In this short story, excerpted from And This Our Life: Chronicles of the Darcy Family we find Mr. Darcy and his valet, Oliver, on their way to Paris under the Prince Regent’s orders to find and reclaim compromising letters his highness has foolishly allowed to fall into the hands of one of his minor amours…letters that could change the inheritance of the throne!
“The Prince Regent does not usually rise until afternoon,” said Colonel Fitzwilliam, “but he wants to speak with you before his courtiers begin flocking around. His rising at nine o’clock in the morning will be regarded as unusual, but, fortunately, His Majesty keeps irregular enough hours that the staff will probably not think much about it. He is most insistent that this be handled confidentially.”
“Have you any idea yet why he wants to see me?” Darcy asked.
The colonel shook his head. “No, he has not dropped a syllable beyond what I told you at Pemberley.”
The carriage pulled up at the entrance of St. James Palace and they alighted and walked up to the door, which was opened by the majordomo before they reached the top step.
“Good morning Colonel Fitzwilliam, how may I serve you this morning?” he asked with a formal bow.
“My cousin, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, has an appointment with His Majesty the Prince Regent, Childes.”
“Yes sir, I will ascertain if His Majesty has arrived from Carlton House and is disposed to see you. Please wait here, sir.”
“Thank you, Childes.”
The majordomo returned immediately, causing Darcy to lift a brow at his cousin in surprise. He bowed the two visitors into an adjoining chamber dominated by a massive mahogany desk, then shut the door behind himself as he left.
Within moments, the prince regent entered silently through an inner door. “Well, Darcy,” he said coldly, “I see that you are punctual, as usual.”
“Yes, Your Majesty. I pray, Your Majesty, tell me how I may serve you.” Darcy returned his monarch’s minimal bow with one as frigidly correct, and stared levelly at the prince.
The prince was a large man and his features were not unhandsome, but his looks were marred by his obesity and now, in his late middle age, he had a debauched appearance, with bloodshot eyes and sagging jowls.
“I have an errand that needs to be performed…one of a most confidential nature,” the prince said as he paced the carpet, his hands clasped behind his back. “This errand requires someone who speaks French fluently and who is familiar with the court; characteristics which are available in abundance among my courtiers. However, it also requires someone who can think quickly and keep his own ouncil when he needs to, and these characteristics are not found in great measure at the palace. The person performing this task should also be someone whose absence will not be immediately commented upon, and so must be someone who is not a regular in court circles. The colonel has suggested that you would be the best man for this errand.”
“The colonel does me too much honour,” Darcy said, unsmiling, sending a grim look to his cousin.
“Darcy,” the prince said impatiently, “as you know, I have always considered you to be a prig…always disapproving of the enjoyments of others and too unimaginative to step out of the mould your father formed for you. I hear, however, that you were recently married, and that your bride is a gentlewoman of no family name or pretensions, nor of any fortune.”
Darcy glowered at the colonel.
“No, no, I did not hear it from the ever-discreet colonel, it is a matter that I heard mentioned briefly in court gossip. Frankly, it was a matter of some chagrin to a number of predacious mammas.” He smiled slightly. “Now that you are married, however, they have gone on to other, juicier topics of conversation. The incident has, however, made me wonder if I have misjudged you over the years. I wonder if, perhaps, there is more to you than meets the eye if you have the audacity to risk the displeasure of your formidable aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in order to marry as you wish.” The prince regent eyed Darcy speculatively, then sighed impatiently. “I would prefer to turn this problem over to someone who is considerably more silver-tongued than you, Darcy, but all the silver-tongued courtiers I have seem unable to hold their tongues when a juicy piece of gossip comes along, and discretion is more important than diplomacy and eloquence to me right now. I wished to send your cousin Fitzwilliam, but it would be too obvious if he left London suddenly.”
“If you have decided that I am the one who must perform this act, perhaps you will give me more details of what it is,” Darcy said, careful to not let his annoyance show.
The prince sighed again, rubbing his well-shaven chin uncomfortably. “I would just as lief avoid the entire topic, but ignoring it will not make the problem easier. So…about two months ago a new ambassador from the Austrian court arrived with his wife and household. His wife is French, a ravishing little creature who is about twenty years younger than her husband. We became friendly, and one thing led to another, but after a couple of weeks I tired of her attentions and wished to move on to…greener pastures, shall we say?” He looked at the ceiling and clasped his hands behind his back again, his movements uncharacteristically awkward, as Darcy continued to gaze at him stonily. “She, however, with Gallic passion and tenacity, was not ready to fade into obscurity with the gifts and favours of a prince to remember, but had taken, as insurance against such an eventuality, something from my room. I need to have that item back.”
