In part two of this short story, excerpted from And This Our Life: Chronicles of the Darcy Family, Darcy and his valet undertake a secret trip to Paris to rescue the Prince Regent from a blackmailer…
Darcy fidgeted restlessly over his café au lait as he sat at the tiny table outside the café near Madame Klein’s rooms at the Auberge du Printemps, a respectable building with quiet residents. Earlier in the day, Darcy had attempted to meet with the lady, in hopes that he could convince her to give up the letters without further cloak and dagger nonsense. She had put him off until the evening, and he was even now getting his courage up for his role. But, he thought, there was no point in putting off the disagreeable task.
When he finally and reluctantly climbed the stairs to her second floor flat, number five, he was shown into a salon that was lavishly furnished in gold and white. An elegantly dressed woman was sitting upon the sofa and she rose to greet him as he was ushered in. He almost smiled when he saw her, but recovered himself and solemnly bowed. It was not surprising that the lady had decided to accept his visit in the gentle candlelight of evening rather than in the harsh daylight. The prince regent’s “ravishing young thing” was an attractive woman of early middle age and of Junoesque proportions. The prince’s taste ran true to form.
She greeted him, her avidity barely concealed. “Welcome, monsieur. Do you have news from our mutual friend in England?”
“Yes, madame. Our friend has need of the letters you possess, as they contain business of which he has need. I should like to see the letters, if you please, so that I can assure myself of their safety.”
She nodded her head slightly and went to the adjoining room, returning with a packet of letters tied with pink ribbon. Darcy held out his hand for them, but she wagged her finger at him, “No, no…you may examine the letters more closely when you have met my terms, monsieur; they are clear enough, I think.”
“Very clear, madame, however our friend is unable to comply with the terms. He is in a difficult position at this time, neither man nor boy to his father, and his income is determined by others. He has many debt and no chance of relief through his relations due to the unfortunate illness of the head of the family.”
Frau Klein glowered briefly before regaining her calm mask. “I see, Monsieur Darcy. I will ponder this information. Perhaps you could return tomorrow evening at the same time and we will talk again. If I am unable to satisfy my conscience about returning the letters I must find another use for them.” She paused a moment, then said in a flirtatious tone, “I do not recall meeting you when I was in London, monsieur. I look forward to knowing you better. Bon soir.”
Darcy suppressed the shudder that her coquettish final look induced, bowed, and left the apartment, smiling warmly at the maid as she gave him his beaver. He walked to the café where he had arranged to meet Oliver and briefly summarized the conversation.
“I’m afraid that we must watch the exits to the lady’s rooms, Oliver. If she has accepted my statements and concluded that her blackmail will not work, she may try to escape with the letters during the hours of darkness. She may be willing to wait until the king dies and the prince regent is on the throne to try her hand again.”
They each found a hiding place outside, Darcy in the back of the Auberge du Printemps and Oliver in the front. And waited.
After several days of watching, they had to change their plans. Guarding the doors day and night could not be done by two men alone, and they could only go without sleep for so long. Oliver solved the problem by ingratiating himself with the concierge of the Auberge and managing to enlist his assistance (for a consideration) in noting the movements of the denizens of apartment five, so that he and Darcy could sleep occasionally. Their new accomplice was to watch and send a message if either the lady or her maid left through the back door, and either Darcy or Oliver would watch the front while the other slept.
During the period of their watching, the maid had occasionally appeared; she would leave for a few minutes or a brief hour to perform the shopping or run errands, but never carried a bag or reticule in which she could have hidden the letters. She could, of course, have secreted them in her petticoats and the men would have been none the wiser.
Frau Klein had not appeared even once.
Finally, Oliver contrived to make the acquaintance of the maid by the expedient of delivering a note from Darcy, and was cultivating that acquaintance very assiduously with flowers and the occasional walk in a nearby park. Darcy envied him his part…the flirtation at least gave Oliver something definite to do.
Each evening Darcy had been invited to visit Frau Klein again, and they had politely discussed her demands again. The lady had become increasingly friendly as the week went on, but had not bent in her demand for the full price of the letters. Her heavily made-up face frequently contorted with avarice and any minimal attractiveness that Darcy had detected on their first meeting was gone. Her persistent and escalating flirtation merely served to enhance his pain over leaving Elizabeth, and he was having difficulty keeping his mind on his task during the interminable waiting outside the Auberge. Whatever Darcy did, it must be soon, for he was running out of both time and patience with the lady.
When he met Oliver to take his turn at watching the Auberge on the fourth day of their vigil, he asked the valet if he was seeing the maid soon.
“It is time to finish this charade. Do you think that she has sufficient confidence in you to enable you to convince her to steal the letters and turn them over to us?”
Oliver considered this question. “I believe so. She knows, of course, that I am in your employ, and has gone so far as to say that she is not fond of her mistress. She finds her grasping and suspicious. Apparently mademoiselle is not trusted with the contents of madame’s jewel case, and she believes that the letters are kept there.”
“Convince her to give madame a sleeping draught in her evening tea, and to find the letters. You can wait outside the service door of the apartment and she can hand them to you. Do you think that you’ll be able to manage that?”
“I think so,” Oliver said slowly, staring up at the building as he reviewed the possibilities. He finally brought his gaze back to his master’s. “I will do my best, sir.”
