Sir William Lucas, his usually jovial face grim, strode into the sitting room at Longbourn. “Bad news,” he told Mr. Bennet, without even pausing to greet the ladies first. “Robinson has been arrested.”
Mr. Bennet’s eyes widened. “Arrested? What crime could the old fool possibly have committed? Losing his way?”
“He contested Captain Reynard’s plan to commandeer his house. The good captain has taken a fancy to it and wants it as his residence, and does not care that it has been in Robinson’s family for generations. When Robinson declined to be evicted and threatened to make a complaint to General Desmarais in London, the captain ordered his soldiers to search the house. They went through his newspapers and found a copy of The Loyalist. They say that is treason.”
“When did reading The Loyalist become treason?” asked Mr. Bennet mildly. “It is anti-French and illegal, to be sure, but a small bribe will convince the officers to look the other way. If reading it is treason, they will have to hang half the town.”
Elizabeth Bennet looked up from her mending, unable to keep silent. “I imagine it is only treason if you happen to possess something Captain Reynard wants. What is being done to help Mr. Robinson?”
Sir William mopped his brow. “That is why I am here. Bennet, I need your help. Captain Reynard has given me three days to talk sense into Robinson, and if he still will not give up his claim to the house, he will be hanged. Robinson is more likely to listen to you than to me. There is a small cottage at Lucas Lodge where he can live until he finds something else.”
Of course Captain Reynard would do whatever he wished, and the only question was how to convince Mr. Robinson to submit to the yoke. Under her breath, Elizabeth said, “If only I were a man…”
Her sister Kitty gave a derisive snort. “If you were a man and did all the things you say, you would have been hanged long ago.”
“Just think how much easier that would have made your life!” Elizabeth retorted.
Mr. Bennet pinched the bridge of his nose. “This situation is difficult enough without having squabbling geese underfoot,” he said sourly.
Elizabeth looked away. Her father might be able to accept everything the French did, but she could not. It had been easier in the first years after the French invasion, when she and Jane had lived with the Gardiners in London. She could almost have imagined nothing had changed – nothing except blue uniforms taking the place of red coats and people wearing clothes two seasons out of date owing to Napoleon’s levies to pay for his war. Not only did the English suffer defeat at the hands of the French, but they had to pay for the privilege as well.
In Meryton she could not forget the existence of the French garrison for more than a few hours. French soldiers were everywhere, pestering any girl they saw, exacting non-existent fees and fines to line their own pockets, and strutting about as if they owned the town. It was painful to watch them and say nothing, especially with all the suffering her poor sister Jane had endured.
“Will you help me convince poor Robinson to give in?” Sir William asked.
Mr. Bennet frowned. “I suppose I must.”
“Capital! I will drive you there.” Sir William lowered his voice. “On a happier note, I have met Mr. Bingley, our new neighbor at Netherfield. He is young and unmarried – a fine thing for our girls. A most amiable fellow, I would say.”
“Is he English?” asked Mr. Bennet.
“Indeed he is.” Sir William’s usual good nature seemed partially restored by indulging in gossip. “His money is from trade, so the French have allowed him to keep it. He has two sisters who do not care to leave the social whirl of London. Of course, before the French came their breeding would not have been good enough, but now they can mix with the highest circles. He will not be alone at Netherfield, though. A friend of his, a gentleman, will be arriving soon for an extended stay.”
“Is his friend unmarried, too?” asked Kitty eagerly.
“He is not married, but his young sister will accompany him. She is half-witted, they say.”
Poor fellow! It was good of him to keep his sister with him rather than sending her to an asylum. “Is he in trade as well?” asked Elizabeth.
“No,” said Sir William, dragging out the single syllable as if reluctant to say more. “He is from an old family with aristocratic connections. He owns a large estate in the north.”
A traitor, then. After the invasion, the French had taken their revenge on the English aristocracy and the landed gentry by confiscating all the grand estates. The only exceptions had been for property owners who agreed to cooperate with the invaders. So much for pitying the man! But she should make certain she had not misunderstood. “He still owns his estate?”
