1814. Peace had come to England.
Since 1740, George III's Great Britain had been in recurrent conflict with its ancient enemy France and all its various governments. She fought Louis XV's Kingdom of France again and again over their colonies in the New World and India. She prevented the expansion of Robespierre's homicidal French Republic and its Revolution. She had spent irreplaceable men and treasure to overthrow the menace of Napoleon Bonaparte as he tried to build an empire out of Europe.
After seventy-four years of recurring warfare, her work was done. The cost in blood and gold had been high, but the country was safe. The self-proclaimed Emperor Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to Elba, a small island in the Mediterranean Sea. A new French king, one finally friendly to Britain, was established on his throne in Paris. A grand congress of all the allies who had stood against the Tyrant was assembled in Vienna to re-draw the post-war world. Britain was master of the subcontinent. Soldiers and sailors were brought back to sweet England, paid off, and sent home.
Only the unpopular conflict with their former American colonies remained, and Prime Minister Lord Liverpool was working hard to end it. Even now, diplomats in Ghent were dancing the steps of diplomacy to fashion a peace treaty between the United States and Great Britain. It was hoped it would be signed before Christmas.
With the fall of Bonaparte and the end of the American War in sight, the people of Regency England dutifully gathered in church, sang their praises to God and king, and then turned their attention to more mundane and heartfelt concerns: the business of living happily ever after.
Colonel Christopher Brandon sat at his breakfast table in Delaford Manor, enjoying his second cup of coffee. He had become enamored of the drink while serving in India and on the Continent during the wars against France-first against the godless Jacobites and then later against the Corsican artilleryman who dared name himself emperor of the French. At first, his young, lovely wife could not reason why anyone would drink anything but tea, but she assumed it to be another of his eccentricities. Then one cold, winter afternoon, impatient for the teakettle, she seized her husband's cup and drained half of it. That impulsive act had the result of doubling the amount in the Brandon household budget for coffee.
"Look, Joy. There is your papa."
Christopher looked up, delight spreading over his rather plain features. There was his Marianne, returning his smile, holding the greatest miracle of his life-his infant daughter, Joy. Christopher got to his feet and crossed over to the pair. Holding out his hands, he received the squirming babe from his wife. Christopher kissed and cooed at the child for a few moments before handing Joy to the nurse standing nearby. The baby gurgled happily as she was carried back to the nursery. Christopher then escorted Marianne to the table, pulling out her chair and giving her a discreet peck on the cheek. Marianne returned the gesture with a caress before sitting down to her first cup of the day.
"Goodness, Colonel Brandon, I do not know what gift of yours has given me more pleasure-our daughter, Joy, or a taste for coffee," she exclaimed and not for the first time.
"Indeed, madam. I will have to increase my rents to keep you in beans." He crossed over to the sideboard to fill his wife's plate-a task he had done every morning since her confinement. Marianne declared that his kindness, while appreciated, was unnecessary since their child's birth, but the colonel would not give it up, insisting that he got much enjoyment from performing such a mundane task for her. It was Marianne's happy lot to suffer his attentions.
"Does my habit of expense threaten Joy's dowry, do you think? Heaven forbid! Well, I am afraid she will just have to marry for money."
"Like her mother, my dear?" Christopher chuckled at Marianne's glare.
"I should agree with you, sir. It would serve you right!" But the spat could not last. Marianne could never be displeased for long with those she loved. Her face finally broke out in a smile at their teasing. She shook her head and asked, "Has the paper come?"
"Yes, my dear. It awaits your pleasure," responded Christopher as he placed Marianne's breakfast before her.
Several quiet but pleasant minutes later, the two retired to the library for their morning ritual of reading the newspapers, handling the correspondence, and enjoying a last cup of coffee. The letters were handled first.
"Look, my love, a letter from the Continent," said Marianne as she handed him his share of the post. "And there is an invitation."
It was their usual practice to discuss not only their correspondence, personal and business, but also the news of the world. Since he began the improvement of Marianne Dashwood's mind three years ago, Christopher found that he had developed a valuable partner. Marianne's partner was a loving, sensible person who could keep her emotions in check, while Christopher gained an advisor whose sensibilities often gave him an insight he would not otherwise acquire.
"What news, Husband?"
"'Tis a letter from Wellington in Paris. He and Lady Beatrice send their regards."
"Lady Beatrice? I long to see her again! Did he say how long she was to remain to play hostess for her cousin?"
