Welcome to the fourth 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 quickly put on her bonnet and gloves when she saw the Darcy coach approaching Longbourn the following day. Once again, she and Mr. Darcy escorted Georgiana to Jane’s rooms before taking a walk.
When they were by themselves Darcy cleared his throat. “I find myself in a dilemma. There is an item I greatly wish you to have at your disposal, but it would be improper for me to give you a gift. Would you perhaps be willing to consider it as a sort of permanent loan?”
Elizabeth drew back slightly. How puzzling! He sounded very serious, not at all as if he planned to flirt with her. “I suppose it would depend on what the item is and why you wish me to have it.”
“That seems fair.” He reached into his pocket and handed her a small muff pistol with an engraved barrel. “I think you know why I wish you to have it. For the sake of the puppies, if nothing else.”
She turned it over in her hand, admiring the carved ivory handle. Such a lovely object to be a dangerous weapon! But of course Mr. Darcy would have the best. “I do not know what to say.” Especially as owning pistols was illegal, for him as well as for her.
“You could say you will accept it. Come, do you know how to load it?”
“It is not muzzle loaded, then?”
“No.” He took it from her and unscrewed the barrel from the handle. Turning the handle section to face up, he pointed at the opening where the barrel had been. “Black powder here, and then a ball. Do not tamp it; just screw the barrel back on.” He demonstrated and then pointed at a tiny opening beneath the flashing pan. “A touch more black powder here and you are ready to go.”
What was a lady to say when receiving the gift of a pistol? Thank you, it is very lovely? Thank you, I will do my best to shoot only villains with it? Thank you, there is nothing I like better than a lethal firearm? Thank you, I promise not to turn you in for possessing an illegal pistol?
Perhaps it was simplest to avoid thanking him at all. “I am certain the puppies would be grateful to you.”
“You will accept it, then?”
“Are you certain you do not need it? I cannot imagine you have spare pistols lying about waiting to be given to hapless damsels in distress.”
He muttered something under his breath. It sounded like “You would be surprised.” Aloud he said, “I have others.” He handed her a cloth bag and small embossed flask. “Powder and shot.”
Both hands now full, she looked up at him mischievously. “I will do my best not to employ it.”
“If you need it, use it.”
She smiled up at him “I know just the place to keep them – a cubbyhole in the stables. It might be difficult to explain their presence if someone found them in my room!”
To the delight of Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Darcy and his sister continued to call on Elizabeth on days when the weather was clement.
“Lizzy, I cannot believe you have attached a single English gentleman with a fortune! What luck, with so few available! Providence is watching over you. Such pin money you will have! Such dresses! Such carriages!”
It was a novel experience for Elizabeth, who had become accustomed to her mother’s constant disapproval, but her attempts to lower her mother’s expectations failed. “I believe he comes primarily because he wishes for his sister to have female companionship, not for his own pleasure. And he is still a French agent – no fortune can wash that stink away.”
“Nonsense, Lizzy, how you do go on! Of course he wishes for you to be friends with his sister before making you an offer! I shall go distracted if I think of it.”
As it happened, Miss Darcy was a common topic of conversation on Elizabeth’s walks with Mr. Darcy. There were so many topics to be avoided that Elizabeth clung to the few that remained, and Mr. Darcy seemed to be glad of the opportunity to hear a woman’s view of his sister.
“She has lived almost in seclusion since the invasion,” Darcy told Elizabeth. “I have only just begun introducing her to other people in the last year. She has had a music master, of course, and a woman who taught her to paint watercolors, but even those were difficult for her.”
“What of servants? Surely she must have dealt with them.”
Darcy looked away. “She is uncomfortable with servants, and does not trust them. This is why your sister has been a godsend. Georgiana feels safe with her precisely because your sister’s life is as constrained as hers is. It is a step forward for her to be so comfortable with both Bingley and Miss Bennet.”
“It seems you spend a great deal of time in her company. If she has difficulty being around others, does not that limit your ability to socialize?”
He ran his hand along the needles of a fir tree they were passing, keeping his gaze upon it. “It does, but that is of no great importance to me. I have little interest in the events of the ton, and I can be happy spending the evening in the company of a good book. When we are in London, there are events I am obliged to attend, but it is difficult for Georgiana to be alone so many evenings, and she is glad when we leave the city.”
What sort of events could make him feel he had no choice but to attend? It was most likely wiser not to ask. “To think that sometimes I feel sorry for myself because seeing to Jane’s needs limits what I can do! You show me how little I have to complain of. And indeed, I am happy to be able to help Jane.”
He turned a searching gaze on her. “What would you do if you did not have to tend to your sister?”
What was it about his eyes that made her mouth go dry and her body flood with warmth? Her fingers itched with the urge to explore his face. She pulled her attention away from him before she could respond. “Most likely I would go to Scotland.”
“Is that what you would do if Captain Renard persisted in his attentions to you?”
Her cheeks grew hot and she looked down at the footpath. “Yes,” she said in a low voice. “I am not proud of it because I know full well how selfish it would be to abandon my father and Jane here to suffer Captain Renard’s displeasure. But I am not Jane; I cannot sacrifice myself for them.”
Darcy halted, and when Elizabeth turned to see why, he put his finger under her chin and lifted it until she had no choice but to meet his eyes. “You are not being selfish. It is your father who is selfish if he would want you to pay that price for his comfort. He should be taking the entire family to Scotland. What would you think of me if I were willing to allow Georgiana to degrade herself in that manner merely so I could remain in my home?”
The intensity of his gaze made her swallow hard, her lips tingling. “I cannot imagine you doing that.”
“Do you think it is right for your father to allow your sister to hide in the stables all this time?”
