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Chapter 1. Mr. Bennet is Surprised
Posted on 2010-05-17
Mr. Thomas Bennet sat silently at his desk as his favorite daughter left his study, shutting the door soundly behind her. He had dismissed Elizabeth's plea to stop her youngest sister's trip to Brighton more out of habit than any particular reason. However, he easily perceived Lizzy's heightened emotions--she had not come to him lightly, nor out of any envy of her youngest sister's opportunity to travel.
What had she said? 'Our importance, our respectability in the world, must be affected by the wild volatility, the assurance and disdain of all restraint which mark Lydia's character.' If any female but his Lizzy had uttered those words, he would have dismissed them as missish diatribe and returned to his Plato. But his second eldest was not a temperamental miss.
Mr. Bennet stood and went to his window, looking out across the yard to the stables. He firmly believed that children should be allowed to live and explore--not be dressed up as miniature adults and forced to sit stiffly, never speaking unless spoken to. Elizabeth and Jane had enjoyed such freedom as children and were both growing into lovely, interesting young ladies. (He shuddered at the thought of any of his girls growing up.) Why would Lizzy be so adamant that a little girl like Lydia could do something that would, how had she put it? 'Bring censure and disgrace upon the family.'
He shook his head and sighed, about to dismiss the issue, when he caught sight of his second eldest striding through the garden toward a copse of elms in the far corner where a hidden stone bench was a favorite of father and daughter. He could not dismiss the tension and unhappiness in her shoulders, so finally he readied himself to walk out and continue their discussion.
Leaving his study, Mr. Bennet turned down the hall and ran straight into a young lady. Looking down, he caught sight of a buxom figure partly bared by a low cut bodice. Then Mr. Thomas Bennet received quite a shock when, expecting to look up into the face of a visitor, he was instead faced with his youngest daughter, Lydia.
"Oh Papa, I am in such a rush--we are walking into Meryton to see Mrs. Forster and the officers!" And in a rustle of petticoats and lace, she was off up the stairs.
Mr. Bennet remained stationary in the hall, his mind reeling. His baby girl was quite a well-developed young woman. How old was Lydia? His mind did some rapid calculations and then his feet began moving, striding as swiftly as his second eldest and in the same direction. Elizabeth was not concerned over the potential antics of a little girl on her first trip to the seaside, but of the very real danger a lively but naïve young lady could get into while living largely unchaperoned amidst an entire campful of soldiers. He groaned and very nearly slapped his own forehead.
Thomas Bennet might be inclined toward solitude and study, but he did care about his family and, once awakened to his own obliviousness, he applied his native intelligence to the matter.
When Mr. Bennet reached the copse into which his daughter had disappeared, he paused for a moment by an ancient elm, planted by one of his own forefathers. Elizabeth was sitting on the old stone bench reading some papers. As his eyes adjusted to the shade, Mr. Bennet noted first that it seemed to be a letter, and second, that his daughter seemed to be staring through he pages rather than reading.
"Lizzy, pardon me for disturbing you, but after further consideration I felt it necessary to continue our discussion."
The sound of her father's voice wrought a rather unexpected change on his favorite's face. She jerked to her feet and quite clearly blushed. In doing so, her grip on her letter loosened and the pages went fluttering in the breeze. She jumped to catch one page but the other drifted to her father's feet. Reaching down to retrieve it for her, Mr. Bennet couldn't help but notice that the writing was very close and in a distinctly masculine hand. Glancing to the salutation, his concern deepened.
"Be not alarmed, Madam, on receiving this letter, by the apprehension of its containing any repetition of those sentiments, or renewal of those offers, which were last night so disgusting to you."
"Dear Lord, Lizzy. What is this? What man is writing to you in such a personal manner?" Bennet's emotions, already heightened by his revelation over his youngest daughter, were rapidly deteriorating. This was not helped when Elizabeth sank back to her seat and, lowering her face to her hands, burst into tears.
Though not normally a demonstrative man, Mr. Bennet moved to her side and gathered his weeping daughter into his arms. Gradually her tears slowed and her breathing steadied. He was relieved when she finally raised her head from his shoulder and gave him a watery smile, accepting his pocket handkerchief to dab at her eyes and nose. Patting his now dampened shoulder, she attempted to lighten the moment. "Mr. Mabberly shall not be pleased with me for rumpling your coat, Papa."
