Posted on 2016-11-19
"She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker." Louisa held out her arm, admiring a new bangle among an armful of bracelets. She looked toward her sister, one eyebrow raised. "I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild."
Exercising her sisterly familiarity with that particular look, Caroline picked up the conversational thread immediately. "She did, indeed, Louisa. I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!" She glanced out of the corner of her eye toward her target, watching for an appropriate response.
When the desired response did not occur, Louisa had her sibling's back. "Yes, and her petticoat. I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it not doing its office."
Ruffling like a blonde bantam rooster, the wrong man replied. "Your picture may be very exact, Louisa, but this was all lost upon me. I thought Miss Elizabeth Bennet looked remarkably well when she came into the room this morning." Charles' face flushed a bit as he defended the sister of his affections. "Her dirty petticoat quite escaped my notice--" he trailed off, realizing he was talking of another woman's undergarments when he would much rather imagine fair Jane's.
"You observed it, Mr. Darcy, I am sure," Caroline hastily aimed her next words square at her target, "and I am inclined to think that you would not wish to see your sister make such an exhibition." It was her turn to raise an eyebrow as if doing so would extract the answer she sought from the brooding man sitting across from her.
"Certainly not," said Darcy, who remained unaffected as he peered into the dregs of his post-dinner tea.
"To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone!" Caroline's voice increased in volume as it elevated in pitch. "What could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum." She set her teacup down upon its saucer rather firmly as if to punctuate her point.
Her brother, still a bit puffed up, rejected his younger sister's pique. "It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing," said Bingley.
"I am afraid, Mr. Darcy," observed Caroline in a half whisper, leaning toward the man as she continued, "that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes."
"Not at all," he replied, rising from the table and moving toward the window to peer out into the twilight. "They were brightened by the exercise," he breathed, appearing lost in thought.
Caroline's eyes bugged a bit as she looked toward her older sibling. Louisa gave a faint jerk of her head toward the door. Caroline gave the slightest of affirmative nods, lost on the men in the dining room.
Louisa continued since the sisters' efforts had yet to yield the desired results. "I have an excessive regard for Miss Jane Bennet, she is really a very sweet girl, and I wish with all my heart she were well settled. But with such a father and mother, and such low connections, I am afraid there is no chance of it." She sniffed, then shuffled her bracelets out of habit, watching her brother and Mr. Darcy both for signs of weakness.
Caroline returned the volley. "I think I have heard you say that their uncle is an attorney in Meryton."
"Yes; and they have another, who lives somewhere near Cheapside."
"That is capital," added Caroline. Both sisters laughed heartily, causing Mr. Hurst to start slightly before scowling at them for disturbing his drowsing over the last of his dessert wine.
Charles chafed more at his sisters' slight against his tendre's family. "If they had uncles enough to fill all Cheapside," he cried, "it would not make them one jot less agreeable."
"But it must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world," replied Darcy, his voice echoing off the window pane as he continued to stare into the darkening gloam, avoiding the pleased gaze of his feminine dinner companions. His face could not be read even in the reflection upon the glass, but his shoulders remained square, his stance taut, his hands tightly clasped behind his back.
To this speech, Bingley made no answer, but his sisters gave it their hearty assent and indulged their mirth for some time at the expense of their dear friend's vulgar relations. Their laughter bordered on rudeness, ringing across the room until Mr. Hurst glared at his wife before swilling the last of his sweet wine.
Taking Hurst's hint, the sisters stood and excusing themselves from the dining-parlour, leaving the men to their postprandial cigars and brandy. Louisa pulled Caroline into a small sitting room and closed the door behind them. "You must find out what Miss Elizabeth does in the morning. What is her path and how long does she walk before breaking her fast?"
Caroline started. "Surely you cannot mean I should mimic her frowsy, countrified ways!"
"You must, Caro. You saw Mr. Darcy's interest yet again in her 'brightened eyes'," Louisa hissed, fluttering her fingers next to her face. "I thought the man was going to moan, he breathed so hard--" she stopped, realizing her virginal sister would not understand her point about Darcy's appreciation. She was certain Darcy was hiding another physical response as he brooded in front of the dining room window.
