Welcome to the sixth and final excerpt from my Pride & Prejudice alternate history!
Ready? Here we go!
Darcy was no nearer to a solution by the time he reached Netherfield. His neck was unpleasantly sticky underneath his cravat, an odd contrast to the block of cold lead sitting in his stomach.
There was no point in trying to reassure Georgiana right now; she would most likely take one look at him and think the world was coming to an end. It certainly felt that way to him.
Bingley caught him on his way upstairs. “Darcy, I am glad you are back. I was beginning to think you had forgotten our dinner guests.”
Darcy groaned. “I did forget, but I must beg off. I am in no mood for company.”
“But they are coming particularly to see you! Do you not remember? Mr. and Mrs. Goulding from Haye-Park are bringing their guest who knew your father and wants to meet you.”
“Damnation! I suppose I must, then, but I will not be at my best.”
Bingley frowned. “What is the matter? Has something happened?”
“I will tell you, Bingley, but not now. Not now.”
Somehow he kept up a façade of politeness during dinner and made appropriate conversation with Mr. Tomlin – “formerly Lieutenant Colonel Tomlin,” as he said. Darcy had even eaten a few bites, but mostly he pushed the food around on his plate.
But now Mrs. Goulding and Georgiana had withdrawn, leaving the gentleman to their port. Darcy had already started to feel the wine at dinner going to his head; he would have to take care not to overindulge. Perhaps he would be fortunate and the evening would end early.
Tomlin sent the Netherfield servants from the room, leaving only his own batman, and then took on a serious, almost military air. “Darcy, I last saw your father in ‘05, when we were working together to plan for a government in exile.”
So he truly had known Darcy’s father. “His part in that is not well known, and perhaps it is better that way.”
“I suppose so. Afterwards, I returned to being Wellington’s aide-de-camp and by the time of the surrender, I had lost track of your father. Recently I came into possession of some information which could be of use to the government in exile, but like everyone else, I do not know how to contact them.”
“That is unfortunate,” said Darcy blandly. He could see where this was going.
“Some time ago an old friend mentioned your name as someone who might be aware of how to reach the government in exile. When I heard you were visiting here, I decided to ask you directly.”
Darcy attempted to look surprised. “I cannot imagine why anyone would think I have some special knowledge. I am sorry to disappoint you, but your old friend was misinformed.”
“Precisely what I would expect you to say. But I am willing to prove my bona fides and the value of my information. In addition to what I know, I now have a contact in the occupying army who is giving me information about their weaknesses. He is apparently an old acquaintance of yours.”
Darcy sat up straighter, dread filling him. “Are you perchance referring to George Wickham?”
“The very man!”
An image of Wickham’s smug smile rose before him. “Wickham is not to be trusted. He is a traitor and for sale to the highest bidder. If he is giving you information, it is because he hopes to earn a reward when he turns you in.”
Tomlin leaned forward with a frown. “You are certain of this?”
“Quite certain. He was the one who betrayed my father to the French; he has admitted as much to me.” It was reckless talk on his part. A day ago he would not have said it, knowing there was a good chance he would be signing Wickham’s death certificate. Today he did not care.
“You are quite, quite sure?”
“Yes. It might be wise for you to leave the vicinity in case he is already passed along your name to the authorities.”
Tomlin gestured to his man, another soldier by his stance. Darcy’s suspicion was confirmed when the man saluted Tomlin, nodded and left the room without a word.
Darcy would not feel sorry for Wickham. He had brought this down upon himself. But how could he feel nothing when they had played together as children? At least his father had not lived to see this day or to know his beloved Wickham had betrayed him without a second thought.
Tomlin’s lips were twisted in an expression of distaste, one Darcy recognized because he saw it in the mirror all too often. The man was loyal and honest; Darcy would bet on that. The remarkable thing was that he had survived this long.
After a swallow of port, Tomlin said, “It will be back to Scotland for me, then, at least until the scent is cold. Darcy, I am obliged to you for the warning.”
It was too much. Elizabeth’s distaste for what she saw as his treason. Georgiana’s fear of abandonment. Wickham’s implied threats and smirks. Worst of all, knowing he would be forced to abandon Elizabeth to her fate. And now this.