Happy to see the reemergence of his normally even-tempered daughter, Mr. Bennet smiled back. "Well, I shall take care of my valet. Perhaps I shall venture into the stables before returning to dress for supper. I believe that old Nelly has a cold and might be convinced to sneeze on me. Though I suspect that Mabberly has long since come to accept my tendency to return with my wardrobe in a less than pristine condition. As has your own maid, might I conjecture?"
Seeing his daughter nod smilingly in agreement, he continued. "But now Lizzy, you must tell me about this letter, and about what has you so upset. I intuit that it has something to do with your concern over Lydia."
Elizabeth took a long, steadying breath and very nearly whimpered. "Oh Papa. I do not know what to think about anything. I certainly do not know myself anymore."
Unsure of how to begin, she handed the second page of her letter to her father and stood to pace before him. "You remember Mr. Bingley and his party?"
Mr. Bennet nodded, though still confused. "Of course."
"You may not remember, but I was quite decided in my dislike of one of his guests, Mr. Darcy." Seeing her father's nod of assent, she continued, looking further into herself. "I suppose I should not have been so quick to judge a new acquaintance, but he was so silent, and his looks were so severe… And the things he said…"
Seeing his daughter trail off in her explanation, Mr. Bennet brought her back to the present. "What exactly did he say, child?"
"Oh, it sounds so silly now, but at that first assembly where we all met, I overheard Mr. Bingley trying to convince Mr. Darcy to ask me to dance. Mr. Darcy was quite blunt in his refusal. I laughed about his incivility to Charlotte, but I must admit that he hurt my feelings." She looked up at her father, who was smiling slightly, though his eyes remained soft with understanding. They had long shared a love of pithy country proverbs. "Well, Papa? I am expecting some suitably educational saying on the evils of eavesdropping."
Mr. Bennet chuckled slightly. "Actually, my dear, I was thinking of the one that goes 'Don't speak unless you can improve on the silence.'"
"Hmmm… And bees with honey in their mouths have stingers in their tails." Elizabeth stood still for a moment, looking off across the barley field that adjoined the copse. After a moment she roused herself and turned back to her father. "Charlotte told me on several occasions that she thought Mr. Darcy fancied me." Seeing her father's look of surprise, she added. "I considered her to be quite fanciful… I noticed Mr. Darcy looking at me a great deal, but thought he only looked to find fault… to criticize a girl he found 'not handsome enough to tempt him' to dance at an unimportant country assembly. I was quite impertinent to him, Papa."
"And then, of course, there was Lieutenant Wickham and his stories. His father had been the steward at Pemberley, the Darcy estate in Derbyshire. Mr. Darcy's father gave Mr. Wickham the benefits of a gentleman's education, even to university, and the assurance of a comfortable living if he took orders. Oh Papa, I was so eager to believe every ill word he spun, and they were all lies."
Elizabeth had by now picked up a long stem of grass and was whipping it at a clump of daffodils whose only fault was to grow along her path. Mr. Bennet watched her for a moment. He remembered Lieutenant Wickham vaguely--the young man was fair of face but his silver tongue had covered for a mind with no depth of understanding. "How did you discover this truth, Lizzy?"
Elizabeth stopped whipping the flowers, shut her eyes and sighed, then turned back to her father. "I went to Kent in March to visit Charlotte, you remember Papa?" Seeing her father's nod, she continued.
"Lady Catherine De Bourgh is Mr. Darcy's aunt--his mother's sister. He and his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, came to visit Rosings for Easter. He still stared at me, and we met accidentally walking through the park on several occasions, but truly Papa, I thought nothing of it, except how irritating he was. I truly believed that he desired my company as little as I wished his. And his own aunt had made it clear that he was to marry her daughter!"
While his own daughter paused, Mr. Bennet rubbed his chin and worked very hard to control the chuckle rising in his chest. He well knew the scathing wit that his daughter could unleash on anyone who irritated her. His vague memory of Mr. Darcy was of a tall, serious, young man who had seemed distinctly ill at ease in the drawing rooms of Hertfordshire. Another memory tugged at him.
"Didn't you dance with him at the Netherfield Ball, Lizzy?" His daughter returned to sit by him on the stone bench and bent her face to her hands. This did not, however, completely hide the rosy blush that had risen on her cheeks.