“What is the item, Your Majesty,” Darcy asked, his jaws clenching, “that is so important that you are willing to risk a scandal to obtain its return?”
The prince regent sat behind the desk and irritably turned a paper knife over and over in his hands. “It is a packet of letters. The letters are from a lady who has been a friend for many years. They are quite indiscreet. I do not know how Frau Klein found them and spirited them from my room, but they are gone.”
“How can you be sure that they were stolen by the ambassador’s wife?” Darcy asked.
“She left London not long before I discovered the loss; sent home by the ambassador because of her scandalous behavior, presumably. I received a letter from her a few days after, written from Paris, demanding what was, literally, a king’s ransom for the letters and threatening to send them to my wife if I did not pay her: a consequence that I need not say would be most undesirable.” He shivered slightly in horror, dabbing his lips with his lace-edged handkerchief. “The difficulty is that I do not have that kind of money, my income being totally inadequate to cover my expenses, as you are probably aware- which is why Parliament must periodically, and most grudgingly, give me grants to pay my debts. I most certainly do not have the money to pay off blackmailing females.”
Darcy sighed. “Just how sensitive are these letters, Your Majesty?”
“Sensitive enough to affect the succession to the throne,” the prince said simply, finally looking Darcy in the eye.
“Good Lord, Your Majesty,” Darcy said weakly, “how many letters are there, all told?”
“There are about twenty of them; I do not know the exact number, but they were tied in a packet with a pink ribbon when they were stolen. Of course, I cannot know whether they have been separated since the theft.”
“Are there any other political issues at stake that you know of, Your Majesty,” Darcy asked, “such as a foreign head of state who wishes to embarrass you, or some such thing.”
“Not that I know of,” replied the prince hesitantly, ” I haven’t heard any murmurs of that sort since this started, but it would certainly be to Napoleon’s advantage if the British monarchy were in jeopardy and the country in turmoil; and the lady is undeniably in Paris, not in her husband’s native country.”
“How do you propose that I get the letters from the lady, and how can I be sure that I have them all, Your Majesty?”
“You could get them back the same way she obtained them in the first place,” the prince said, a smug smile on his face.
“I am sorry, Your Majesty, I am not willing to go that far to assist you.”
“No, Darcy, I assumed you would not be,” he returned dryly. “I will send all the information I have about the lady’s location to you with the colonel this afternoon. The lady is expecting an answer within the next week.”
Darcy returned home and instructed his valet, Oliver, to pack for a trip to Paris, giving him a minimal explanation of why they were suddenly abandoning London. By six o’clock they were ready with bags filled with fine, but nondescript, clothing and the lady’s contact information delivered by Colonel Fitzwilliam in time for dinner.
“Darcy,” the colonel said over dinner, “there is something else you need to know before you go to Paris. I heard this afternoon that the Coalition is moving to attack Paris. I don’t know all of their plans, but I know, as you do, that Napoleon is somewhere in France, where he has been driven by the Coalition forces from Eastern Europe. The British forces are moving up from the south towards Paris. My sources do not know exactly where Napoleon is at the moment; he could conceivably be in Paris by the time you arrive there, and it would make sense for him to retreat to his area of strongest support. If you must escape quickly, it would be better to try to leave from the south of Paris and meet up with the English forces, or, better yet, from the west and avoid the armies entirely. Darcy,” the colonel added seriously, “be careful, cousin. I am not ready to lose you and I had no idea what this “errand” was going to involve.”
Darcy gave his cousin a wry smile. “Believe me, I will be as careful as I can. I have a good many reasons to want to return unscathed.”
At half past six Darcy and Oliver left the house in a cab, which he instructed to drive to an inn where they could catch the coach line to Dover. As they drove away from the townhouse Darcy suddenly realized the morrows date and grimaced to himself. It was the Ides of March. He hoped they were more fortunate for him than they had been for Caesar…
To be continued tomorrow…
Summer and fair weather is time for travels, near and far. Jane Austen’s characters see their fair share of travels. Elizabeth travels to Hunsford to see Charlotte. Catherine Morland treks to Bath. Frank Churchill journeys to Highbury. Captain Wentworth sails the seas with His Majesty’s navy. The Dashwoods sojourn to Barton Cottage after the loss of their home, thence to London, while Sir Thomas Bertram voyages all the way to Antigua. What new expeditions have we in store for our favorite characters? Check in tomorrow for the finish to Darcy’s Parisian Adventure!