Yes, I have a new book in the works! I’m really excited about the plot twist because it’s breaking new ground in the world of Pride & Prejudice variations (and least as far as I know – I can’t keep track of all of the ones out there any more). But since it’s different, I’m also nervous about how people will react to it. I’m going to be posting several chapters over the next few weeks to see if anyone’s going to throw rotten tomatoes at me this time. Usual caveats – this is not a final draft and is subject to change.
Never fear, I’m not messing with the essentials – it’s an Elizabeth and Darcy happily-ever-after with all the usual characters, set in the usual locations with the usual cast of characters. Instead of changing events or characters, I’ve gone whole hog.
I’ve changed history.
So, join me in Meryton in 1811, six years after Napoleon’s invasion of England. Welcome to occupied Britain!
Elizabeth Bennet ignored the familiar sight of the Lucas carriage stopping in front of the house. After all, Lady Lucas often called on Mrs. Bennet with the latest gossip. But the heavy footsteps in the hall could not belong to Lady Lucas.
Sir William Lucas, his usually jovial face grim, strode into the sitting room at Longbourn. “Bad news,” he told Mr. Bennet, without pausing to greet the ladies first. “Robinson has been arrested.”
Mr. Bennet’s eyes widened. “Arrested? What crime could he possibly have committed? Losing his way?”
“He contested Captain Renard’s plan to commandeer his house. The good captain has taken a fancy to it. He 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 looked up from her mending, unable to keep silent. “I imagine it is only treason if you happen to possess something Captain Renard 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 Renard 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 Renard 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 then 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.
“So you will 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 as well?” 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 landed gentry by confiscating all the grand estates. The only exceptions had been for property owners who agreed to cooperate with and assist 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 as long as 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 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 or 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 Renard 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 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 as long as she could flirt with them and accept their little gifts?
Elizabeth paid little attention to her sisters as they walked. Instead she girded 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!
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 Renard 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, making Elizabeth’s hands clench into fists. 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.
But he did not get far. Townspeople began pouring into the streets, 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 little the people of Meryton could do to resist the invaders. Even this small gesture of resistance warmed Elizabeth’s heart.
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.”
In that case, 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 to dances 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 Miss Elizabeth, 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 as far as 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 as long as 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.”
The stage is set! You’ll meet Darcy in next Monday’s chapter, in one of my favorite scenes ever.
So many questions! What will happen at the Assembly? Why is Jane hiding in the stables? And most importantly, why is Darcy helping the enemy??? I’d love to hear your theories.
Thanks for reading!
© Abigail Reynolds 2016