“He does.” Sir William waggled his eyebrows meaningfully.
Mr. Bennet removed his spectacles and polished them with his handkerchief. “Well, we can all guess the price he has paid for keeping it. Lizzy, you must take care if you meet him. Kitty, I am sure you care nothing for his politics since he is rich and wears trousers, but I would urge you not to trust him. I even begin to doubt this Mr. Bingley for having such a friend.”
Sir William nodded. “I quite agree with your caution, but I will withhold judgment for now. Perhaps this fellow and Bingley went to school together. Or it might have been his father who made the decision and he has but inherited it.”
“I do not think I could remain friends with someone who accepted such an arrangement,” declared Elizabeth. “It is hard enough to remain sisters with —”
“Lizzy!” snapped Mr. Bennet.
Kitty tossed her head. “If you wish to be a fool and throw your life away dreaming of the past, do not let me stop you. Some of us want a future and it is obvious where that lies. You may not like what Lydia has done, but you are happy enough to enjoy the benefits of it.”
“That is not true. You know perfectly well I would rather go into exile in Scotland with nothing but the clothes on my back than to accept luxuries under these circumstances.” How she envied the fortunate Scots who had nothing Napoleon wanted and therefore could keep their own country. “I would do more than go into exile to be free of French rule.”
“That is easy to say while you still have an excuse. You are just jealous of Lydia because she was the first of us to marry.”
“Jealous? Now that I can assure you I am not. How long until you decide to sell yourself, Kitty? Are you holding out for a higher price than Lydia?”
Mrs. Bennet bustled in. “Oh, you have no consideration for my nerves! Arguing like this where the servants could hear you! Would you have us thrown out into the hedgerows, Lizzy? Begone from my sight, you wicked girl!”
Elizabeth gathered her dignity around her and ignored Kitty’s smirk. “Happily!” She stalked away, her shoulders aching with tension.
Elizabeth carried the tea tray from the kitchen across the courtyard, past the empty stalls of the stables to the former tack room which had been converted for Jane’s use. She knocked three times — rat a tat tat— and waited while Jane raised the bar across the inside and opened the door.
“Teatime,” Elizabeth said brightly, carrying the tray into Jane’s tiny sitting room. “Not the swill that is all we can buy these days, but the last of chamomile I picked and dried last summer. I had it hidden in my room.”
Jane’s face lit up. “Bless you, Lizzy! I do not like to complain, but I can barely swallow some of that so-called tea. I think it must be tar and sawdust with a few leaves added to fool us into thinking it is real tea.”
“I cannot disagree.” There was no point in telling Jane that the tea Lydia served tasted just as tea should. Even so, every drop of it threatened to choke Elizabeth whenever she drank it. How could she enjoy tea purchased by a French officer?
Jane’s brows drew together. “What is the matter, Lizzy? There is no need to put on false cheer for me.”
“Nothing of importance. I quarreled with Kitty again. I should not let her provoke me, I know, especially since none of it compares to what you suffer every day. I do not know how you bear it!”
“It is not hard. Things could be much worse. After all, I have everything I need right here.” Jane poured out the tea into two cups.
“Except the freedom to leave these rooms!” Elizabeth said hotly. “Oh, I could just kill that man!”
“It would not help me for you to be hanged for murder. One of these days Captain Reynard will be transferred elsewhere and I will be able to go back to my old life. In the meantime, I have your visits and Charlotte’s to look forward to. It is not so bad.”
“I wish you did not have to be alone so much.” Elizabeth forced herself to swallow her rage. All it did was upset Jane, who had already suffered enough. “How is the tea?”
Jane lifted her teacup to her mouth. “Heavenly!”
Mrs. Bennet expressed a wish for fresh pastries from the bakery in town, so naturally her middle daughter Mary had to display her sense of charity by offering to fetch them. Unfortunately, that meant Elizabeth and Kitty were obliged to go with her. It was unsafe for a woman to walk alone these days, so perforce they had to escort each other. It had not always been that way. Elizabeth could remember taking long walks in the countryside with no company but her own, but that had been before the French came.
