Early summer, 1811
Elizabeth Bennet’s eyes flew open. The previous moment she had been in a peaceful sleep, and now, an instant later, she was wide awake. Something must have happened to so disturb her slumber. Had it been the storm outside? Even through the heavy draperies that fell from ceiling to floor at her windows, she could hear crashes of thunder punctuating the soliloquy of rain that pelted the window, and the accompanying shards of lightning lit up her room through the chinks between the folds of fabric. The rains must be heavy indeed to create such a noise; only a very desperate man would be out on a night like this one. She folded herself further into her blankets, relieved to be warm and dry and safe.
A hint of another noise tickled her ears from the other side of the window. Perhaps a horse had been spooked by the noise of the storm and had whinnied its alarm, or one of the dogs had barked his disapproval. Such was the crash of rain and thunder that she could not discern any more than that the courtyard was not quite devoid of life. Now she thought she heard something in the house. Had a cat yowled? Or had one of her sisters cried out in alarm at the storm? Her own chamber was separated from those of her family by some distance, but sounds did carry through the building. At times, when she sat at the top of the stairs, she could hear conversations from the kitchens as clearly as if she were in that very room! But it mattered not whence the sounds came, for now she was awake, and quite completely so. She closed her eyes, but sleep eluded her, and after a while, she gave up her attempts. Resigning herself to a long few hours until the sun crept fitfully over the horizon to cast its weary rays upon what remained of the storm, she threw her head back upon the pillows, and then she heard another noise.
This time the sound came from directly above her: a tentative footstep, and then another, and the noise of something sliding across the floor. This was most strange, for that room ought, by all rights, to be quite empty, and especially so at this darkest of hours. What hour could it be? It was impossible to tell from the darkness of the night and the intensity of the storm. Out of instinct, her eyes sought the small clock that sat upon the mantelpiece in her bedchamber, but it was too dark to see the hands. Two quick steps took her from her bed to the fireplace, and then it was little trouble to light the lamp. Three o’clock.
As she contemplated returning to bed, another sound came from above. Had somebody dropped something? Whoever could be up there? This would not do! She found her slippers and robe and then pulled a warm wrap about her shoulders to ward off the chill. Kneeling on the floor by the fireplace, her lamp at her side, she pressed a small knob in the carvings where the stone hearth met the panelled wall. With scarcely a sound, the panel slid forward, and she swung it open just far enough to allow herself to slip through. Turning the flame on her lamp as low as it might burn without guttering, she took a resolute breath and disappeared into the chilly space beyond.
This wing of Longbourn was the oldest part of the manor house by centuries. Family legend said that it dated back to the thirteenth century, to the days of Henry III, and if this story were incorrect, the ancient and weathered stones were silent on the truth. Only this one tower remained of the original structure, and it was now incorporated into the newer house, itself two hundred years old, but updated with all the modern conveniences. Elizabeth’s mother had been aghast when her second daughter had moved out of the nursery and begged to move to the room in the ancient tower.
“It is draughty and cold!” Mrs. Bennet had countered. “You will catch your death of a chill, and then you will be sorry!”
But Elizabeth, in the wonders of early adolescence, spoke eloquently of the appeal of the rounded room, of the sturdiness of the thick walls, of the new windows and panels that would surely keep the draughts at bay. With her father’s tacit approval, the argument was won. What had really appealed to her, though, was the secret doorway, which she had discovered upon a search for her embroidery, which the maids had last seen in the cat’s mouth. Her search took her up to the old tower, and then into every corner, where the knob had almost presented itself to her hungry eyes.
No stranger to the wonders of Mrs. Radcliffe and her horrid novels of spectres and secret passages and the like, Elizabeth could not resist this hidden door. The knob that released the latch was a beacon in the darkness to a lass intent on finding adventure, and she was amazed to discover that, following carefully worded questions, her father seemed not to know of it at all. Perhaps he had not read Mrs. Radcliffe when he was young! She had passed through it many times, sometimes in a game she played with herself, sometimes merely to find a place of solitude away from her mother’s plaints and her sisters’ shouts.
