Posted on 2015-10-31
Blurb: the well-known Washington Irving take set in the P&P world.
Great Britain is not a very large island, and there is not one square inch of it that has not been trod under a conqueror's heel at one point or another, to be rechristened and remolded in the image of the victor. But victory and villainy are fluid, constantly changing with perspective, and a loss that is fully embraced becomes no loss at all.
So it was that the village of Tarrytown, ensconced in the county of Hertfordshire, was condescendingly labelled "Merry Town" by the sneering sophisticates of London who found the general friendliness and joy of the locals too much for their jaded tastes. The locals naturally embraced the name and, after a few adjustments in spelling, it stands as Meryton today.
The nearby settlement of Longbourn was originally called Longue Borne by its Norman conqueror to mark the distance from his native land before succeeding generations became too settled there to view anywhere else as home.
Approximately three miles from there lies another plot of land now known as Netherfield, a sad name that obscures a tragic history.
Netherfield sits lower than the surrounding area in a wide hollow of earth. It is separated from Meryton and Longbourn by a stream with the unfortunate habit of flooding the banks on its Netherfield side every spring, and coating ankles six inches deep in mud every autumn. The land there is marshy but fertile or else the farmers would never put up with it. The grand estate of Netherfield is built on the only high ground. With the land being so low and wet, it is frequently blanketed in fog well into morning and, combined with the peaceful nature of most inhabitants, gave it the original appellation of Sleepy Hollow.
It was in this hollow that a loyal knight once settled and raised four sons to be just as brave and honorable as himself. Each boy in his turn went to foreign lands to fight for God and king although sadly not all returned, and those that did were broken in body or mind.
The youngest, who had returned from the crusades seemingly whole, was hosting a hunting party with other noble scions when the news arrived from Windsor that a group of rebellious nobles had declared war against King John for not adhering to a charter they had forced him to sign.
This youngest son, fully believing in the divine right of kings and having already fought in foreign lands to defend his earthly and immortal rulers, took up arms against any and all whom he believed to be a threat to the rightful order of the world. He rose at night after everyone else had retired to their beds and he slaughtered them. No one was spared -- master or servant, man or woman, friend or family. Even the dogs and horses, pigs and chickens fell beneath his sword. Most had their heads lopped off cleanly but as the night progressed his arm weakened and he had resorted to less physically demanding killing blows. But by morning, he was the only living soul in the Castle of Sleepy Hollow.
Speculation came with the dawn when a farmer wondered what had become of all the grooms and hunters. And when the younger brother of a servant came to the kitchens to deliver a message from his parents, the massacre was revealed.
The murderer was quickly captured and just as quickly executed. In a moment of poetic justice, he was beheaded just like many of his victims. The main castle and all the larger buildings that were the scene of the massacre were razed, and the land known as Sleepy Hollow was returned to the crown and eventually renamed to Netherfield and sold to a new owner.
Only the story remained, taking on the hue of legend.
Ichabod Collins was an itinerant schoolmaster who claimed Meryton as his present home. He had been hired to teach the sons of shopkeepers how to do their sums and give them some of the polish of a gentleman of leisure. Farmers' sons were much less likely to attend the school, but Ichabod was equitable in his dealings with all his pupils, beating them and praising them in equal measure.
It was considered part of the tuition that each student would house Ichabod for a week, and feed him as well. During that week, Ichabod threw off his schoolmaster's mantle when he left the school, and made himself useful in the home of his host, performing odd chores and entertaining as requested. His favorite entertainment was storytelling, specifically ghost stories, and he sought no greater felicity after a full meal than to sit at the fire and recount scary tales of headless knights, bloodthirsty women in white, and devious goblins.
He was obliging and friendly to all, but whatever he did, however helpful and humble he was as a guest, his utility was always offset by his appetite. He was a tall man, and gangly, with a young man's metabolism such that he was always hungry, and any longer than a week was enough to eat his hosts out of house and home.
Of all the homes that he would visit, none gave him greater satisfaction that going to Longbourn. The owner, Baltus Bennet, had no sons and therefore Ichabod was never quartered there, but Baltus had five unmarried daughters and a bountiful table. Of the five daughters, the eldest was the most beautiful and serene; the second was next in beauty and first in wit; the third was plain and, despite her accomplishments in reading, riding, and other arts, deserves no further mention; the fourth was destined to be lovely and malleable but was perhaps not yet ready for company; the fifth was far too young, and no amount of overfamiliar vulgarity would age her in the right way. But exceeding the attractions of the young ladies in Ichabod's estimation must be the charms of their mother who employed a first-rate cook and knew how to set a table.