She did not mind the walk, only the company. If there was one thing worse than suffering Kitty’s chatter about the officers, it was enduring Mary’s constant admonitions about loving their enemies. At least Mary truly believed forgiving their enemies was the right thing to do. Kitty only wanted the financial advantages the enemy could provide her. What did it matter to Kitty why the officers were in Meryton so long as she could flirt with them and accept their little gifts?
Elizabeth paid little attention to her sisters as they walked, instead girding herself for battle. Not the kind of battle which could be fought openly, but the painful battle within herself whenever she met the officers in their fancy blue coats. Even after all this time, it was a struggle to force herself to smile at them and converse pleasantly. But her parents relied on the goodwill of the French soldiers, and Lydia’s husband could not single-handedly protect them if Elizabeth made a show of resistance. Still, it stung. How it stung!
“Miss Kitty! Miss Elizabeth!” Lieutenant Bessette hailed them as they entered town, a fellow officer by his side.
Kitty, her eyelashes fluttering, said, “Bonjour, Lieutenant Bessette, Sous-Lieutenant Gareau.”
“Bonjour, mesdemoiselles,” said the lieutenant. “How charming to meet with such lovely ladies! Have you heard about the Assemblée? Capitaine Reynard says all the young ladies must attend and dance the night away.”
“I will look forward to it,” said Elizabeth, who would do nothing of the sort. Lieutenant Bessette might be more tolerable than most of the other officers, but he was still a French soldier.
“Merveilleux!” cried the lieutenant. “May I have the honor of the first dance, Miss Elizabeth?”
Her other choices for a dancing partner would likely be worse. “Of course. I would be delighted.” At least she could count on Lieutenant Bessette to behave properly.
A drum roll sounded from the market square, and Elizabeth’s hands clenched. The lieutenant seemed to notice the change in her bearing and said, “There is no need to concern yourself, Miss Elizabeth. A sous-lieutenant is being promoted. That is all.”
That was much better than the other occasions for drumrolls – a public flogging or, even worse, an execution – but there would still be the usual problem. The second drum roll came, followed by the inevitable chorus of “Vive l’Empereur!”
Just as inevitably, a voice not far behind Elizabeth cried, “God save Her Highness!” A young boy, from the sound of it.
The lieutenant turned to give chase, but Elizabeth caught his sleeve in her hand. When he rounded angrily on her, she gave him her warmest smile. “Remember, Lieutenant, that you were once a boy and loved your country.”
His expression softened slightly. “Mais oui. Boys will be boys.” But he set off after him anyway, albeit at a slower pace.
He did not get far. Townspeople began pouring into the streets, apparently doing nothing more than talking to their neighbors, sweeping the pavement, or carrying buckets to the well. And, coincidentally, forcing the soldiers giving chase to slow down and weave around them. The French were never fooled by these tricks, no matter how much the townsfolk denied hearing the treasonous shouts.
There was so little the people of Meryton could do to resist the invaders. Even this small gesture warmed Elizabeth’s heart.
Mr. Bennet pushed himself to his feet as his guest entered the library. “Why, Mr. Bingley, how good of you to return my call so quickly. How are you finding Netherfield?”
Bingley sat down across from Mr. Bennet. “It is very much to my taste, and I am enjoying meeting my neighbors.”
“Good, good. I understand you have a guest coming to stay with you.” Mr. Bennet watched him closely.
“Yes, an old friend. He arrived two days ago.”
It was time to test the amiable Mr. Bingley’s loyalties. Mr. Bennet poured out two glasses of port. He handed one to his guest and then, one eyebrow cocked, he held out his own glass as if to make a toast.
Mr. Bingley looked startled, but did not hesitate. He clinked his glass against Mr. Bennet’s. “Her Highness. God save her.” It was the established toast since the invasion, ambiguous enough to mislead the French, yet understood by all loyal Englishmen. God save Her Highness Princess Charlotte, the mad king’s granddaughter and heir – and England’s last hope.
“God save her,” Mr. Bennet echoed quietly. Apparently Mr. Bingley was a loyalist despite being the friend of a French sympathizer.