"Well, well. Continue your story. We were in Kent, I believe."
"Yes, Papa." She studied the grass stem in her hands, which was now being wound around her fingers. "One evening, I remained at the parsonage while Charlotte, Maria and Mr. Collins went to Rosings for dinner. I had been invited as well, but begged off claiming a headache. It was not far off. In a conversation with Colonel Fitzwilliam--- Mr. Darcy's cousin had accompanied him, you remember? He mentioned that Mr. Darcy… congratulated himself on having recently saved a friend from a 'most imprudent marriage.' Colonel Fitzwilliam did not know any of the particulars, but I knew it must be Jane and Mr. Bingley. From Jane's letters I knew her to be heartbroken still, and here seemed evidence that not only had Mr. Darcy purposefully caused her misery, but had been boasting of it."
Mr. Bennet sighed and to himself admitted that he had not noticed his eldest's true feelings. His wife had been plotting matches since Jane turned fifteen, and he had always ignored it. For the second time that day, he did some quick arithmetic in his head and realized that his firstborn was twenty-three, an age when most young ladies of her station were married or at least affianced. He turned his attention back to Elizabeth when she resumed her story.
"So I gave myself an evening of solitude to re-read Jane's letters and fume over the arrogant, high-handed…. interference of Mr. Bingley's friend. And then, who should have the misfortune of coming to call on me in the midst of my fit of pique, but Mr. Darcy himself."
Lizzy again covered her eyes with her hands, as though trying to block out the memory. "Oh Papa, I was already so angry with him… and then he proposed, and I was so surprised, and then so furious. And I said so many things, and he was so angry to be refused. Well, that is not true. He was surprised to be refused. He only became angry after he asked me why I had refused him. Oh, Papa, the things I accused him of…"
By now, Mr. Bennet's head was spinning with new information. Mr. Darcy had not only separated Jane from her beau, but had proposed to Lizzy? And been refused? And she seemed to regret it?
"My dear, I don't know quite what to say. Am I to understand that this letter is from Mr. Darcy, then?"
Elizabeth nodded weakly. "We parted in anger that evening, as you can imagine. I did not sleep well and when I awoke in the morning, I could not face Mr. Collins over the breakfast table, so went for a walk to clear my head. If nothing else, Rosings Park does have some lovely old groves…. I met Mr. Darcy, who said he had been looking for me. He put that letter in my hands and asked me to do him the honor of reading it. In hindsight, he looked as exhausted as I felt." She sighed and rolled her shoulders, trying to release some of the tension she felt.
Motioning to the pages in her father's hands, she finished. "Please read it, Papa. I think I should like to know what you think."
Mr. Bennet took his time reading the closely written missive but as Elizabeth had it nearly committed to memory, she could follow her father's progress easily by the expressions moving across his normally stoic face. When he reached the charitable adieu, he sighed deeply and rubbed his eyes. Not for the first time, he wished that his wife was a source of sensible advice for their daughters or that there was a rational female relative living nearby. He thought wistfully of Mrs. Gardiner in London, but knew that he would have to deal with his daughter's worries himself, for now.
"Ah, my dear Lizzy. That's quite a letter your young man has written to you."
"Oh Papa, he is not my young man. After the hateful things I said to him, I should be surprised if he does not despise me. If by some chance I do ever see him again, I am quite sure he will do everything possible to avoid me."
"Hmmmm. Does that bother you? You said you've always disliked him."
"I barely know myself anymore. It would be the height of silliness for me to become jealous of his esteem after I have abused him so."
Mr. Bennet considered his daughter for a moment and then chided her gently. "You did not answer my question."
She sighed. "I meant to be uncommonly clever in taking so decided a dislike of him. It is such a spur to one's genius, such an opening for wit to have a dislike of that kind. One may be continually abusive without saying anything just; but one cannot always be laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty."
Chuckling slightly, her father folded his arms in the manner of a stern school master. "Miss Lizzy, you will answer the question."
Elizabeth groaned in defeat and, if it must be admitted, embarrassment. After pausing for a minute to collect her thoughts, she finally responded. "I believe that he is a good man in essentials. He is intelligent, well-educated, and I appreciate the way he listened to me and my pert opinions and was not averse to engaging me in discussions of books, philosophy, and…. oh, everything and nothing."