For six years he had kept Georgiana safe by dint of staying silent while the French ransacked England, never even sharing the little he knew that could help the rebels. There had been no choice, but by God he was sick of it!
He had to do something, so when the gentlemen left to join the ladies in the drawing room, Darcy took a quick detour to Bingley’s study. He found a blank paper in a desk drawer and wrote a few words. After tearing off a small section of the paper with the words, he secreted it in his hand and left the study.
In the drawing room Bingley was involved in a lively discourse with Mr. and Mrs. Goulding while Georgiana sorted through sheet music at the pianoforte. Off to one side Tomlin wore a brooding look.
Darcy sidled up to Tomlin and said in a low voice, “You wanted something earlier.” He opened his hand so the words were visible, if slightly smudged.
Tomlin’s eyes widened. “That is it?”
“Look closely. You see the tiny crown drawn above the letter N? You must include that. You have it?”
Tomlin gave a sharp nod. “I thank you.”
“Tell no one.” Darcy crumpled the paper in his hand.
“Wait! In case my letter does not reach them, this is the message: they must contact the harbormaster in Milford Haven. It is very important.”
Darcy shook his head. “Do not depend upon me. I am not in contact with them.”
“If you ever are, remember that. The harbormaster at Milford Haven.”
It was easiest just to nod. As Darcy crossed the room towards Georgiana, he unobtrusively tossed the scrap of paper in the fire.
It was an unspeakable relief to finally do something after all these years of waiting.
Now he just had to find a way to save Elizabeth.
Elizabeth studied the sheet of fine notepaper in her hand. “It is from Miss Darcy. She is unwell and will not be able to walk with me today but invites me to spend the day with her at Netherfield. She has sent the carriage for me in the hope I will join her.” Odd. Had Mr. Darcy refused to bring his sister to Longbourn because of his quarrel with Elizabeth? The thought made her feel ill.
Mrs. Bennet patted her hair. “You must go, of course. You cannot miss an opportunity to catch the eye of Mr. Bingley or Mr. Darcy!”
“Of course not,” said Elizabeth dryly.
But when she reached Netherfield, the butler did not take her to Miss Darcy. Instead he brought her to a book filled study where Mr. Darcy sat behind an imposing desk.
Elizabeth stopped short as Mr. Darcy waved the butler way and closed the study door, leaving them alone together. What could he be thinking?
“You sister wrote to invite me to visit her,” she said hesitantly.
“I know. I asked her to do so since I could not think of another way to arrange a private meeting with you.” His face was drawn, as if he had not slept for some time.
“Well, here I am,” she said with more lightness in her voice that she felt.
“Yes.” He frowned at his desk. “Georgiana and I will be leaving Netherfield tomorrow morning.”
She had not expected that, and it felt like a blow. “Will you be returning at some point?”
“No.” He avoided her eyes.
Her mouth was dry. “Does this have something to do with our disagreement at our last meeting?”
“What? Oh, that. No, nothing at all. This is something quite separate and urgent.”
“I see,” she said, although she did not.
“Unfortunately this leaves you in a difficult position regarding Captain Renard. In my absence it is likely he will renew his demands on you.”
Her throat seem to have turned to stone. Of course he would. It was only Mr. Darcy’s presence that kept the captain away. She squeezed her eyes closed before sudden tears could escape. “I am grateful to you for giving me a reprieve.” There; her voice had hardly shaken at all.
“I cannot tell you how sorry I am to leave you in this position.” He walked around the desk to stand before her. “If I could, I would offer to take you with us, but that is impossible. The only thing in my power is to give you this.” He held out a small pouch.
She did not reach for it. “What is it?”
“Money enough to see you to Scotland, and the name and direction of a contact in Newcastle who can get you across the border safely. Please memorize it and then burn the paper; it is not safe to have it in writing.” He tucked the pouch into her hand.
She lifted her eyes to his face. “Why are you doing this? How do you know someone who can help me escape?”
“I cannot tell you that. I am sorry.” His voice was rough.
A movement beyond him caught her eye and she turned towards the window. “Does it have anything to do with that?” She held out a trembling finger to point at the troop of French soldiers marching towards the house.
He hurried to the window. “No. Hell and damnation, no. I am a fool. We should have left yesterday. May God forgive me.” It was the voice of complete despair.