“I have just come from a visit with Sir William Lucas. What a fine fellow he is! He asked for my assistance in a small matter, although it clearly went much against the grain for him. Still, when times change, we must change with them. His daughter has been invited to an assembly with the French officers. Refusing is not an option, I gather, and Sir William says fathers are not welcome to attend.”
Mr. Bennet curled his lip. “It is true. They prefer our daughters to be unprotected. I suppose Sir William is in a difficult position now that his son has been conscripted into Napoleon’s Grande Armée. He escorted Charlotte in the past.”
“You have perceived his difficulty! Sir William asked if I would be kind enough to escort his daughter in place of his son, purely as a matter of her safety. Naturally I was happy to oblige.” Bingley paused to take a sip of port. “He also hinted I might wish to speak to you about the matter.”
In general Mr. Bennet preferred to pretend that particular problem did not exist. Still, if Sir William was going to make this simple for him, the least he could do was to oblige. “I imagine he was thinking of my Lizzy. I have a married daughter, but her husband, I am sorry to say, is a French officer himself.” It was not worth the trouble of explaining that Mary was not invited and Kitty had no desire to be protected.
“My friend would no doubt be happy to escort your daughter, if it would help to keep her safe.”
Mr. Bennet raised an eyebrow. “I am certain you mean well, but who is to protect my daughter from your friend?”
Frowning, Bingley leaned forward. “Sir, I do not know what you have heard, but you misjudge him. Darcy would never take advantage of a young lady. He has a young sister and is well aware of the dangers to ladies in these situations.”
“Softly, my friend, softly! If you say he is honorable in this regard, I will believe you. I understand, though, that his estate and fortune were not forfeit to the Emperor, so apparently his honor does not extend to remaining loyal to England.”
Bingley set down his port. “I have known Darcy for years and I trust him implicitly. If he has agreed to cooperate with the French, I have complete certainty it was because the other options open to him were even less honorable. We have all made compromises with our enemies, all of us who have chosen to remain alive rather than fighting to the death. You also still own an estate. Should I assume you are disloyal?”
Mr. Bennet snorted. “Anyone in Meryton can tell you the price I paid to keep Longbourn, and most likely they have already done so. But in case they have not, I will tell you myself. The French took this house and used it as a barracks until a year ago, at which point they offered it back to me at the cost of my youngest daughter, who fortunately was quite eager to be sacrificed. But the French know I am not their friend.”
“I am not criticizing you, sir, merely noting we have all made such arrangements. The French are perfectly happy to tolerate me while my factories keep producing caissons and limbers to transport their artillery, and I can justify it to myself because it protects the Englishmen who work in those factories from being conscripted to fight in Europe. But you and I are both living in glass houses, so let us not throw stones!”
Mr. Bennet inclined his head. He did not agree with Mr. Bingley on this, but Lizzy would be safer with a gentleman to escort her, even one who had struck a deal with the French in the past. “We have all made difficult decisions. If you believe your friend is trustworthy and would be willing to provide an escort for my daughter, I would be obliged to you and to him.”
Darcy could find no particular fault with Netherfield Park. The house was spacious and pleasant. The grounds were well kept. The rolling hills surrounding it kept the landscape interesting. Bingley was a gracious host. His cook produced tasty meals. And after two days, it was slowly driving Darcy mad.
He had spent hours calming Georgiana’s anxieties about being in a new place. He had walked with her around the gardens and listened to her practice her music. The previous night he had stayed up late drinking brandy with Bingley, something he had been looking forward to. But instead of finally being able to talk freely to his friend as he had hoped, he had hidden everything.
Today Bingley had gone to visit a neighbor, and Darcy was too restless to keep his attention on a book. The only distraction he could find was to work on his billiard game. At least it was quiet in the billiard room apart from the clicking of balls striking and the satisfying thump when one dropped into a pocket.
Bingley appeared in the doorway, apparently done with his visits. “Practicing again? As if you need it to thrash me thoroughly!”
Leaning over the table, Darcy sighted along his cue stick. “It passes the time.”