"Oh, all right. Lord, the man had better be worth this effort," Caroline whined. Her patience with the somber and reticent man was stretched thin after years of diligent pursuit with nothing to show for it but ridicule from her friends in town.
"Worth this effort! Pemberley is ever so worth it, even if Mr. Darcy proves a dullard in the bedroom!" The older sister rolled her eyes. She would be so glad when Caroline had finally experienced all that marriage entailed so she could be more candid. Louisa needed to get her needy, grasping sister married off in the worst way or her husband would drink himself to death. "Let us go and visit Jane and her coarse little sister right now. We'll ask about the best walking trails to be had about Meryton and then you will follow Miss Elizabeth tomorrow morning on the sly to see if her word matches her deeds."
"What will that do for me?" Caroline asked huffily, feeling her sister was far more invested in winning Mr. Darcy than a married woman should be.
"We don't want Mr. Darcy to come across Miss Elizabeth alone some morning during one of his rides. You can plan to walk with her, or at least walk along the courses she suggests, thereby creating an opportunity to meet Mr. Darcy alone in the morning, while brightening your eyes." Louisa fluttered her fingers again.
"Oh bother. Fine, let us quiz these Bennet chits. I will not allow the chance Mr. Darcy ever runs across her walking alone in the morning."
Opening the door slowly, the sisters peered out of the sitting room before making for the stairs toward the guest rooms. They visited with Jane and Elizabeth in Jane's room until summoned to coffee. Elizabeth's eyes widened with surprise when Caroline asked her about the best walking to be had about Netherfield and Longbourn. Jane, still weak and faintly feverish, did not notice her younger sibling's skepticism about the Bingley sisters' proclaimed interest in walking for exercise. Nor did Jane seem at all surprised that these two women, who only bestirred their bodies to shop and danced at Meryton's assembly with great reluctance, were now eager to discover the countryside on foot. Nevertheless, the younger Bennet described several paths she preferred, including her favorite -- an especially pretty but long and wild trail crossing the two estates by way of a stile over a rocky border near a too-marshy fen where the properties met. The Bingleys nodded as they listened, Caroline repeating out loud particularly memorable points as Miss Elizabeth described them, including her caution about the muddy bit by the stile. Elizabeth could only chuckle and shake her head once the superior sisters took their leave for coffee.
Jane never did come downstairs that evening. She had used all her reserves of strength on her usual kindly agreeability during the Bingley sisters' visit. Elizabeth went back and forth between the drawing-room and her sister's room, indulging her conceited independence once again by avoiding card games and bickering with Mr. Darcy. The man simply could not resist being pulled into conversation with the audacious country hoyden, which assured Caroline she was doing the right thing to rise early and surreptitiously follow Miss Elizabeth on her morning walk. She and Louisa expressed every possible bit of fuss giving the appearance of caring for the more beautiful Bennet girl, claiming wretchedness at her continued ill health. But they readily gave into Mr. Hurst's request for entertainment, playing duets until Caroline could reasonably excuse herself early to bed.
Dawn came much too soon for Caroline's taste. She woke when she heard the maid tending the fire but drifted back to sleep. Louisa had not slept well, suffering from both dyspepsia and her husband's snoring throughout the night; she arose early thinking to take ginger tea to settle her stomach. Passing Caroline's room she noted the door still closed -- not a good sign if Caroline was to achieve her objective that morning. Louisa entered and finding her sister sound asleep set about waking her.
"Caroline!" she hissed as she poked her younger sibling. "Caro! Wake up!"
"Oh!" Caroline sat up with a start in a flurry of bed linens. The room was now bright with sunlight, suggesting that Caroline had slept another half hour after her intended waking time. "Help me, Louisa! I'll never catch that wretch!"
Louisa summoned Caroline's abigail; between the older sister and the lady's maid Caroline's face was hastily scrubbed, her hair pinned up, her body stuffed into her oldest walking dress and her stoutest boots. They were not sturdy half-boots meant for hiking the countryside -- just her oldest riding boots -- but they would have to do for the task at hand since Caroline had never owned boots for walking. Selecting a pelisse gave Caroline pause; she wanted her fine silk one, but the weather was crisp, her maid said, and the silk would offer too little warmth. A chocolate-brown velveteen pelisse was selected in the alternate, one quilted with cotton batting and trimmed with a satin piping. A cassimere paisley shawl, brown kid leather gloves, and a simple pumpkin-colored bonnet with a jaunty little feather completed the attire. The last Louisa slapped on her sister's head as Caroline was shoved out the kitchen door in the direction the scullery maid indicated Miss Elizabeth headed.