Indeed, in looking over Longbourn, Ichabod saw much to covet. Baltus had been prosperous and his orchards, storehouses and barns, pens and coveys, fields and ponds were overflowing with the bounty. Lacking a Bennet son to inherit his wealth, Ichabod was quite curious to know how Baltus would bequeath his property. Luckily, Baltus' sister by marriage, a woman named Philips, was a Meryton gossip who had let slip that Baltus had settled that the bulk of his estate would go to whichever daughter should marry first and provide a secure home for Mrs. Bennet upon his death. The other four would receive a tidy sum of £1,000 but the rest of it, along with the livestock, fruits, and ask the rest, would go to the first to marry. And all that bounty would likewise belong to whichever man was the first to marry a Bennet girl.
It was enough to turn Ichabod's head quite round, and it was soon known that the schoolmaster was smitten with the Bennet girls and it didn't matter much which one.
At about this time the hall at Netherfield Park was finally let to a new tenant, a young gentleman descended from trade who was attempting to break into the gentry. The man was named Charles Bingley and he was welcomed into the local society as warmly as a man could hope.
His entré was assisted by his own easy manners but it was further aided by the observation of his growing attachment to a local beauty and the possibility of him becoming a permanent resident. It became clear very early that the eldest Miss Bennet had caught his eye, and denizens of Hertfordshire were keen to track his progress. Whenever people gathered, if Mr. Bingley and Miss Bennet were both there, he found some way to talk with her, stand or sit next to her, or dance with her if he and the gossips were really lucky.
The lady's feelings for Mr. Bingley were harder to fathom but Ichabod noticed at least that she did not discourage her all-but-declared suitor.
This worried Ichabod greatly, for Bingley was considered a desirable catch and, if he should propose marriage, it was common knowledge that the young lady's mother would accept on her behalf. Barring any real impediment to the union -- and Ichabod could imagine none for a likeable, wealthy man like Bingley -- they would be swiftly wed and Ichabod would lose all hope of Longbourn.
Seeking to lose no time, the school master quickly transferred all his attentions to the second sister in the hopes of a more rapid resolution. The second Miss Bennet -- Miss Elizabeth in the common parlance -- however, was more impervious to his charms than her elder sister and seemed to enjoy great word-play at his expense. But Ichabod did not despair. He knew that the young woman must marry and, with such a small social circle, she might as well choose Ichabod and be done with it. And he was comforted with the thought that he might spend little time with her and her sharp tongue once they were wed, remaining hidden like her father with his books and his pedagogy except for mealtimes.
The only concerns he had for Miss Elizabeth were in dragging her to the point ahead of her sister and in protecting his claim from upstarts and poachers. To satisfy both, he made certain to single out his chosen one at all times. He spoke with her, attended her, brought her punch, held her chair, offered to turn the pages when she sat at the instrument. He praised her beauty and accomplishments to Mrs. Bennet and anyone else who would listen.
Then came the announcement that Mr. Bingley would host a ball at Netherfield Park. Ichabod saw it as a perfect opportunity to secure Miss Elizabeth, and right under the nose of his chief rival to Longbourn. He would dance with Miss Elizabeth and shower her with attention, completely dazzling her with thoughts of how wonderful marriage would be. He would win her hand and heart by the end of the night, and at Bingley's expense!
But first he had to petition his choice for the first two dances. To that end, he traveled to Longbourn as soon as he was able after receiving his invitation. Bingley had already come and gone, having petitioned Miss Bennet to open the ball with him. That struck Ichabod as an aggressive move, a direct challenge for the heart of Longbourn and completely beneath a man like Bingley who had more than enough money. If Ichabod were to rely on the gossip of Mrs. Philips, he could readily believe that Bingley would soon follow this ball with another to announce his engagement. Ichabod had to work quickly. As a defensive maneuver, he also asked the eldest Miss Bennet for a dance, to remind her of her options.
The day off the ball at last arrived!
Ichabod gave his students half a day as a holiday and spent the remaining time preparing for the ball. His jacket was brushed. His shoes were polished. His hair was arranged according to the fashion of the day. When done, he admired himself as well as the tiny sliver of borrowed looking glass enabled him, and he envisioned a near future time in which he had his own permanent room and a plentiful table.
He was presently residing in the home of Farmer Ripper, whose son David was currently struggling through subtraction. Only one other farmer was sending his son to the school, and only during convenient days and hours, but Farmer Ripper was fair enough and could find no cause for complaint with how his son was treated during lessons.
