Welcome to the fifth excerpt from my Pride & Prejudice alternate history! Next Tuesday, January 9, will be the final episode, so be sure to come back to find out the answer to your biggest questions.
Darcy was spending far too much energy counting hours until the next time he would see Elizabeth. His heart beat faster each time they approached Longbourn.
But on the next fine day, Elizabeth did not greet him with her usual warm smile. No, her expression was a shadow of that smile, a mere curving of her lips in an attempt to appear socially pleasing. Worse yet, her eyes were red-rimmed. She carried a basket over her arm. “Good day, sir. I hope I can persuade you to walk with me to Lucas Lodge. I have an errand to discharge there.” She indicated the basket.
He bit his tongue to stop himself from demanding to know what was wrong. What would have made Elizabeth cry? If the captain been bothering her again, Darcy would rip him limb from limb. But propriety demanded that he restrict himself to polite nothings. “I will be happy to escort you wherever you wish to go.”
After leaving Georgiana with Miss Bennet, they proceeded down the lane. Usually Elizabeth would find something to tease him about as they walked, but today she did not look at him. His attempts at conversation were met with brief responses.
Was she angry at him? Perhaps it was about his supposed French sympathies, but she had known about that all along. As they neared Lucas Lodge, he could not hold himself back any longer. “Has Captain Renard been troubling you?”
At least she turned her head towards him this time as she spoke. “I have not heard from him since the night of the assembly. I hope he has made no difficulty for you.”
“Not at all.” But that still did not explain her distress.
The gatehouse of Lucas Lodge was decked in black bunting. Darcy shot Elizabeth a look. “May I ask for whom they are mourning?”
“No one you have met. Charlotte’s brother John.” Her voice hitched. “In Spain, of course. They received an express yesterday.”
That must be the brother who had been conscripted into Napoleon’s army. Had his death been the cause of Elizabeth’s tears? The idea of her crying over another man stung. “I am grieved to hear it. You knew him well?”
When she said nothing further, Darcy asked, “Is this a condolence call, then?” It would leave him in an odd position.
“No. I called on them this morning. I offered to visit Mr. Robinson to spare Charlotte the effort. Usually the task falls to her.”
“It is kind of you to do it.”
“Ah, but was it kind of me to force you into helping?” This time her smile was genuine, if small.
Darcy had never been so grateful to be teased.
After they left Mr. Robinson’s cottage, Darcy said, “I had assumed you were making a charity visit to a poor tenant. I was surprised to discover the object to be an elderly gentleman instead. He reminded me of my grandfather.”
“Mr. Robinson? He is a neighbor who has fallen on hard times. He is a good-hearted man, even if he is forgetful, and we are trying to help in his time of troubles. Sir William Lucas has generously allowed him to live here.”
“What happened to him?”
Elizabeth scowled. “Captain Renard decided Mr. Robinson’s house would suit him as his residence. Mr. Robinson refused to leave, so he was arrested for treason. For reading The Loyalist, to be precise. Captain Renard agreed to let him go if he gave up the house. Of course, all his goods and money were still forfeit because of the so-called treason. Now he has nothing to live on but charity.”
“Damn the man!” Darcy’s face grew pale. “For what little it is worth, I have sent a letter to London complaining of his behavior, and I hope they will investigate soon. But there are too many like him, Frenchmen who have risen beyond their station and look at this country as their personal property to pillage at will, and I cannot request intervention on every single one.”
“I thank you for your attempt to help,” said Elizabeth. “But I do not understand you. If you feel so strongly about the French misusing us, why are you helping them?”
Darcy’s nostrils flared. “Because life is not simple. Because when the choice came before me, whatever I did would betray something or someone I loved. My aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, was killed when she refused to allow the French on her lands. Her invalid daughter now lives in Pemberley under my care. My uncle, the Earl of Matlock, suffered an apoplexy after the French took everything he owned, and he and his wife also came to Pemberley. Although he has long since left this earth, his wife still needs a roof over her head. My tenants and all my servants would otherwise face conscription and ruinous taxes. Should I have betrayed my family and my tenants for the sake of my precious honor as an Englishman? Or was I right to sell a portion of my soul so I could protect them all? My death would serve no one. It would not save a single inch of English soil.” He paused to stare at her searchingly. “But it does not mean I have to like it when I watch Napoleon’s dogs use Englishmen as their slaves.”