“If it is time you wish to pass, I have volunteered you to join me in a charitable duty.”
Without raising his head, Darcy flicked his eyes up at Bingley. “Why do I suppose I will not like this?”
Bingley chuckled. “It is true; you will not like it. The local regiment is having an assembly and has commanded the presence of all the young ladies. I agreed we would escort two of them who would both be unprotected otherwise.”
Darcy dropped the cue stick and straightened. “Bingley, the last thing I want is to be giving some local girl expectations I will never be able to meet.”
“There will be no expectations. Their fathers arranged it purely as a matter of their safety. So many of the local men have been conscripted that there are few left to provide escorts, leaving the ladies to the mercies of the French officers.”
“I suppose we must, then,” Darcy said grudgingly. Had he not already given up enough for his fellow countrymen? But the same answer always resounded in his head. Many had been forced to give their lives for their country, and he had not. Yet.
He would only go to this damned dance because if he refused and anything happened to those poor girls, he would bear that burden forever. Along with so many others. Sometimes he wondered if a clean death in battle would not have been preferable. But Georgiana needed him, so that was not an option.
Bingley clapped him on the shoulder. “No need to be so glum, old fellow! You might even enjoy yourself a bit. From what I gather, you are getting the young and pretty one. Mine, according to her loving father, is all but on the shelf and ‘not what I would call pretty, but a good girl, a good girl.’” His voice had deepened into an imitation of an older man’s.
“Most likely yours will at least manage some interesting conversation. What is the name of my insipid miss?”
“Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Her father already dislikes you, so you should be safe from expectations.”
“Dislikes me? I have not even met the man.”
Bingley grinned. “Oh, you are in a mood today! It is the usual complaint. I did not hesitate to point out his own failings in that regard. But look – the sun is finally showing its face. You should go for a ride and clear your head.”
He had been longing all day to do exactly that. “You will stay here if I do? I do not like to leave Georgiana alone in a new place.”
“Of course. Now go. Get out of here!”
A quarter of an hour later, the stable master regarded Darcy as if he were a being from another planet. The Netherfield staff had not yet accustomed themselves to their guest’s eccentricities, such as saddling and bridling Hurricane himself. But Hurricane was the one luxury he had insisted on keeping at a time when he had given up so much else. He had raised and broken the horse himself, and Hurricane always understood him. Darcy hated allowing anyone else to handle him. Even the process of saddling him and the feeling of Hurricane’s warm flanks under his hands brought him some much-needed peace.
They set off at a trot down the lane and jumped a fence before cantering across a pasture. The sun had not yet burned off the dampness in the spring air.
Darcy had loved springtime when his mother was alive. She had taught him the names of each spring flower in the Pemberley gardens, encouraged him to watch each stage of leaves unfolding, made wishes with him over the star-shaped wood anemones, and taken him on adventures in Pemberley’s magical bluebell wood. She had died in the springtime, too, just as the bluebells were fading away to nothing. And then there had been the terrible spring of 1805 which had cost him his father and more relatives and friends than he could count, as well as his freedom and his country.
Spring had once been a time of beginnings for him. Now it made him think of all he had lost.
These thoughts were not helping to clear his head. He laid a hand on Hurricane’s neck, feeling the tautness of his muscles beneath his shiny coat. Hurricane was still with him, loyal, steady Hurricane.
At Pemberley he could gallop for miles over the empty moors, but Hertfordshire was more settled. He spotted a copse in the distance and made for that, hoping to find some semblance of untamed nature there. He skirted the edge until finding a path leading into it, but before he even entered the copse, a familiar floral scent transported him into the past. It was a bluebell wood.
On impulse he dismounted and tied Hurricane’s reins to a tree. Ahead of him bluebells swayed in the dappled sunlight. He strode towards them as their almost otherworldly scent enveloped him, raising goose bumps on his skin. The spring green of the wood was the perfect frame for the sapphire flowers. Magic, his mother had called the bluebells.
His pace slowed. How long had it been since his last visit to a bluebell wood? He could not even recall. The bluebells seemed to dance around him with a ripple of laughter. But no – that was human laughter, and it was followed by a squeal of pain.