The apple-cheeked scullery girl had never seen Miss Bingley, confined to the kitchen as she was. She had, however, heard of the young woman's rages toward household staff, and could not muster words to reply when asked about Miss Elizabeth.
"Oh, Louisa! Really, we must do something about improving the help if we are to stay here in the wilds of Hertfordshire any longer!" Caroline blustered, frustrated by the scant information from which she would launch her effort.
"Never mind that now, Caro. You must hurry! By now Miss Elizabeth has reached the halfway point of her walk. Stop by the stables and ask one of the hands to point out the quickest way toward the stile! Quickly!" Louisa herded her sister across the kitchen courtyard toward the stables.
The dopey feeling of sudden waking finally shed, Caroline strode off as fast as her boots could carry her. "You there!" she waved at a stable boy raking the approach. "Do you know the stile where Longbourn and Netherfield estates meet?"
"Aye, mum." The boy looked at Caroline as if she had a second head on her shoulders. He, like the scullery maid, had heard things about the younger Bingley woman. He would not open his mouth and offer anything more than necessary.
"Well? Which way is it?"
The boy squinted and pointed toward the northwest.
Caroline huffed. "I can't see it from here. How far is it?"
"A bit of a walk, mum. Mebbe two ta' three quarter hours at a good pace if you head straight that way from here." The boy waved again in the same direction.
Huffing again at the insufficiency of detail and the annoying task ahead, Caroline bit out again at the boy. "Quickly now, I need to know if there is a way to approach the stile indirectly, perhaps with more shelter from the elements." She could not very well tell the boy she was sneaking around.
"Yes, mum. Follow inside the ha-ha until it ends, then along the edge of the fen. Walk 'round it toward the stile."
"Hmm. Edge of the fen."
"There's some wide ash copses at the east side of the fen. They'll offer some shelter."
"One more thing, boy. Did you see anyone this morning, riding or walking?"
"Yes, mum. Mr. Darcy went riding, said he'd take his usual route 'round to the village an' then back," the boy said as he pointed to the south and the road toward Meryton and around back again toward the north, "and Miss Elizabeth went for her walk near an hour ago, that way." The stable hand pointed in the direction of the stile.
Caroline set off without another word, leaving the stable boy gaping as he leaned on his rake. She went north as the boy indicated, staying inside the hedge along the ha-ha out of sight from Longbourn to the west. When she reached the far corner of the ha-ha, she stepped out of the break in the hedge line. The ha-ha trough was partially filled from recent rain; it took her longer than she expected to find dry places to step through the trough without wetting her boots. Caroline continued on across a brushy area of higher ground, watching as she went along for any sign of Miss Elizabeth. So far, so good -- there was no indication her nemesis was near.
Nearly upon the fen approaching the stile, she heard a woman singing in the distance, the sweet voice fading as if the singer was walking farther away from where Caroline stood. Drat! It was that dreadful Eliza! Caroline couldn't see the younger woman past the thick, scrubby growth on the other side of the stile. It would take far too long to follow the stable boy's directions and follow the east side of the fen. Wasn't there some way to cross this soppy, marshy acreage more directly to the stile?
Caroline looked down and studied the plants and soil beneath her feet -- a once-in-a-lifetime experience as the young woman had no respect for the countryside and had never needed to bother with such details in London or Scarborough whence her family hailed. The longish grass was crushed and matted in a line toward a collection of small hillocks or grassy knobs. Caroline followed the damaged greens right up to the first hillock. She stepped up to it, noting the grass atop the mound the size of a bushel basket was likewise as crushed as the trail on which she had walked.