Taken aback by his sudden ferocity, Elizabeth said, “I did not mean to suggest you had no reason for your choice —”
“Yes, you did mean to suggest that, and ever since we met you have been implying that all I care about is money and my estate. The price I paid is far higher than money or land.” His hands were clenched and he was breathing hard. “Should I have let my invalid cousin die on the streets? Should I have left my aunt and uncle homeless and destitute? What would have happened to Georgiana? Starvation or selling herself to the French? Tell me you think I should have allowed those things to happen to protect my honor as an Englishman. Tell me straight out that you think I should have fought back at the price of all those lives. Tell me that, if you can!”
She hesitated. Could she have done it? She was willing to have her family lose Longbourn to protect her from Captain Renard, but they had family who could take them in, and she had never feared they might starve. Slowly she shook her head.
“You see?” Darcy’s eyes seemed to pierce her. “It costs you nothing to speak against the French. Nothing. No one will kill the people you love if you do. You cannot possibly understand my choices.”
Elizabeth’s throat tightened. “I… I am sorry. You are correct that I do not understand. I have seen so many gentlemen cooperate simply to maintain their standard of life. Even the Prince Regent accepted their rule as long as he could live in luxury at Carlton House.”
“And where is Prinny now? Guillotined after the London uprising. We have no army, no navy, no government, only a mad king held hostage in Paris – and we face the greatest military genius the world has known. One day Napoleon will die and his empire will disintegrate under its own weight, but until then, all we can do is to try to survive and be prepared to reclaim our country when we can.” He halted, rubbed his hand over his mouth, and turned away.
So the controlled Mr. Darcy had hidden passions. But it hurt to see him suffer, knowing it was her fault, that she had pushed him too hard and created this pain. “You are right,” she said, her voice low. “I do not like to admit how hopeless our situation is. I hate seeing our people bending their necks to the French yoke and groveling for favors from our conquerors. But there are no good choices.”
Still he kept his back to her. Should she say something else or would it only make it worse? Oh, why had she kept pressing him on his connections with the French?
Finally, when she thought she could not bear it another minute, he turned back to her. His face was devoid of all expression. “I apologize for my unseemly outburst. I freely chose my lot and I have no reason to complain of it.”
“Mr. Darcy, I would prefer to have you scold me then to pretend nothing has happened.”
“I wish I could oblige you, Miss Elizabeth; however, some matters are better not spoken of. Perhaps we should return to Longbourn now.”
They did not usually turn back so early, but Elizabeth nodded her head jerkily. She did not trust her voice. Only now that he had withdrawn his warmth and teasing did she realize how much it come to mean to her. She wrapped her arms around herself as if she were cold, but the day was warm.
She waited to see if he would speak to her again as they walked, but he was firm in his silence. Should she say something? Would a new subject be better or would that make it worse? If only she knew what to do!
Instead she formed a desperate resolve. When they reached the stable and he held the door for her, she stepped halfway through and then turned to face him, her heart pounding. “Shall I see you again after today, Mr. Darcy?”
His mouth twisted. “No doubt.” It sounded more like a penalty than a choice. “You would oblige me if you would forget every word I said today.”
With a weak attempt at a smile she raised her hand to her ear and mimed pulling something out of it. Opening her fingers as if to release the imaginary item, she said, “Poof! Gone.” Hot tears gathered in the corner of her eyes and she blinked them back.
But apparently he had seen them already. “No. I pray you… I cannot!”
She lifted her chin. Swallowing hard, she said, “Well, as usual, I cannot understand a thing you say. But Jane will be waiting.” She turned on her heel and walked quickly towards the back of the stable.
She did not look at him again, even after they were with the others.