“That hurt, young man! Or young woman, if that is what you are.” A woman’s musical voice seemed part of the magic, drawing him towards it with a seductive enchantment of its own. Where was she, the woman of the rippling laughter? He searched for a side path through the flowers. His mother had taught him never to trample bluebells.
There it was, so faint it could barely be called a path, just grass dividing a sea of bluebells. Carefully he stepped along it.
He could see her now. Tendrils of dark chestnut hair escaped their binding to riot across her long neck in exuberant curls. She sat on the ground, her legs curled up beside her, and she was surrounded by… puppies? Yes, puppies, crawling over her lap, nipping at her skirts, and rolling over for petting. She picked one up and kissed its head. Fortunate puppy!
His lips curved. A poet would call her Titania, queen of the fairies, in the flesh. More woodland magic.
She must have heard his footsteps, or perhaps the yapping of a puppy alerted her, because she looked back over her shoulder. At the sight of him, she twisted around and scrambled backwards.
In the dappled sunlight, his Titania’s face was alive with energy, full of fine sparkling eyes and kissable lips.
And she was pointing a fully cocked pistol at him.
He took a step back and opened his hands to show they were empty. “I mean you no harm.” The sound of his own voice startled him.
“English?” Her voice was sterner now.
“Yes. I am visiting from Derbyshire. Or, if you prefer, I will say it – Theophilus Thistle, the thistle sifter, sifted a sieve full of unsifted thistles, thrusting three thousand thistles through the thick of his thumb.” It was the tongue twister no Frenchman could pronounce, no matter how accentless his English might be.
Her lips quirked but she kept the pistol leveled at him. “Well, Theophilus Thistle from Derbyshire, why are you following me?”
“Because I was walking through an enchanted bluebell wood when I heard the dulcet tones of Titania, queen of the fairies, which enspells any mortal man.” He swept her a full-court bow.
She chuckled. “Lovely words, but perhaps you should avoid sudden movements when I have a pistol trained on you.”
“Do you know how to use it?”
“Of course. You could have been a French soldier out hunting for game.” The distaste in her voice made it clear what kind of game the soldiers hunted here.
“Good. I trained my sister to shoot for the same reason.” One of the puppies began to crawl in his direction.
“Ah.” She lowered the pistol but did not put it aside. “If I am Titania, perhaps I will cast a spell on you instead. It would be much less bloody.”
“Since I would prefer not to have the head of an ass, perhaps I should leave you in peace. Or at least as much peace as you can find with all these puppies.” He could see the mother dog now, a springer spaniel lying in a hollow between two trees and nursing two more puppies. “Which was the one that nipped you?”
She pointed to the brown puppy squirming his way toward Darcy. “That little wild thing.”
He took a slow step forward and held out his hand to the puppy, who sniffed it eagerly. “May I?”
At her nod, he picked up the puppy. The mother dog raised her head and growled.
“You need not worry,” his Titania said to the dog. “He is wearing brown, not blue.” She looked up at him again. “I am training her to attack soldiers who come too close to me.”
“I will keep that in mind.” He turned the puppy over in his hands and examined him. “If you were still wondering, he is a young man. Definitely a young man.” He held the puppy up to his shoulder and scratched its ears. Pushing back against his hand, the puppy licked his chin. Repeatedly.
Her eyes sparkled when she laughed. “I should have known as much, since he is a troublemaker already!”
Darcy cuddled the puppy for another minute, taking pleasure in his warmth and the softness of his fur, and then reluctantly set him down. “Back to your mistress, young Puck,” he told the puppy firmly. “And now I will leave you in peace. Farewell, proud Titania.”
She set down the pistol at last, picked up the puppy, and waved a tiny paw at him. “Theophilus Thistle, I grant you safe passage through my domain.” She crinkled her nose at him.
As he made his way back through the sea of bluebells, it felt like the first time in years he had truly smiled. His mother had been right; there was magic in a bluebell wood. He would not wait so long to revisit one.
Perhaps he would bring Georgiana here. She was even more in need of a dose of magic than he was.