after her recovery. It was a remarkable civility on his part, given that he knew she had not been injured at all, but Elizabeth was not inclined to complain.
Mrs. Bennet could not contain her excitement at this apparent sign of interest in her least favorite daughter, so after the briefest possible conversation, she suggested that Elizabeth should show Mr. Bingley the gardens. He accepted with alacrity.
Once outside, Elizabeth said, “I apologize for my mother’s assumptions. Pray be assured I have no expectations of you or anyone else.” Would he realize she was referring to Mr. Darcy?
He laughed good-naturedly. “How could I have expectations when we established last night that Darcy has staked a claim to you?”
“Do not mention that! It is beyond embarrassing.” cried Elizabeth.
“He would have come with me today except that he dislikes leaving his sister alone in a place she does not know well. After going out last night, he felt he should stay with her today.”
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. “He sounds like a most devoted brother.”
“He is. He keeps Georgiana with him wherever he travels. She feels safer that way.”
Elizabeth was in no mood to hear praise of Mr. Darcy, but Mr. Bingley’s words gave her an idea. “I have a sister to whom I am devoted as well. I wonder if I might take advantage of your amiability to impose upon you to meet my sister Jane. She is so very isolated, you see, and the sight of a new face would cheer her immensely. I daresay she is quite sick of Charlotte and me.”
“I cannot imagine that to be true, but if you think it would please her, I would be more than happy to provide whatever amusement I may.”
“I thank you! It will brighten her day. But I pray you, do not tell her about the events of last night. It would upset her greatly.”
“Of course not.”
When they reached the empty stables, Elizabeth told Bingley to wait at a distance before she knocked three times at the door.
Jane opened the door with a smile. “Good morning, Lizzy!” She stepped back to allow her sister to enter.
“Actually, Jane, I have a surprise for you. Would you like a visitor?”
Jane stiffened. “Is she someone you trust? Should I prepare?” She ran her fingertips down her cheek to indicate putting on makeup.
“No. He knows the truth, and yes, I do trust him.”
Her sister’s cheeks grew pink. “In that case, I would be delighted to meet him.”
Elizabeth signaled to Mr. Bingley. He came forward with his customary amiable smile, but then his face took on a stunned expression which gave Elizabeth great satisfaction. Jane’s hair had grown back enough to frame her face with golden curls. It suited her, and in a few months it would be long enough to pass for one of the fashionable cuts popular in London. And nothing could disguise the beauty of her face and form.
“Jane, dearest, may I present Mr. Bingley, who has recently let Netherfield Park? Mr. Bingley, this is my sister.”
He bowed. “It is a very great pleasure to meet you, Miss Bennet, and an honor as well. Your sister has told me of your courage.”
Elizabeth led the way into Jane’s sitting room. “Mr. Bingley and his friend, Mr. Darcy, were kind enough to escort Charlotte and me to last evening’s assembly. I had the presence of mind to turn my ankle rather than dance with a particularly unpleasant partner, and as a result I learned that Mr. Bingley has a great deal of sympathy for ladies whom the French attempt to misuse. I am most obliged to him and to his friend for their assistance.”
Jane’s eyes took on a warm glow. “Then I am also in your debt, Mr. Bingley. I thank you for helping my sister.”
Mr. Bingley looked down at his feet. “Darcy deserves more credit than I do. It was his quick thinking that saved the day.”
“Then I owe him my gratitude as well. Would you care to sit down? I am sorry I have nothing to offer you in the way of refreshment.”
“That is my fault,” said Elizabeth. “I should have gone back for a tea tray, but I did not wish to lose the opportunity to introduce you.”
“And I am glad you did!” declared Mr. Bingley.
It was long past the half hour typical of the morning call when Elizabeth finally escorted a reluctant Mr. Bingley outside. With a hint of mischief, she said, “It was very kind of you to give so much of your time to Jane’s entertainment.”
He shook his head bemusedly. “It was far from a sacrifice. Your sister is an angel. That she should be forced into hiding and still retain such essential sweetness! I would not have believed it possible.”
“Jane has always possessed the talent to see the best in any person or situation. It has served her well of late. I fear I am more angry about her position than she is.”
“You may be certain I am angry about it as well!” Bingley frowned. “Is there no other choice for her?”