The door led to a narrow staircase that lay between the inner and outer walls of the tower, leading down to a similar panel in the little-used parlour that lay below, and up to an unused room above. Or—rather—to a room that was supposed to be unused! Perhaps the stairs had once been a servants’ stairwell, or a means of escape during times of strife, be it war or persecution. It was not the only entrance to that upstairs room, for that was a large and heavy door that led off the hallway that spanned the length of the house on that storey.
Just as her room in this ancient part of the house was at the far end of the building from the rooms of her parents and sisters, so was the upstairs space distant from the servants’ rooms. It ought, by all rights, to be completely abandoned, but for a few crates that no one thought worthy of exploring. Who, then, was creeping across that cold floor? Curiosity warred with trepidation, and Elizabeth felt her palms grow damp. Nonsense, she told herself. It must just be some servants at work! But not at three o’clock in the morning, surely! Pulling her shawl snug across her shoulders, she began to climb the stairs, one silent step after another.
At the top, the narrow stairwell flattened to a small landing, which led to a secret panel similar to that in her own chamber. This one, however, was older and had not been repaired when the lower storeys had been improved some fifty or sixty years past, and the wood was cracked and shrunken. Pressing her face against the panel, she could see into the room through a chink where the panel met the wall. Her view was not complete, but it showed her much of the centre of the chamber. Covering her lamp so the light would not be seen, she put her eye to the crack and peered through.
She should have seen nothing. The room should have been in complete darkness. How strange, then, and yet how expected it was, that the space was filled with light. This was not the sudden and fitful burst of lightning upon an empty space, but the steady and warm glow of a lamp, shedding its golden light throughout the cavernous space. The draperies were drawn and the sound of the storm scarcely permeated into her concealed closet, but the room was not silent. Men were talking, barely whispering, and moving objects from place to place. This must have caused the noise that had awakened her. A large table was already set up in the centre of the space, and she could see the end of a cot at the edge of her field of vision. And there, by the window, was the side of the heavy desk that had lain dusty for too many years. She tried to shift to see further to the side of her narrow tunnel, but her robe caught on a nail and she nearly made a noise as she heard the fabric tear. She held her breath, but the whispering men seemed not to notice anything amiss.
Now she could hear distinct voices. There were two men—or two who were speaking, at any rate. To her alarm, the language was French.
“Comment puis-je vous remercier?” the first voice whispered. How can I ever thank you? Elizabeth had studied French, as was expected of young ladies despite the hostilities with France, and the man spoke clearly and precisely. She had little trouble understanding the conversation.
“You understand that you risk your own life by aiding me thus,” he continued. “You need not attach your cause to mine. I shall not fault you should you decide to change your mind.”
“Cela ne sera pas nécessaire,” came the whispered reply. The speaker was English, his French excellent but not unaccented. The voice… surely it could not be! But no, that was impossible. She listened more keenly as the man spoke on. “I know who I am, what we are. Your aims are mine. We are brothers in this endeavour. Fraternité.” He laughed once, a short and bitter sound that echoed in the large space. “You may remain here until your men return, and I shall come with food and books as often as possible. But I hope it will not be more than a week, for the longer you remain, the more likely you are to be discovered. Nevertheless, I shall undertake the task you asked of me, no matter what.”
“If you are caught…” the first man began, but the second cut him short.
“If I am caught, I understand the consequences. I am prepared to take that risk. The benefits should I succeed make the danger worthwhile.”
“Merci, mon cousin Thomas Benoit.”
“Call me Bennet here, Etienne. Even in private.” Now Elizabeth clapped a hand across her mouth to stifle a cry. Her father—her beloved English father—was harbouring and abetting a Frenchman. The enemy!
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