Puzzled by the condition of the grass, Caroline decided to walk around the other side and look for signs the trail continued on the other side of the mound. But her boots began to slip and sink into the marshy fen. Well! It was no wonder Miss Eliza's hem was soiled six inches deep with mud on arrival at Netherfield. Caroline would be smarter than the country miss and use the small hillocks as a path across the fen. She leaned over and grabbed the hem of her walking dress, folding it up to keep it from trailing in the mud. There -- she was ready to go across toward the stile, and with no time to lose if she was to gain on her foe.
Taking a look around to ensure no one was watching her, Miss Bingley then hopped onto the first green hillock. Once she had gained sure footing, she eyed the next mound a yard away. It was a stretch, but she felt sure she could jump to it as if she were a frog. La, it was hardly more than the distance from a carriage to the ground, and she'd jumped that distance many times in her life.
She crouched a bit and then sprung forward, landing on the center of the mound. There! Only a dozen or so jumps like this and she would be at the stile across the fen. It would take but a few minutes and save her more than a quarter hour walk around by the ash copses. She looked toward the next green hillock and leapt again with success.
By the time she had nearly crossed the fen, jumping more than ten times like a frog on lily pads, Caroline was feeling quite saucy. Her heart raced, her limbs felt loose and limber, her face was warm with a flush. She was certain her eyes were brightened now, just as that chit Eliza's had been. If this was all it would take to capture Mr. Darcy's attention, this morning's exercise was well worth it. Pemberley would be hers!
She smiled smugly to herself, enjoying her sense of achievement when she looked ahead toward the last several mounds in the marshy fen she needed to pass to reach the stile. Her mouth turned down as she noticed the next leap must take one of three hillocks, each equidistant from where she was, but none of them particularly more traveled than another. Or at least they didn't look so from her perspective. Which of the three should she aim for with her next jump?
Caroline stood still for a second, listening for Eliza's voice. She could no longer distinguish the hoyden's fading mezzo-soprano from birds' chirps in the distance; Elizabeth was moving too far away, too fast. Caroline had to keep moving if she was to achieve her next goal, ensuring that Mr. Darcy did not run across Eliza alone on foot. She quickly ran through a childish selection process -- eeny, meeny, miney, moe -- and picked the mound in the center anyhow. Caroline crouched and leapt.
The grassy knoll to which she leapt, though, was incomplete. The backside -- hidden by foot-long grass on the east side and further shaded by the early sun's low eastern light -- was non-existent. Caroline teetered and flailed, leaning first to the left and then to the right toward the next closest mound. But gravity is a cruel and inevitable mistress, and Caroline landed smack on her backside in the soft, dark muck of the fen, her bonnet sailing wide of its wearer.
She lay still atop the muck for a moment, stunned by her failure after so much success. But the muck was not firm; its soft, soupy nature had been masked by dead grass and duckweed and reeds across its surface. Caroline reached out to brace herself to pull herself up, but there it was almost solid, and there almost liquid. The viscous muck was more like pond water than mud.
Panic overwhelmed her as she began to flail her arms and legs. She sputtered as the soppy muck splashed into her face, gasping as she felt the cold stew of loam and water and sand begin to fill her riding boots. She could no longer kick her legs as the boots weighed her down; there was no down beneath her boots, no bottom to the muck on which her soles could find purchase. The pretty velveteen pelisse, so toasty warm with its puffy cotton-batting quilting, weighed her down even further as the outerwear soaked up moisture. It never occurred to her to shed her pelisse or slip off her boots, so intense and blinding was her fear. She tried to scream but her desperate flailing churned up more muck into her face and mouth.
Her right hand found the right-most hillock of the three, pulling on the long grass which hung over the top. But her kid gloves, so shiny and pretty in the Bond Street shop case and even prettier on her hands, were slick with the slimy muck and slid off the blades of grass.
She finally managed a shout, calling "Help me! Help!" with a final gasp of relief as a shadow fell over her face before she submerged below the dark, opaque muck of the fen.
The shadow, a raven flying overhead as it looked for its breakfast, passed quickly once it realized the weak wriggling at the surface of the fen was only the inedible fingertips of gloves and not a struggling mouse.
The raven took another pass over the fen just to be sure. Now there was nothing to be had but a few bubbles near an odd floating orange object which had no business in the fen.