In the carriage Darcy’s fingernails dug into the palms of his tightly clenched fists, but he kept them out of Georgiana’s view. What in God’s name had possessed him to open his soul to Elizabeth Bennet? After all these years of hiding his motivations from the world, he had been within an inch of telling her everything. Was he out of his mind?
What did it matter if she thought him the worst kind of traitor to his country? So did many other people. He knew the truth and nothing else mattered. Or at least it had not until Elizabeth Bennet looked at him with those accusing eyes.
All the reasons he had given her were true. They simply were not the real reason. If only he could tell her all of it! But there was too much at stake, far more than she could ever imagine.
Georgiana spoke timidly. “I am sorry if I have done something wrong. I do not mean to make you angry.”
He forced his hands to relax. “You have done nothing wrong and I am not angry with you,” he said warily.
“I know I am not always easy to be with or ladylike enough, but I will try harder. You do so much for me and I have done little enough to deserve it. I am very grateful to you.” The words seem to rush out of her mouth.
How he hated it when she became anxious like this! “Georgiana, truly this has nothing to do with you. I quarreled with Miss Elizabeth, if you must know. She disapproves of my politics.” He could not help saying it bitterly.
“Oh, no! That is the most unfair thing in the world! Should I tell her the truth?”
He froze. “Absolutely not! You are never to tell anyone the truth!”
She shrank away from his anger. When he become such a bully? He tried again. “I apologize; I am simply in a bad temper today. Perhaps I need more of a walk to settle my mind. Would you mind if I got out in Meryton and walked the rest of the way? You would be perfectly safe with John Coachman.”
If he left the carriage in Meryton, he would not subject to Georgiana to more of his temper. Perhaps he could even find a trinket for her in one of the shops. That might reassure her a little.
“Whatever you think is best, William.”
He forced his voice to be gentle. “Truly, I am not angry at you.”
The only problem was that it was not the truth.
He was angry with Georgiana, angry for all the secrets he had to keep on her behalf, angry at the compromises he had to make because of her, and above all angry because he could not have a future with a woman because of her. Because of Georgiana, Elizabeth Bennet was as far out of his reach as if she were on the moon.
There it was. And he was angry.
But it was not Georgiana’s fault. She had not asked for this situation any more than he had, and the price for her was just as high. And she needed him.
When they reached the town, Darcy rapped on the roof of the carriage to tell the coachman to stop. “I will see you back at Netherfield soon.”
“I will stay out of trouble, I promise you. I will practice my music the whole time.” Her eyes beseeched him.
He patted her arm as he opened the coach door. “I will look forward to hearing you play, but I am still not angry at you.”
He waved as the carriage pulled away. He needed to give her more independence. After all, what could go wrong in the two mile drive to Netherfield?
Highway men. A squad of French soldiers who would overcome John Coachman and the groom. A broken axle that would leave her stranded by the side of the road.
Now he wanted to race after the carriage and keep Georgiana under his eye for the rest of her life. But that was ridiculous. She needed to be more independent and this was a good time to practice that. If it made her nervous, that was something they would need to discuss. He needed a little independence, too.
Or was it just that he wanted independence? Had he agreed to let Georgiana visit alone with Miss Bennet because it was in her best interest or because he wanted to be alone with Elizabeth?
He knew the answer to that question. He had been selfish.
He ducked his head under a low lintel as he stepped into the milliner’s shop. Without much thought he chose a shawl for Georgiana in her favorite shade of green. He turned his eyes away from the silver one shot with red ribbons that would suit Elizabeth so well. She always dressed in drab colors, her hair pulled back without ornament. No doubt it helped her avoid unwanted attention from the soldiers, but Darcy wished he could see her when she was not deliberately hiding her attractiveness, when her dress and her hair could match the beauty of her fine eyes.
But there was no point in dreaming. Darcy made his purchase and left the shop, crossing the street to avoid a group of drunken French soldiers who were calling out at two young women whom he sincerely hoped did not understand French. He started off in the direction of Netherfield.
He had not even reached the edge of town when he heard a familiar mocking voice from behind him
“Well, well, well! If it is not the great Fitzwilliam Darcy trudging down a provincial road. How the mighty are fallen!”