Ichabod had previously spoken to his host about securing transportation to the ball at Netherfield Park, and the farmer had reluctantly agreed to lend his old plow horse, a rusty, broken-down gray named Gunpowder who had outlived every ounce of sweetness.
Ichabod had tipped young David Ripper to prepare his steed and indeed the animal was ready to be mounted before Mr. Collins stepped outside. With a kind, condescending nod to his pupil, Ichabod climbed into the saddle and passed from the yard, calling out a farewell and saying that he would see the family again at breakfast.
It was a fine autumnal day and Ichabod had much to enjoy during his ride to Netherfield. Leaves in the trees ran through a riot of color. Birds sang and other animals darted about. The air had a crispness to it that implied the bounty of the harvest, and it would be many months before a place such as Longbourn knew anything of winter's privations.
That brought his thoughts squarely to his future, and called to mind his plans for securing it tonight.
When his ignoble steed brought him to the front entrance of Netherfield Park, the party had already begun although the musicians were still warming up and it would be hours before the last guest arrived. He lost no time in finding the Bennet family and in attaching himself to Miss Elizabeth. He soon offered her everything as was in his power in such a setting -- to fetch her a glass of punch, to inquire when the dancing would start, to check on the preparations for supper -- but she initially refused, preferring to keep him near her. After the first ten minutes of his unceasing attentions, however, she realized how very thirsty she was and sent him questing for a drink.
It proved to be a dangerous quest fraught with temptations for the punch bowl was the centerpiece of a table practically groaning under the weight of various treats and delectations. Due to all his preparations for tonight he had skimped on his midday meal and in consequence he was ravenous. The sight of such morsels was irresistible and he spent some minutes daintily sampling the nuts, fruits, and other viands that were on display.
Ichabod had lost track of time and had forgotten his mission when the sound of a chord from the principal violin returned his senses to him. He grabbed a glass of punch and set off in search of his partner in dance and, indeed, in life.
Miss Elizabeth was not exactly where he had left her, but he found her without undue fuss, presented the glass of punch, and then immediately made her set it aside by offering to escort her to the floor where the sets were forming. For her comfort, he managed to join the same set as her sister, which also gave Ichabod the advantage of keeping an eye on Mr. Bingley as well.
Ichabod Collins was not a bad dancer. As a bachelor with a gentleman's education and a pauper's means, standing up for a dance and sitting down at the card table were two of the ways he made himself agreeable to all. And if he lacked some skills, he made up for it with enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, Miss Bennet dancing at the top of the set with Mr. Bingley was a distraction to poor Ichabod, and his dancing suffered as a result. Once or twice, he took a wrong turn, and once he distinctly recalled treading on Miss Elizabeth's slipper. His precious dove grimaced at first but she was otherwise most gracious which Ichabod took as a promising sign. Perhaps Miss Elizabeth saw how close her elder sister was to marriage and, in a fit of sibling rivalry, sought to beat Miss Bennet to the altar.
Unfortunately, after their sets ended there was no opportunity for Ichabod to lure Miss Elizabeth away for a private interview as she was immediately claimed by her next partner. Collins was, however, able to use his liberty to interrupt Bingley's courtship and draw Miss Bennet to the floor for a song.
When that set was over, he relinquished his partner to another man and went in search of Miss Elizabeth only to find her about to dance with someone else. He would not begrudge her this popularity but instead found a place where he might stand and appreciate her form and graceful figure while sampling additional delights from Netherfield's pantries and ovens.
While standing there, he soon fell into easy conversation with other attendees. The topic was first the ball and Mr. Bingley but it soon transitioned to new sightings of old ghosts by the militia quartered in Meryton, and Ichabod passed a contented hour being nearly frightened.
Occasional glances to the dance floor kept him calm, although he had a bit of a shock to see his darling stand up once with a cosmopolitan friend of the host, a man well known for being difficult to please.
When the musicians paused for supper, the dancers did too. Collins was quick to reach Miss Elizabeth's side and to offer her his services. The exertions of the ball had fatigued her and she looked weary as she accepted his aid.
He momentarily lost track of her once again when they divided to sit across the long table from each other, but once a servant set a heaping platter in front of him, he thought that it would be rude to insist others change seats with him and besides he could admire Miss Elizabeth just as well from this angle.
The middle Bennet daughter suddenly stood up, walked over to an abandoned instrument, and began to play a love song. Collins was first annoyed with the distraction but soon thought of it as a providential hint.