At this bit of fancy, Mr. Bennet's eyebrows rose, but he said nothing, encouraging her to continue.
"I believe he is a good elder brother and guardian to his sister--he truly cares for her education and well-being. He is also handsome, which a young man ought likewise to be, if he possibly can." She smirked, needing to lighten the atmosphere."
"I sense a 'but' coming…"
Elizabeth sighed. "But… he should not have delivered his sentiments in a manner so ill suited to recommend them. Between my prejudice and his assurance of success, there was little chance of civility being maintained for long."
"I forgive him for separating his friend from my sister. Even Charlotte noted that Jane's admiration was wholly concealed from the world in general. I understand how someone with no understanding of her nature would, after hearing Mama's gossiping, assume Jane would enter into a marriage of unequal affection to secure the financial security of her family. If anything, knowing the truth has lowered my opinion of Mr. Bingley; that he so depends on the opinions of his friend; that he did not have the fortitude to believe in his own knowledge of Jane's affections."
"Well, that is for Jane to decide, if it comes to that. I might point out that you have shown no qualms in turning your sister's head from admirers you determined to be wanting. But let us stay on the topic of the young man from Derbyshire." Said her father gently.
Elizabeth paused, thinking back. "Once in Kent, I was teasing Mr. Darcy about his poor showing in Meryton society and he responded that 'he had not the talent which some people possess of conversing easily with those he had never seen before.' He said that he could not 'catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns.' I am afraid I was quite impertinent and told him he should try practicing more." She sighed and then continued firmly.
"I do not regret refusing Mr. Darcy's proposal. His words showed that he had feelings that would have made marriage insupportable. He is an educated, intelligent man, but I cannot agree with the significance he places on a person's inherited wealth and position in society rather than character. I understand the importance of such things in our world, such as it is, but I cannot agree that such things constitute the innate value of a man… or a woman. If such are his principles, then I cannot respect him."
Mr. Bennet cleared his throat to relieve the tightness that had gathered in his chest. "My dear, I am proud of you. There are few ladies, or gentlemen for that matter, who could sort through such an emotional subject and produce a well-reasoned conclusion."
Both sat quietly, thinking, until Mr. Bennet stood and offered his arm. "Come, I feel the need to walk. Perhaps we could go up to Oakham Mount?" Elizabeth nodded and the pair proceeded along well-known trails.
After some minutes, Elizabeth sighed deeply and made the effort to form her confused feelings into speech. "It is just that, although I have seemingly spent much time in his company over the last year, I suddenly feel as though I have never actually met him. The man I thought he was turns out to be a figment of my imagination."
"And do you wish to know the true Mr. Darcy?"
"I doubt I will ever have a chance to do so…. I would be mortified to see him again, and he… he must hate me for the things I accused him of… really of the way I've treated him since we met."
Mr. Bennet chuckled to himself. "Lizzy, the man clearly does not hate you. Your letter is proof enough of that." At her look of disbelief, he shook his head.
"Lizzy, he cared enough about what you thought of him to write an exceedingly complete letter explaining himself. Few men who had just been refused in such an… unambiguous fashion as you have described, would make such an effort."
His daughter still looked unconvinced. "My dear, I cannot say that I know Mr. Darcy any better than you. For myself, my own indolence kept me from making more of an acquaintance which I now believe would have provided me with educated, intelligent conversation. I have gotten into the habit of complaining about any society rather than looking to see any good." To himself, Thomas admitted that he had become especially harsh on those within his own family circle.
After helping each other over a stile, father and daughter continued to walk in silence for some time until Elizabeth spoke. "I still cannot fit together the different aspects of the man. I have been thinking over our interactions, and though there are many instances where I now believe I misinterpreted him, and others when my misapprehension prompted him to respond in such a way that affirmed my notions… There were times when he was at the very least impolite and often quite rude. And yet, he seems to be in fundamentals a good man."
After a few moments of consideration, her father responded. "At the risk of sounding like our dear, saintly Jane, I believe that the gentleman has been misunderstood. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he makes it difficult to be understood. He clearly feels deeply, but masks his emotions as much as possible. Quite like our Jane, in fact, which is a bit of irony worthy of Mr. Shakespeare given how Mr. Darcy misread your sister."