Slowly Darcy turned on his heel. “Wickham.” He allowed his eyes to drift down over the French uniform his childhood friend was wearing and tried not to curl his lip. “I had not known you were in Meryton.”
“Or you would not have come here yourself? Is that anyway to greet an old friend? And you cannot ignore me when I am in uniform.” Naturally Wickham would enjoy that power.
Darcy raised an eyebrow. “How did you arrange to avoid being sent to the front like all the other English conscripts?”
With a cold smile, Wickham said, “I am more useful here as a translator, thanks to the gentlemen’s education your father gave me, both in French and how to speak with a proper accent.”
“A favor which you repaid by betraying his location,” Darcy said icily. It was a shot in the dark, but of all the people who had known where to find his father, Wickham was the most likely culprit.
“Unkind of me, I know, but I had to save my own skin first. Besides, I gather he escaped before the troops found him. Where did he go?”
So it had been Wickham. Darcy shrugged. “Killed in the first assault, we assume, and buried in an anonymous grave.”
“While you made a deal with the French! I would never have thought you would bend that stiff neck of yours, but perhaps we have more in common than I thought.”
Years of practice allowed Darcy to ignore Wickham’s insinuations. “As you say.”
“So I hear you are at Netherfield along with your sister. How is dear Georgiana? Perhaps I should take the opportunity to call on her.” Wickham’s eyes glittered.
He could not allow Wickham to see Georgiana, no matter the cost. “Georgiana is not out yet and cannot receive gentleman callers, even ones in uniform. It is not worth your while, in any case. Her dowry went to pay Napoleon’s special levy in ’08.”
“Raiding your sister’s dowry? Darcy, I am shocked at you!”
“Apparently you do not know me as well as you think,” said Darcy evenly. Someday he would strangle the life out of Wickham, but it would not be today. “Is there anything else?”
“Not for today, Darcy, not for today. But I will be keeping my eye on you, and I have Captain Renard’s ear.”
“How fortunate for you.” Wickham and Captain Renard were birds of a feather.
“It is not pleasant to be the one without power, is it? I can carry tales about you and you can do nothing. Quite the change from Cambridge. I have the upper hand now.”
Apparently Wickham was not as much in the French inner circles as he claimed, if he thought Darcy had no power left. “It seems to please you to believe so.”
Wickham smiled with the air of a cat who has cornered a mouse. “So you still have a few claws left. What a pity they will not protect you.” He tipped his military cap, smirked, and turned away.
Damn him! Damn the man! Openly admitting he had betrayed Darcy’s father to what he assumed to be his death? It had been mere luck that Darcy’s father had set off with the royal party for Canada before the troops came.
He strode out of town, failing to return the nods of people he had met. If only he could crush Wickham under his boot like the miserable insect he was! Bile rose in his throat. But he could not let fear get the better of him.
But he had to think. Wickham’s presence was a problem. Darcy’s secrets were well hidden, but Wickham always had a talent for finding Darcy’s weak point. The last thing he needed was more attention from the French. Now he would need to take even more care to protect Georgiana. Wickham had not seen her since she was a child and likely would not remember her well enough to cause difficulties, but Darcy could take no risks.
He knew what he had to do. He had to take Georgiana away from here. They had left other places for less than this. But this time something inside him twisted in agony at the idea.
Georgiana would not want to leave her friend Miss Bennet, but he could convince her it was necessary. It would be harder to convince himself to part from Elizabeth. The loss of her companionship that made him remember the man he used to be was the least of it, painful as it would be. No, what he could not abide was the fate he would be abandoning her to. His presence was all that kept Captain Renard away from her. Once Darcy had gone, Elizabeth would face the nightmarish choice of becoming the Frenchman’s mistress or allowing him to ruin her family.
Darcy pressed his palms against his forehead. He could not do it to her. He had no choice but to do it to her.
I did warn you things were about to go wrong! Thanks to all who have commented – your comments have been very helpful, not to mention encouraging as I try to finish this book!