Elizabeth had an accident that morning. She had caught her walking boot on a root and twisted her ankle as she made her way back toward Netherfield. Mr. Darcy found her hobbling slowly back toward the estate. Dismounting, he offered her a lift on his horse; Longbourn being closer, he slowly led his horse and his precious cargo back to her estate. Darcy had a lovely chat with Miss Elizabeth about the book he had been reading the evening before, though the conversation was a bit one-sided. She was not as loquacious as usual, which, from the pale, pinched look on her face, Darcy attributed to pain. He maintained a patter to distract her as they made their way toward Longbourn, much as he had on many occasions when his younger sister needed her attention redirected.
Once at Longbourn, Mr. Darcy saw to Miss Elizabeth's comfort himself, carrying her to the sitting room and asking the housekeeper for a cold compress for her ankle once she had been seated and her injured leg propped up on a pillow. Darcy then set about calling for a physician, asking for paper and pen to send an express to town. Elizabeth felt it was too much, however, since she was certain it was only a sprain. Darcy gave in and sent instead for Mr. Jones, the apothecary in Meryton who had treated Miss Elizabeth's sprains before. While they waited for the apothecary, Mr. Darcy continued to keep Miss Elizabeth occupied, talking about his sister and her own rash of childhood injuries he had seen to as her guardian.
Naturally, this led to further revelations requiring only small effort on Elizabeth's part to coax them from the serious young man. His parents' deaths and assumption of duties as Pemberley's master, his shared guardianship of his much-younger sister with his cousin Richard Fitzwilliam, the relationship between the Fitzwilliams and the De Bourghs, Lady Catherine's desire to see her sickly daughter Anne married to Darcy, Darcy's recalcitrance -- it all spilled out of Darcy like water from a fountain, both shocking and mesmerizing Elizabeth to no end.
Where had this chatty fellow been? He was nothing at all like the taciturn man she first met at Meryton's last assembly, nor was he reserved like the man she had seen at Netherfield. He was everything kind. helpful and generous, and an entertaining conversationalist. The pain in her ankle was great, but as long as he talked she could ignore it -- and talk he did.
Mr. Bennet found the two alone in the sitting room, a tray of tea and breakfast pastries between them talking about Greek classics and the meddling of the gods in human affairs. At first surprised and alarmed, Mr. Darcy rose and offered his seat to Mr. Bennet, inviting him to break his fast with his daughter. Elizabeth explained how Mr. Darcy came to Longbourn and where they had left off in their discussion, asking Darcy to please take a seat and continue. Mr. Bennet found himself happy to join their conversation as they ate and waited for Mr. Jones.
Mr. Jones arrived at the same time Mrs. Bennet and the younger Bennet girls came down to breakfast. Jones' presence and Elizabeth's desire that the apothecary would examine Jane at Netherfield after he tended to her ankle distracted Mrs. Bennet from effusions over Mr. Darcy.
Mrs. Bennet insisted she would accompany Mr. Jones to Netherfield since Elizabeth could not tend to Jane. Mr. Bennet encouraged her departure and then invited Darcy to join him in his book room to browse through his collection of classics. Elizabeth told her father poor Mr. Darcy was woefully deprived of reading material at Netherfield, thinking to reward Darcy for his kindness by way of her father's books.
It wasn't until dinner at Netherfield that evening that anyone realized Caroline was missing. Louisa had spent her morning nursing her dyspeptic stomach before Mr. Jones and Mrs. Bennet had arrived, and then was preoccupied with gossip-laden Mrs. Bennet who stayed to care for the still-too-sick-to-be-moved Jane. Charles had spent the day with his brother-in-law hunting at a nearby estate -- Mr. Jones had invited Charles and Herschel Hurst to come shooting with him once he had assured the Netherfield party Jane was not dying of a trifling cold. They all had been apprised of Darcy's location at Longbourn upon Mr. Jones' and Mrs. Bennet's arrival.
Too used to Caroline's chronic, fashionable lateness, dinner had already been served and the main course plated before Louisa realized no one had mentioned Caroline all day. They were not immediately worried; they all assumed she was simply giving into a fit of pique or fatigue from her unusual activity that morning.