After Miss Mary had finished her second song, Ichabod Collins rose up and applauded politely. Unfortunately, he then added in a voice loud enough for all to hear, "That will do extremely well, Miss Mary. You have delighted us long enough. Let the rest of us have time to exhibit."
Mary Bennet was thoroughly embarrassed and blushed scarlet, but she might have brazened it out and remained where she sat for another song except that Ichabod turned to her sister Elizabeth and beseeched her to join him in a duet that they had already practiced for the church choir.
Miss Elizabeth, however, was not as inclined to receiving general attention that night. She pleaded a tickle in her throat and left the singing to Ichabod alone although he would neither commence his song nor relinquish the spotlight until she agreed to accompany him on the piano forte.
Following the pattern set by Mary Bennet, he performed two pieces and would then have gladly surrendered his place to another performing guest but Mr. Bingley announced that the musicians were ready for more dancing.
Ichabod lost Elizabeth again in the immediate bustle, but eventually caught sight of her in the first set, partnered with an officer from the militia. He had hoped to find some way to pull her aside for a mutually beneficial tête-à-tête but she was in too much demand. He could not begrudge her popularity, however, and he supposed it would be considered a coup when word got out that he had secured her hand. It was clear to him that he needed to propose before the night was over, given the attention Bingley was lavishing on the eldest Miss Bennet. Ichabod was determined to make his move during the confusion when the carriages were called. In the meantime, he was content to watch his future bride have a little fun.
Ichabod stationed himself near a punch bowl and soon fell into conversation with others who had decided against dancing. After admiring the rooms and the couples again, they soon began to share stories supplied by the visiting militia. Between the gullible naifs and the jolly pranksters, there was much to discuss. The widow in white had been spotted not once but twice in the dark alleys of Meryton. The Headless Knight was enjoying an even greater resurgence. He had chased a number of young lieutenants all over the country roads. Luckily for the soldiers, he had never caught any of them, stopping always as legend decreed at the stream that separated Netherfield from its neighbors.
The tales had been enough to excite Ichabod's imagination. He listened with such focus that once again he had lost track of Elizabeth.
Suddenly sensing the lack of his darling, he remained where he stood only long enough to finish his pudding before going in search of his intended. The night was sufficiently advanced that he should not waste more time but instead make Miss Elizabeth understand that he needed to speak to her on a subject that affected both their futures.
He wandered through the rooms open to the guests but could not find her. After failing to find her in his first pass, he extended his search to the rest of her family. That too led to disappoint and a nascent fear. Had he missed his chance tonight? What if Mr. Bingley had been quicker with Miss Bennet? Had someone else stolen the hand of his fair Elizabeth?
These thoughts spurred him forward but without success. The Bennets were gone.
Then he spied a friend and neighbor of Miss Elizabeth and rushed to her side.
"Excuse me, Miss Lucas, but do you know where I can find Miss Elizabeth?" asked Ichabod.
Miss Lucas attempted to be helpful. After admitting that she could not be sure where Lizzy was, "I believe that she has left already, the Bennet family carriage being called for some minutes ago."
Ichabod only had time for hurried thanks as he then sped to the front door.
There was indeed no sign remaining of the Bennets but, upon being asked by a footman if he too was leaving, Ichabod was suddenly seized by a romantic inspiration and called for his horse. If he could not propose to her in some suitably secluded nook in Netherfield Park, he would chase her down on the road and beg for her hand in front of her entire family. If that wasn't a romantic gesture worthy of any woman's heart, he didn't know what was!
At last his borrowed horse, Gunpowder, was brought up the front drive. With surprising agility, he bounded on his horse and set out after the Bennet carriage.
He set out with a lover's brave heart but after he left the lights of Netherfield Park behind, his mind began to play tricks on him. Ghost stories, which had been shared with gleeful abandon in front of the candles and fireplaces of Netherfield Park, took on a sinister tone upon further reflection. The night was darker than his expectations and black clouds winked out the stars until Ichabod could barely see to continue.
He came of a sudden upon a large twisted tree that served as an unnatural landmark in the area and knew defeatedly that he had gone too far in the dark and had missed the fastest path to put him in the way of Miss Elizabeth. He sat in his saddle considering his next move when he heard the sound of galloping hooves across the marsh.
He froze, trying to discern whether the rider was approaching. After a while it became clear that the sound was getting louder.