“None that Jane would consider. If she were to leave Meryton for any reason, Captain Renard would punish my father, so she chooses to stay.”
“Would it…” He hesitated, his cheeks reddening. “Would it be possible for me to visit her again? Only if she would like it, of course.”
“I think she would like it very much. I would be happy to accompany you there whenever you choose.”
“You are very kind.”
“You may ascribe that virtue to me if you like, but in truth I am thinking more of Jane. The days are long and tedious, and I could see how much having a new visitor today improved her spirits.”
Mr. Bingley’s pace slowed. “If having visitors is helpful to her, I know someone who might equally benefit from making her acquaintance.”
Not Mr. Darcy, please! “You do?”
“Darcy’s sister. She is also limited in her acquaintance.”
Did he truly think Mr. Darcy’s half-witted sister would be good company for Jane? Carefully she asked, “Would she have much in common with my sister?”
“I imagine quite a bit.” He must have seen something in her expression, for he added, “Oh! You have heard she is half-witted?”
Elizabeth looked away. “Someone mentioned it, I believe.”
“Miss Darcy’s half-wittedness is very much like your sister’s consumption.”
“But how…? Oh, I see. Yes, I imagine she and Jane would have a great deal in common.” It also might explain why Mr. Darcy seems to hover over his sister so much. What was he protecting her from? Was it a situation like Jane’s? “I am sorry to hear she has faced similar difficulties.”
“I do not know the details, but she had an unfortunate experience during the invasion which has left her quite fearful. The sight of a French uniform sends her into a fit of terror, so she never goes out without Darcy. He is the only one who can calm her. I am one of the few people outside their family who has even met her. Darcy hopes visiting me at Netherfield will be good for her. She has never stayed in someone else’s home this long.”
“Poor girl. Perhaps Jane would be a good influence on her.”
“I will speak to Darcy about it. If he does not object, I would be happy to introduce them.” Mr. Bingley beamed at the thought.
Elizabeth suspected Mr. Bingley would seize any excuse to come back to see her sister.
Darcy knew he was going to regret this. He had brought it on himself with his actions at the assembly, and now he had to follow through with the appearance of interest in Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Even if Bingley had not been so insistent about taking Georgiana to meet his new angel, Darcy would have had to make this journey to Longbourn.
But he could have traveled alone then, and that was half the problem. Elizabeth Bennet disturbed his peace of mind, yet he found himself craving her presence. He could not afford this sort of emotional turmoil. And he wanted to be alone with Elizabeth, not observed by Georgiana.
He had dreamed of her last night, of his Titania in the bluebell wood, but in his dream she had no pistol. Instead she held her hand out to him, beckoning him with that impish smile of hers. And he was all too ready to be beckoned.
Best not to think of the rest of that dream, though, not when he was about to be face-to-face with her. If Elizabeth ever discovered the content of that dream, she would slap his face and refuse ever to see him again. But even then, he would not go, because she was his Titania. Good God, now he was confusing dreams with reality!
Georgiana was watching him already, her finely arched brows drawn together in puzzlement as she twisted a ringlet around her finger. It was no wonder; he was not behaving like himself.
But the coach was drawing up in front of Longbourn, and it was too late to say anything now. “Georgiana, I suggest you remain here while I invite Miss Bennet to join us on a walk. I would rather avoid her sharp-eyed father at the moment and her mother is not to be trusted.”
“Very well,” said Georgiana. “But if this makes you uncomfortable, perhaps we should not plan to repeat the visit.”
“Let us see how it goes.” The rational part of his mind – the small, overwhelmed rational part – considered the visit a good idea. Georgiana had been chafing at the bit this last year, longing for the company of other young people and frustrated by her isolation. An overly serious and solicitous elder brother who watched her every move was not the sort of companion any young girl would wish for. But what else could he do? He had to keep her safe.
Perhaps an acquaintance with the two eldest Bennet sisters was what she needed. What he needed did not matter. He had given up the right to consider his own needs.
After the carriage drew to a stop, a footman opened the door and flipped down the steps. Georgiana carefully rearranged her expression into her well-practiced one of placid, bovine stupidity.