By the time Darcy had returned after dinner, they had begun to worry. Caroline's abigail had not seen her all day, and no note had been left behind. Nothing in her rooms had been disturbed. The stable reported they had not seen her return from her walk.
A note was dispatched to Longbourn and returned; no one there had seen Caroline about the estate grounds nor in town where the youngest sisters had shopped during the day.
Charles mounted a search team, but the late hour combined with the onset of freezing rain made the search futile.
They resumed the search the next day -- tenants from both Netherfield and Longbourn as well as the Bennets and Lucases came to the Bingley's aid. The stable boy, who'd been the last person to see Caroline, told them about her desire to walk and which way she went. There was no sign of her along the ha-ha, the east side of the fen, the ash copses, nor the stile and the border alone the estates. There were no indications of foul play noted, and everyone was accounted for.
They searched for three days in the cold, grey damp of Hertfordshire in November and found nothing. It was as if Miss Caroline Bingley had simply floated away into the heavens.
It was two weeks later when Elizabeth's ankle was finally healed enough to bear her weight over a distance. Each day Darcy had come to call to check on her progress. His visits were initially short while the Netherfield party was searching for Miss Bingley. But once the search was called off, Darcy came not only to check on Elizabeth but to break up the oppressive worry and sadness hanging over Netherfield.
Jane had returned home after a full week and a half at Netherfield; Mrs. Bennet had not only nursed Jane but comforted Louisa.
It seemed Louisa's dyspepsia wasn't from bad beef but the early stages of pregnancy, with which Mrs. Bennet was all too familiar. Mrs. Bennet saw to Louisa's care over several rough mornings, aggravated by the needs of tenants and neighbors helping search for Caroline. The two women became friends -- Louisa needed a mother's touch, and Mrs. Bennet needed something to focus on apart from fretting over five unmarried daughters.
On this morning fourteen days after Caroline had gone missing, Elizabeth walked her favorite long but wild path over the stile toward Netherfield, enjoying the last of the leaves' autumn colors and the gold of the dried-down grasses. Her mission that day was not merely to walk but to carry the herbs for a tisane Mrs. Bennet had prepared for Louisa. Elizabeth strode to the top of the stile, taking a deep breath of the cold fall air she had missed while cooped up at Longbourn as her ankle recovered.
No sooner had she breathed in than she regretted it -- something nearby had died and reeked. Perhaps a deer injured by a hunter had fallen nearby, or some other wildlife? The smell grew stronger the closer she got to the west edge of the fen. She fished out her handkerchief and held it over her nose as she walked.
There, to the north side of a hillock of grass in the middle of the fen -- along a dangerous path only a sure-footed child might take -- was a dark, damp clot of orange fabric. The color looked familiar, though no one from Meryton would have thought to wear something that shade.
Elizabeth ran around the fen, past the ash copses, and along the ha-ha, until she arrived at Netherfield. Darcy, just mounting his horse for his morning ride, met her in front of the stables. Pale-faced, gasping and teary-eyed, she told him in halting words what she found before she began to collapse from shock.
Once again, Darcy dismounted to rescue his beloved Elizabeth, scooping her up to carry her inside before telling the remaining Bingleys their sister may have been found.
Jane blotted the baby's forehead after the rector finished baptizing Hurst's heir. Darcy swayed ever so slightly while holding a second freshly-blotted bundle. He grinned at the playful expression in his new wife's dark eyes; she smiled back, seated in a pew waiting while her husband and her favorite sister completed their first duties as godparents.
Watching his favorite daughter and son-in-law, Mr. Bennet maintained his usual wry smirk through the proceedings. His brow looked less burdened than it had a year earlier, though three more unmarried Bennet daughters sat alongside him in the Bennet pew.
Mr. Bingley gazed with unmitigated adoration upon his beautiful fiancee, Jane. Mr. Hurst, vacillating between sober seriousness and jittery joy, sat beside him. Happy for all her maternal feelings, Mrs. Bennet patted Louisa's hand as the younger woman sniffled with both happiness and sadness as Charles Herschel Hurst and Caroline Francine Hurst were welcomed into the church's fold.
What wondrous miracles God wrought, Louisa thought, sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the sister who, by her death in Hertfordshire nearly seven months earlier, had been the means of uniting them all.The End