While Ichabod tried to determine if this boded fair or ill, the wind managed to drag the clouds from their position in front of the moon and stars. As it became easier to see, Ichabod felt himself grow less frightened, whistling a tune and letting Gunpowder stoop to crop at the grass and clover while he waited for an impromptu traveling companion to reach him.
But imagine his surprise when the figure at last drew near enough for Ichabod to make out his shape. The horse was a dark and powerful beast and, if the other rider saw Ichabod, he showed no sign of slackening his speed or stopping to chat. The two came thundering down the path straight toward the twisted tree and Ichabod.
Now the clouds fled entirely; the moon shone down brightly; the rider's form was illuminated for Ichabod who saw clearly that the rider lacked a head above his broad shoulders.
It was the Headless Knight of Sleepy Hollow, and he was headed straight for the school master!
With a muffled squeak, Ichabod dug his heels into Gunpowder but the old horse saw no cause for hurry and was slow comply. Ichabod dug deeper with his heels, slapped the reins, and shouted at the horse, anything to get moving. The cursed crusader had not caught anyone in ages, but Ichabod knew the stories. The punishment for being caught was a beheading. Ichabod needed to cross the stream, to escape the bounds of the knight's ghostly prison, before the knight reached him.
Gunpowder at last worked himself into a trot. Between looking fearfully over his shoulder and applying additional spur to the grey, Ichabod directed his mount to the closest bridge. Gunpowder eventually reached a canter, his maximum speed. The knight still gained on the school master, the sound of the stallion's hooves beating a rapid pattern into the ground, much faster than Gunpowder's pace.
What really happened is all conjecture, of course, for Ichabod was never seen again alive or dead, whole or in part.
Gunpowder returned to his stable by noon the next day, but he could provide no intelligence of the fate of the pedagogue who had already missed breakfast and had given his pupils an unexpected holiday. A footman at Netherfield Park reported that Mr. Collins had been eager to pursue the Bennet carriage when he set out from the hall, but the Bennets swore that he never found their carriage. Several coachmen attested that the night was by turns dark and windy, and a single rider without a lantern could have easily lost his way.
Hoof prints and wheel tracks were found all along the roads from Netherfield Park, making it nigh impossible to track the missing man until someone found a discarded hat by the old tulip tree which someone else recognized at belonging to Mr. Collins. Around the tree, people now noticed two sets of prints. One set was made by Gunpowder. Alongside and over the top of those marks, another set were hammered into the earth with great force. The pair raced a route to the southwest where the stream outlining Netherfield was more shallow and a few farmers had constructed a rickety bridge of planks. It was all too unstable for a horse and rider to cross, but folks on foot had no worries.
Ichabod and his fellow rider both made it to the bridge, but Gunpowder apparently balked at the last moment and would not cross it. There were signs that the old grey reared, but there is no indent in the soft ground to show where Ichabod fell.
Nor is it much clear what happened to the other rider. It appeared as if the second horse vanished right before the broken planks to cross the stream. A gentleman or two from town suggested that the horse had been galloping fast enough to jump the stream, but the ground on the other side was too hard and dry to show any evidence of that. Other voices said that second rider was none other than the Headless Knight who had managed to catch Ichabod Collins and drag him back to hell. That superstitious gossip deeply upset some of Mr. Collins youngest pupils so an enterprising mother started a rumor that the schoolmaster had suddenly moved to Kent at the invitation of a rich widow. It was all too confusing to separate fact from fiction.
As for the Bennets of Longbourn, it came as no surprise that the two eldest sisters traded in their maiden name a twelve-month later in a double ceremony. Jane Bennet gladly became Mrs. Charles Bingley. Her sister married a good friend of Mr. Bingley, a man who had first danced with her at the fateful Netherfield ball.
For those curious to know which of the two sisters married first so as to win the inheritance that was Longbourn, perhaps the surprise was that Miss Mary beat her other sisters to the altar by nine months. She happily exchanged vows with a Mr. Abraham Irving.
Mr. Irving was not entirely unknown to the Bennet family, having made their acquaintance in town the year prior. He had been at that time an agreeable, intelligent, young man of extremely pleasing manners and address, but without the connections to allow him to succeed readily. He and Mary Bennet established an immediate connection but could take no action given their circumstances. However, Mr. Irving's fortune turned when Meryton suddenly found itself in need of a new school master. The close proximity to Longbourn hastened his courting and, while the couple certainly felt a little sadness to think that their happy life owed its beginning to the mysterious end of Ichabod Collins, they had, on the whole, no cause to repine.The End