It was wrong that a fifteen-year-old girl should have to learn so well how to wear a mask. But there was so little right in their world. Why should one more wrong matter? When he tried to remember his own carefree days before his father left, it was as if they had happened to someone else, a long, long time ago.
He jumped out and rapped the head of his walking stick on the door of Longbourn. Elizabeth had used that stick the night of her supposed injury, and now he could not forget she had touched it. When a manservant opened the door, Darcy handed him a card and said brusquely, “My sister and I wish to inquire if Miss Elizabeth Bennet would do us in honor of joining us on a walk.”
“I will ask, sir. Would you care to come inside?”
“I prefer the fresh air.” It was impolite but he did not care. He could not leave Georgiana alone in a place where she knew no one.
The sun seemed to shine more brightly when Miss Bennet appeared wearing a bonnet and spencer. Good; she must be planning to join them. But he must remember to call her Miss Elizabeth, not Miss Bennet, since her elder sister was the true Miss Bennet. Miss Elizabeth. He liked the sound of it. And he liked seeing her altogether too much. He must not let anyone guess how much her mere presence lightened his heart.
“Good morning, Mr. Darcy.” Her smile was cautious.
“Thank you for joining us. May I present my sister to your acquaintance? Georgiana, this is Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
Georgiana descended from the carriage and curtsied clumsily. She spoke in the strange, flattened voice she employed when playing the half-wit. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”
Had he not made it clear to her that Bingley had already told Miss Elizabeth the truth? Then he looked back over his shoulder. The manservant stood in the doorway watching them. Georgiana was simply being careful, just as he had taught her.
Darcy turned back to Elizabeth. “Bingley told me you enjoy long walks but often lack the company to take them. We came to offer our services in that regard. May I hope you will consent to accompany us?”
“I would be very glad to do so. I am indeed a great walker when I have the opportunity, which is not as often as I would like.” An odd wistfulness within her voice.
Why could she not take walks? “It is my special pleasure, then, to share one of those rare occasions. Since I am new to the area, I do not know the best walks hereabouts. Perhaps you could recommend a route?”
“I would be happy to. One of my favorite walks begins this way.” She gestured towards an old track which disappeared behind a row of trees. As they set off together she added in a low voice, “If Mr. Bingley sent you, I assume you must be here to meet my sister. Is that correct?”
“We hope to meet her, but she is far from the only attraction here.” Despite Bingley’s praise of the mysterious sister’s beauty, Darcy could not help thinking he would prefer his own Titania.
Miss Elizabeth looked past him towards Georgiana, who had dropped her half-wit role. “Tell me, Miss Darcy, does your brother always flirt with the ladies he meets?”
Georgiana’s quick shake of her head showed her disbelief. “William? He never flirts. Ever.”
“Truly? How interesting. What say you, Mr. Darcy?” The teasing glint in her eyes was a challenge.
His lips twitched. “It would depend upon the lady. I am quite selective.”
“And thus you answer my question! Now, if you will come this way, Jane’s rooms are at the back.”
He followed her past a series of empty stalls. Had they built a new stable or were all their horses taken by the French? Most likely the latter.
A golden haired woman opened the door that Miss Elizabeth knocked at. For once Bingley had been correct about Miss Bennet’s beauty, although Darcy preferred more liveliness in a woman’s expression. He fought the urge to rest his eyes on Miss Elizabeth. He should be focusing his attention on Georgiana.
As Elizabeth made the introductions, his sister seemed to manage well in the conversation despite her limited experience with strangers. Until the last year or so, she could not be trusted not to blurt out something inappropriate or dangerous.
Miss Bennet seemed a safe sort of acquaintance, especially as she was not in a position to spread gossip. She was almost maternal in her behavior towards Georgiana, gently drawing the girl out. If Georgiana liked her, this could indeed be a step forward.
After a short time, Elizabeth said, “Mr. Darcy, you are very quiet. I hope we are not boring you.” It was a challenge, no doubt about it.
“Not at all. I simply prefer to admire the conversation rather than to participate in it.”
Georgiana bounced in her chair. “He means he is too busy watching over me. Do go away, William! I do not need to be hovered over every moment.”
He did not know if he was more annoyed by her presumption or pleased to see her show some liveliness. He gave a slight bow. “If you wish.”