“What is the matter?” Now she was truly afraid.
He turned back to her, took a deep breath, and grasped her shoulders. His eyes were haunted. “There may not be much time and you must listen to me. Everything depends upon it. If they are here to arrest me, I must ask you to care for Georgiana and take her away from here.”
“Of course, if you wish. She will be welcome at Longbourn.” Though what would happen to her if Elizabeth had to leave for Scotland was another question.
He shook his head fiercely. “No. I am asking you for more than that. Take her far away. Do not tell your family you are leaving, and do not return.”
She drew back in shock. “Are you mad? I am happy to help your sister, but you are asking me to leave everything behind for a girl I hardly know!”
A violent pounding came from below. Darcy opened the door a crack and listened. A distant French accented voice said, “I have a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy.”
Instantly Darcy closed the door and turned the key in the lock. Then he was beside Elizabeth again. “No, I am not mad. I will have to trust you.”
She stared at him in bewilderment. He moved closer until he could speak directly in her ear. “Listen carefully. I have not seen my sister in six years, not since she boarded a ship for Canada, where everyone believes she is Princess Charlotte. Need I tell you who has been pretending to be my sister and going by the name of Georgiana Darcy?”
Elizabeth’s mouth dropped open. “Surely you cannot mean she is —”
He pressed his hand over her mouth. “Do not say that name in regards to her, not ever. I will do everything in my power to keep that information from the French, but I can be broken by torture like any other man. That is why you must take her and go.”
Elizabeth’s head was spinning. “But where? How?”
“Georgiana knows what to do. We have prepared for this. But God help us, she is still too young to go by herself and so I must beg you to help her. Do not stop for anything, not even to see your family.”
“Of course.” Stunned by his revelation, she could not even think of the consequences of what she was agreeing to.
“Good girl.” He looked up at the sound of boots on the stairs. “I am damned anyway, and now that you know I am not a traitor…” He took her face between his hands and pressed his lips to hers.
Shock, a rush of sensation, a glimpse into a yawning pit of need, and it was over, leaving her trembling and more confused than ever.
Now the pounding was at the study door. Darcy raked his hand through his hair, lifted his chin, and somehow transformed into a facsimile of his usual calm self. He turned the key and opened the door, appearing surprised to find soldiers outside it.
Lieutenant Bessette was in the lead. “Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, you are under arrest for the murder of George Wickham.”
Darcy raised his eyebrows. “I am afraid you have the wrong man,” he drawled. “Not that I do not believe Wickham deserve to be murdered, but I cannot claim credit for it.” He repeated his words in French. One of the soldiers guffawed.
Lieutenant Bessette glanced at Elizabeth and then back to Darcy. “You must come with us,” he said firmly.
Darcy replied in French too rapid for Elizabeth to understand.
This time even Lieutenant Bessette smiled. “Bien sur!”
Darcy turned back to Elizabeth. He raised her hand to his lips, holding it there for a moment beyond what was proper, and then whispered, “Courage.” He turned to face the soldiers. “Gentlemen, I am at your service.”
Frozen, Elizabeth watched his retreating back, first down the passageway and then out the window. It felt as if some vital piece of her went with him, leaving a hole inside her. She had fought so hard not to care about him because of his politics, and only now, when she could lose him forever, had she learned he was everything she could have wished for – and more. Would she ever have the opportunity to tell him of her regrets or was his life to be counted in days, leaving her to grieve for what she had never had?
She swallowed hard and forced that thought out of her head. Darcy had put his mission ahead of everything else, even when it meant working with the French. Now it was her turn to make his sacrifice worthwhile. She had a princess to rescue.
So now you know Darcy’s secret. In real history, Princess Charlotte was exactly the same age as the fictional Georgiana Darcy, and George III’s contingency plans for a French invasion called for keeping his family in England. I couldn’t resist. Congrats to Molly Johnson and Wim Goossen who figured it out after last week’s chapter!
For anyone who is worried, just remember that all my books end up with happily-ever-after endings, and this one is no different. Now I’m off to hide in my bomb shelter while I wait for your reactions! One request – please keep any discussion of this plot twist here, so it can remain a surprise for new readers.
Curious about the real Princess Charlotte? You can read the blog post I wrote about her.
Now it’s your turn to tell me what you think!