When Oliver found Darcy at his post in the early afternoon, they both slipped deeper into the shadows.
“Well?” Darcy asked.
“It is all arranged, sir.” Oliver looked a little sheepish and Darcy gave him a questioning look.
“What is the matter, Oliver?”
“Well, sir. I took the liberty of promising the young lady that I would take her with me back to England.” He coughed and pulled at his cravat.
“I have thought it out, sir. She is not interested in a bribe, I could easily see that. I believe she has enjoyed the adventure of flouting her not-very-well-loved mistress by sneaking off to meet me and sharing her mistress’s secrets, but what she truly wants is to go back to England with us. I am hoping, sir, that we will be able to give her some monetary recompense that would allow her to do so on her own…sir,” he finished awkwardly, his stance stiff as a new recruit under inspection.
Darcy looked at him and grinned. “All actions for breach of contract will be covered by the management, Oliver.”
Thank you, sir,” Oliver said with relief.
As they waited out the afternoon at the watch post, they suddenly heard a deep booming sound and a few distant explosions. They looked at each other for a moment and then walked cautiously out into the street. The sound had come from the south and they could see several columns of smoke rising from that direction.
“Cannons,” Darcy said grimly.
Oliver nodded silently, his face pale. After a moment, he cleared his throat and asked, “Do you think that the Coalition will try to destroy the city, sir?”
“I rather suspect that it depends upon whether Napoleon is in Paris, and, if so, whether he puts up a fight. The cannonballs do not seem to be coming this far north, so I think we had better return to our post. You return to the alley where you hid the first evening. The confusion of the cannon fire could be a good time for Frau Klein to smuggle herself and the letters out.”
As the day slowly advanced, the cannon fire sputtered to a stop. The city had an air of expectancy that was oppressive to the point of suffocation. The streets and even the birds were silent, but Darcy could see dark forms behind the lace curtains; eyes were watching.
Oliver reappeared at five o’clock to take the next shift of watching. Darcy was about to leave when suddenly the cannons began firing again, and much closer. Before they could run for cover they heard a whistling sound and a cannonball struck the Auberge du Printemps just above apartment five, damaging the window and the parapet above. Both men gasped and started towards the building, pushing their way through the crowd that was fleeing the destruction. Frau Klein was not amongst them, that Darcy saw. He looked up as they reached the entrance and saw a wisp of smoke coming from the broken window of number five.
“Oliver, stay here and watch for the lady or her maid. I am going to see what is happening upstairs.”
“I will be cautious, but we must see what is going on,” Darcy said impatiently, and ran for the stairs.
The building was eerily quiet now that its denizens had fled, and Darcy hurried up the stairs unimpeded. The service door to apartment five was open- the maid must have escaped past them unseen. He rushed through and, as he burst into the salon, he saw Frau Klein reach into a dark opening in the wall.
She whirled around when she heard him, the packet of letters in her hand. She grimaced at the sight of him and reached down to draw a small pistol from the reticule on the table beside her. There was a thin trickle of blood running down the side of her face from a small cut on her forehead, but the steely glint in her eyes was intact.
She spoke first. “So, you have arrived for the letters, monsieur. I had planned to take your employer’s money and turn the letters over to the emperor to enhance my prestige at the French court, but I find that I must now make other arrangements. However, they will be safe with me for the time being, and I know a gentleman such as yourself would not harm a lady.” She said this last with a curled lip.
Darcy moved into the room, keeping his distance from the gun in her hand. A sudden noise from the doorway he had just left caused Frau Klein to swing the gun toward the door. Darcy, without looking behind, sprang for her and knocked the gun out of her hand. Oliver, who had followed his master through the same service door, retrieved it before Frau Klein could recover.
Darcy commented to Oliver, “You were wrong, Oliver. As you can see, the lady did not have the letters in her jewel case.”
She turned towards Darcy with a mocking look, but then shrugged and said, “The letters are yours. Enjoy them in good health, monsieur. I would, however, not recommend that you read them here, in spite of their fascinating subject matter.”
Darcy followed her eyes to the doorway where the men had entered. There was smoke billowing through the opening and he could see the flicker of fire.
“I will take your excellent advice, madame,” Darcy answered as he counted the letters. There were twenty-two of them. “Is this all of them?”
“Would you trust my answer to that question, monsieur?” she returned acidly.
“Of course not, madame; consider the question withdrawn.”
Darcy bowed formally to her and the two men left the apartment, hurrying towards their lodgings. Fortunately, Darcy thought, our room has a fireplace. The cannon fire had convinced him that it would be fatal to his purpose to attempt to carry the letters through the streets of the city while the Coalition armies were invading Paris. No, the letters much be destroyed.
On his command, Oliver deftly kindled a small fire in the grate as Darcy looked over the letters.
“Dear God,” he whispered as he read them.
“Are you all right, sir?” Oliver asked diffidently.
Darcy shuffled the letters back together and said, “They are the letters we were seeking, fortunately.”
He shook his head and, one by one, fed the letters to the fire, pushing them into the flames with the poker and then breaking up the ashes. It was now late in the day and the light was beginning to dim. Silently, they gathered up their bags and crept down the stairs and out into the dusk.
For the finale of Mr. Darcy’s Parisian Adventure, join me again at Austen Variations on Monday, August 29!
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 often through August to find out!