Miss Bennet said hurriedly, “I have hardly had a chance to exchange a few words with your brother. If he is to leave now, I hope we will have another chance to meet soon.”
Georgiana bit her lip, a stricken look in her eyes. No doubt she was worrying as she always did that someone would be angry at her for any slight mistake.
Elizabeth rose from her chair with a laugh. “Whereas I thank you, Miss Darcy, for sending your brother away, for now I can insist on his taking me on that long walk he promised earlier.”
“It would be my very great pleasure,” said Darcy. How neatly she had turned that situation around! “Georgiana, if it is acceptable to Miss Bennet, I will return later for you.”
He followed Elizabeth out of the stable. “Is there anywhere in particular you would like to walk, Miss Elizabeth?”
She studied him assessingly. “We should not be gone for too long, so it cannot be a lengthy walk. Might we visit the puppies? I have not had the opportunity to check on them for several days.”
The air around him seemed to lighten. “Queen Titania, your humble servant would be delighted to escort you to your bower.”
Darcy looked up from the puppy who had engaged him in a ferocious game of tug-of-war over a stick. “Is this her first litter?”
“Yes, and it cannot be easy to manage with so many puppies.” She picked up a particularly tiny puppy and put it to nurse on its mother. “But not, I imagine, as hard as caring for a girl at the most difficult age. Have you been responsible for your sister for long?”
“Almost six years, ever since my father left. He had planned for Georgiana to live with my aunt and uncle, but when my uncle suffered an apoplexy, I had to take over. And she is right; I do hover over her.”
Six years ago? He must have been little more than twenty himself. Then his words struck her. “Your father left?”
Mr. Darcy gave her a long serious look. “Yes. He went to Canada in ’05.”
A large landowner moving to Canada? It made no sense. Unless… “With her?”
The corner of his mouth twitched down. “It is not illegal to say her name. Yes, he accompanied Princess Charlotte when she was spirited away to Canada for safety, poor girl.”
“I have wondered who went with her. At such a young age, it must have been very hard for her to leave her family and country.”
“Yes, and now the family she left behind no longer exists. Her grandfather, King George, is a madman imprisoned in France, ruling in name only. The princess would have been executed like her father, the Prince Regent, had she remained here. But she still has lost her place in the succession, with Napoleon’s brother declared heir to the throne in her place and married to King George’s youngest daughter as a sop to English pride.” Darcy’s upper lip curled.
“I do not accept that, nor does anyone I know. According to English law, Princess Charlotte is still heir to the throne.”
“But there is no English law now, only a scared little girl half a world away, with the entire country waiting for her to save them when neither the king nor the military and naval might of England could do so. Perhaps they think she will bring the French to their knees by throwing her dolls at them.” Bitterness edged his words.
Was that his true opinion, or was he repeating his father’s words about the princess? She supposed Darcy had a right to be bitter, having been left to raise his young sister alone and to care for the family estates in face of an invasion. “Is your father still in Canada?”
“He died last year.” He sounded indifferent, but she had already learned he had hidden depths. “I should not have told you any of that. As far as the world knows, my father died in the invasion.”
“You may be certain I will say nothing, but I am sorry for your loss.” She understood his desire for secrecy. If his father’s actions were known to the French, both Darcy and his sister would have been in grave danger. Others had been guillotined for less. Still, it was baffling. His father had been loyal enough to go into exile rather than live under French rule, but his son had become a turncoat. It did not make sense.
“It is better if everyone believes he died long ago. It is simpler that way.” He wrestled the stick away from Puck, who immediately sent up loud yapping.
There was something missing in this puzzle, but Elizabeth had already pried far more than was polite. “I cannot believe how these puppies have grown in just a few days! I wish I could see them every day to watch how they change.”
“But you cannot?”
She picked up a puppy and kissed its head. “I do not travel this far from Longbourn without the pistol, but often it is not available to me.”
It was just a fact of life. So why did it make him frown so ferociously?
Darcy minded his tongue as he and Elizabeth returned to the stable. He had told her too much, and it had to stop. No matter how well-meaning Elizabeth might be, she was not in the habit of disguising her feelings or considering what she said before it left her mouth. But she was far too easy to confide in.
When had he started thinking of her as Elizabeth?