"Nothing in here, my dear." It was well known that Wellington was estranged from his wife and, therefore, had his cousin with him to tend to all social events.
"Any other news?" she asked as she opened the invitation.
"Besides Talleyrand being up to his old tricks? The same old frustrations-"
"My goodness!" cried Mrs. Brandon, staring at a letter in her hand.
"What? What is it, my dear? What has alarmed you?" Christopher almost shot out of his chair. He saw his wife staring at a letter.
"It cannot be! Oh, could it be true? How?"
"Marianne!" the colonel shouted. It served; he finally got her attention. Marianne waved the invitation at him.
"Do you wish to know the news? You will not believe it."
"Believe it or not, I cannot say until I am apprised of it."
"Christopher, Sir John Buford is to be married-to Miss Caroline Bingley!"
"Oh." Brandon casually returned to his chair and his mail. "Does it say when?"
Marianne was astonished at her husband's lack of reaction. "Did you not hear me? Sir John is marrying-" She gasped. "You knew! You knew and did not tell me!" This time the glare was in earnest.
Christopher smiled sheepishly. "I suspected."
"Oh!" Mrs. Brandon tossed down her letters and sat with a cross expression on her face. After several minutes, she asked, "How long have you suspected?"
Her husband had no choice but to answer. "Buford wrote to ask my opinion on the matter in September."
Marianne's eyes flashed dangerously. "Two months!"
"Nearer three, I am afraid."
"Christopher Brandon, I simply cannot believe you have kept this news secret from your wife for nearly three months!" she cried. There was a long pause. "Usually you relent after a week." She picked up a pillow and threw it at him.
Catching her weapon, he ventured, "When is the wedding?"
Trying not to smile, Marianne picked up the invitation. "The middle of January. She marries from Bingley House in London, at St. --."
"Good. I would not like to travel to Nottinghamshire in winter."
"There is more." She indicated a small note enclosed with the invitation. "Mr. and Mrs. Bingley are giving a ball in the couple's honor at Bingley House on New Year's Eve."
Her husband eyed her. "Do you wish to go?"
"I am tempted, but I cannot bear to leave Joy just now, Christopher."
"But nothing could be easier! We shall bring Joy with us. We shall simply open our house in London early." He reached over and took her hands in his. "You will be fully recovered from your laying-in by then, I think. A ball would do you good."
"Oh, my dear, do you mean it? All of us-Joy's nurse and the rest of the staff? It will take two carriages at least!"
"Two or two hundred-what is that to me when I have the opportunity to dance with you, my Marianne?"
She stroked his face with her hand. "You are too good, sir."
"I am a poor fool saved by your love. You have given me joy-by giving me Joy. I shall spend the rest of my life proving myself worthy of you."
As Marianne's face beamed with affection for her husband, Christopher gathered her into his arms. There was little talking for a quarter-hour.
The emperor stood on the balcony of his palace surveying his domain, his arms behind his back in the classic at-ease position. After the customary hour-long bath he insisted on each morning, he was dressed in a uniform with the sash of the Legion of Honor peeking from under the coat. Of average height-he was four inches taller than the five feet two inches commonly believed-the casual observer would not think much of him unless he saw his eyes and the grim look on his face.
His wife, Marie-Louise, and son were guests-prisoners actually-of the Austrians in Parma. The Treaty of Fontainebleau had not given him much-this spit of land, a thousand soldiers, and two million francs. But it was enough-enough to start again. His lucky star would never desert him.
A servant interrupted his musings. "Your Excellency," he announced, "déjeuner is ready." Exactly on time-the emperor insisted on it. He had a passion for consistency and routine.
"Merci," he replied in the Italian-accented French that he had not been able to overcome in thirty-five years. He returned inside and sat alone before the first of the two meals he would consume that day, this one of well-done sautéed chicken, croissants, and heavily watered Chambertin wine.
Such was the change in his life. A year ago, he would have been involved in the morning levee, with aides, generals, and diplomats scurrying about, carrying out orders that had shaken the world. As usual, the emperor left half his meal on the plate before retiring into his office.
The Allies thought they were kind to give him this empire-one hundred thousand souls on Elba-while they placed that fool of a Bourbon onto the throne of France. A lesser man either would have accepted his fate or despaired of his condition. But he was not like lesser men. Destiny was not through with him, he knew. His preparations were almost complete.
Soon, very soon, Napoleon Bonaparte knew it would be time.