She looked away. “Jane could stay in the house if she chose, but it would mean pretending to be sick all of the time. It was her idea to move to the stables, claiming the doctor said she needed complete quiet. My mother was happy to agree, since Jane’s coughing irritated her nerves.”
He shook his head. “How long has that been going on?”
Elizabeth touched the tip of her tongue to her dry lips. “Almost a year.”
“God in heaven!” he swore. “Is your family so little to be trusted?”
“My sister Mary, perhaps, but we cannot be certain. My mother supports the French because it means Longbourn will stay in our family. Under English law it was entailed away from our family, and the French civil code breaks the entail. She would urge Jane to do as the captain wishes.”
“Does your father know?”
“Yes, but he has never been a man of action. His nature is to be indolent and to avoid conflicts. That is why Jane and I were sent to live in London after the invasion.”
Frown lines appeared between Darcy’s brows. “I do not understand.”
“The French had taken Longbourn for one of their barracks, so we had to move into our steward’s cottage. Jane was sixteen and I was almost fifteen. The cottage was crowded with all of us, and the soldiers were always trying to corner Jane or me. Rather than demand that they leave us alone, my father sent us to live with our uncle in London. It turned out well for me; in London there were fewer French officers, since they could enforce the peace with the cannons of the warships anchored in the Thames. But even so, I longed to come back to Meryton. When the French no longer needed Longbourn and returned it to my father, Jane and I came back, and now I wish we had not.” Why had she told him all that? She could have answered his question with far fewer details.
The corners of his mouth turned up. “I have the opposite reaction to London. When I am there, I am constantly in company with the French – those unavoidable obligations. I can avoid them much better when I am in the country.”
Any desire to respond froze in her throat. Why did she keep forgetting that he cooperated with the French? Or not precisely forgetting, but more wishing for it not to be true. But it was true. “I can see why you would not enjoy that sort of obligation,” she said coolly.
His lips tightened, the warm look fading from his eyes. “I do what I must, just as you do.”
The brief intimacy was over, cut short by the reminder of his betrayal of England. How could she be so drawn to such a man?
“Lizzy? Did you hear a word I said?” Jane asked.
Startled, Elizabeth shook her head. “My apologies, Jane. My mind was wandering.”
A smile brought light to Jane’s eyes. “Did your body not wander far enough today? You and Mr. Darcy were gone a long time.”
Elizabeth shrugged. “We walked to Oakham Mount.”
“He seems to enjoy your company.”
“Not you as well! Mama keeps telling me he will be making an offer soon, and she will be sadly disappointed when it does not come to pass.”
“Is it so impossible that he might like you?”
“He likes me, yes, but to choose me out of the thousands of women who would be delighted to marry an Englishman with a large fortune, when both single Englishmen and large fortunes are in short supply? I think not.”
“You are out of sorts today, Lizzy. Now I begin to wonder if you might like him better than you wish to.”
Elizabeth did not dare to meet her sister’s gaze. Jane had come too close to the truth. “He is clever and pleasant company, but there is no point in thinking more of it. Even if he did make me an offer, I would have to refuse him. I will not marry a French sympathizer.”
Jane’s brows drew together. “It is odd. Both Mr. Bingley and Miss Darcy seem to think him an honorable man, and he shows concern for your well-being. Many good men have assisted the French simply to protect their families. If the French were to take Mr. Darcy’s land and money, how would he care for his sister?”
“It is rare for the French to take everything. They took Longbourn at first and most of father’s money, but they left enough for us to survive on and a cottage where we could live until they were done with Longbourn.” Elizabeth could not permit herself to accept excuses for Mr. Darcy.
“But Mr. Darcy might be treated more harshly because he has aristocratic connections. The Earl of Matlock, or perhaps I should say the former earl, was his uncle. The French hate the aristocracy.”
“Jane, you will always believe the best of everyone. I cannot do so.” Especially since then she might not be able to suppress certain feelings she could not afford to feel.
She had realized long ago she was unlikely ever to marry. There simply were not enough single men. So many men had been killed during the invasion, and a large portion of those who had survived it had been conscripted into Napoleon’s army. Perhaps someday a small number of them might return, but even that would make little difference. Marriageable gentlemen were few, and they could take their pick of well-dowered beauties. Even men with injuries from the war were quickly surrounded by eligible women. Some English women preferred a French husband to no husband at all, but Elizabeth would sooner cut off her own hand. But she also did not wish to spend her life longing for something she could not have. It was easier to accept that all she would ever have in terms of romance was occasional flirtations. There was no point in wishing for more.
Why did Mr. Darcy have to come to Meryton and meddle with her plans and dreams? She had spent more time in conversation with him than she had with any other man apart from her father and uncle. He listened to what she said, studying her with dark, intent eyes that raised those longings she had so carefully packed away. He had awoken feelings in her that were best left dormant, a yearning to step closer to him, to gaze into those dark eyes and to trace her fingertip along the edge of his lips. Would they feel as firm as they looked, or would they be soft and warm? Then she would caress the line of his jaw, so clearly defined and strong. How would he react? Would he look shocked or dismayed, or would he possibly be pleased?
She had to stop thinking this way. He had betrayed England by supporting the French. He was undeniably handsome, well-educated, witty, kind and protective – and he was a traitor.
Briskly she said, “I have been gone too long. I should return the tea tray before someone comes looking for me.”
She would stop allowing Darcy’s image to float before her at odd moments. She would not think about the way he tilted his head to the side when he was contemplating an idea. And she would not count the hours until she might see him again.
Go to Chapter 5
Next week the visit to Mr. Robinson provokes the inevitable argument between Elizabeth and Darcy. And then things really start to go wrong…
I’d love to hear your thoughts and your New Year’s wishes for what you’d like to see next. Comments are great inspiration!
I’ll be posting the next part of the story Tuesday, January 2.