It was hard to see anything at first when they entered the dim stables from the bright sunshine. Elizabeth halted beside him with a sharp indrawn breath.
“Is something the matter?” he asked.
She put a finger to her lips and gestured towards one of the stalls, now occupied by a large bay. “Someone has been here.”
In this at least he could reassure her. “That is Bingley’s horse.”
Her shoulders lost some of their stiffness. “I see.” But her voice still trembled. She had been well and truly frightened. A rush of anger filled him. She should not have to worry so much.
Bingley, of course, was in Miss Bennet’s tiny sitting room and looking as enamored as Darcy had ever seen him. Georgiana appeared to be at ease. A good sign.
Elizabeth halted in the doorway. “How lovely to see you with so much company! I will fetch your tea tray.”
Was she displeased to find Bingley there? He could think of no other reason why she would try to leave the moment she had arrived. Then he noticed there were only three chairs available in the room. Perhaps she was being tactful.
“Might I accompany you?” asked Darcy.
She paused in the process of leaving. “If you wish.” But she sounded puzzled.
“Yes, I wish,” he said firmly.
Once outside, she turned to face him. “This is a perfectly safe walk. I do it twice a day.”
“I do not doubt it. But neither Bingley nor Georgiana wish to divide your sister’s attention with me. This was a simple way to give them their wish.”
“Oh.” She sounded satisfied by his answer. “Is it your opinion Mr. Bingley might continue to call on my sister? Not as a suitor, of course but as a friend?”
Had she not seen Bingley’s besotted look? “I would be surprised if he did not.”
She hesitated. “Could you give him a message from me?”
She bit her lip. “It would not do for word to get out that Jane has regular visitors, and it will look suspicious if Mr. Bingley is seen regularly traveling past Longbourn. Could you tell him that if he continues down the track by the stables it will rejoin the road without passing the house? I do not intend to suggest he should visit her illicitly, just without fanfare.”
“I will tell him so and assure him this is not an attempt at entrapment.”
Now she looked shocked. “How could it be? Jane cannot marry. That would be tantamount to refusing Captain Renard. We would all suffer for it.”
“Are you still worried about Captain Renard on your own behalf as well?”
She hesitated. “I have heard nothing further from him.”
That was not the question he had asked. “If Georgiana wishes to visit your sister again, is the route you mentioned passable by carriage?”
“I would have to check. Parts of it are somewhat overgrown.”
“What if she and I called to invite you for a walk as we did today?”
“That would not be a problem, but it might take up a great deal of your time.”
“You forget I will be calling on you in any case to keep up appearances.” He tried to say it lightly.
She frowned and said nothing, but perhaps that was because they had reached the kitchen door of Longbourn. When she reemerged with the tea tray, he took it from her. Watching her do a servant’s work was intolerable.
After the visitors had left Elizabeth said to Jane, “I hope you found your visitors diverting.”
“Oh, very much so! I cannot think of when the day has gone so quickly. I am grateful to you for finding my new friends.”
“I am glad. What did you think of Miss Darcy? I did not have much chance to observe her.”
Jane hesitated, and then smiled. “I like her very much. She seems to be a sweet girl, even if she is unaccustomed to speaking to someone she barely knows. It seemed to be shyness rather than pride. Did you know she fences? I have never known a woman who fenced before.”
Apparently Mr. Darcy had unusual ideas for women’s education! “It is a rather shocking idea, but not without its appeal. Her brother told me she practices shooting, too.”
“She has ladylike accomplishments as well. She talked so enthusiastically about her love for Mozart and Haydn and how much she enjoys playing the pianoforte. Mr. Bingley said she has had little opportunity to spend time with ladies and he thought it would help her to know me. He is such a kind, thoughtful gentlemen.”
“I thought you would like him.” Elizabeth tried not to sound smug.
“Oh, very much! If only I had met him before all this, I think I might be falling in love with him.”
“After only two meetings?” Elizabeth teased.
Jane’s expression grew dreamy. “Sometimes you just know.”
So, the plot thickens, we have met Georgiana and Jane, and Darcy is finding it too easy to confide in Elizabeth. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Now all I need is a title – any ideas? I have a couple of possibilities, but none are just right. In the meantime, come back next week for the fourth part of the story!