After the pair walked some way further in silence, Mr. Bennet stirred himself to speak. "Like Mr. Darcy, I lost my mother at a young age. I do not know much about Mr. Darcy's father, but my own was exceedingly retiring and had little use for society. My elder sister was married even before I started university, so I received little mentoring from her."
"I remember attending my first real ball--I was visiting the family of a university friend in Bath. I walked in and was awash with the sudden terror that I had worn the wrong sort of coat and everyone would turn and stare at me. I do not consider myself shy, but in such a sea of strangers I felt barely able to speak to my friends, let alone initiate an introduction to anyone. My friends were all more accustomed to society than I and had great fun laughing at my stiffness."
Father and daughter paused to move a fallen tree branch off the path. They collaborated in silence and then continued on to climb the hill, both lost in thought.
Eventually, Mr. Bennet roused himself again. "Do you remember that young curate who visited and gave a few sermons when Mr. Grant was getting ready to retire and we were interviewing replacements? What was his name, Tanner? Banner?"
"Mr. Manning. Mr. John Manning." Said Elizabeth decidedly, then blushed when her father chuckled.
"You were fourteen, I believe, and such sighs and blushes as I would never have believed from my most sensible daughter."
"I'm sorry, my dear. I don't remind you of this solely for my own amusement, but to make a point. First, while in the throes of your infatuation, there were several occasions that you quite snubbed old Mr. Grant in your eagerness to speak with young Mr. Manning." Seeing her look of mortification, he continued. "You must not worry about having offended him; Mr. Grant had seen it all before and we had quite a chuckle over it. Poor, young Manning hadn't a clue. After one of your conversations with him, he came to me and expressed concern over your lack of theological understanding."
Seeing his daughter looking disconcerted, Mr. Bennet couldn't help but laugh out loud. "Never fear, Lizzy. Though your diligence may never match Mary's, I am certain that your understanding is at least as good. My point is that such emotions often leave the best of us less than articulate."
Elizabeth considered her father's words for some time as they climbed and began to comprehend Mr. Darcy's actions a bit more.
"But Papa, I may understand him better, but there still remains the fact that I insulted him most grievously and with little provocation. I still believe he must hate me. Even were I to ever see him again (which itself is most unlikely), I doubt that he would ever acknowledge me, let alone speak with me."
Mr. Bennet replied. "If he acts in such a manner, then he is not worth your concern. But his letter suggests to me that he cares very much about what you think of him. If anything, I would say that he is stunned at the level of misunderstanding between the two of you."
"Papa, he is not some callow youth who has never lived beyond his estate. I still cannot understand how he came to so misunderstand me. I suppose my spirits must have misled him."
Mr. Bennet chuckled. "Well, my dear, even in irritation your manner can be so arch as to camouflage any offense. Though I am not one to criticize such behavior." He thought for a moment. "But remember, Lizzy. Though Mr. Darcy may be well-educated and out in society, it does not necessarily translate that he is well-prepared to understand a lady such as yourself."
Seeing that his daughter was listening closely but clearly not comprehending his meaning, he elaborated. "Our society makes it exceedingly difficult for a gentleman to spend significant time getting to know any young lady who is not a mother or sister. And remember, Mr. Darcy has not had a mother since he was a child himself and his sister is so much younger as to look to him for a father figure, not a confidante."
"We gentlemen are educated by our tutors, sent to school with other boys, and then spend some years at university with other young men. We are encouraged to spend our time out riding and hunting, or equivalent gentlemanly pursuits indoors--billiards, cards, fencing and the like. Though I suspect that Mr. Darcy spent most of his time learning to run an estate and manage the family's other business from a young age."
"It may not be your favorite activity, Elizabeth, but you are comfortable in a drawing room visiting, taking tea with other ladies, or in a ballroom. That is not a habitat in which a young gentleman is schooled until he comes of an age when… well, when he becomes the invited prey at such gatherings."
"For a young man such as Mr. Darcy, whose connections and inheritance would have made him a catch on the marriage mart even if he did not cut such a fine figure…" Mr. Bennet chuckled at the look on his daughter's face.
"I was young, once, Lizzy. But as I was saying, I suspect that many of Mr. Darcy's poor manners might be explained by defensiveness rather than offensiveness. You observed how Miss Bingley chased him. Consider that such is what he has come to expect from ladies in social situations. Some trying to gain his favor through overt flattery and flirtation, others attempting to tempt or trick him into a situation in which he would be obliged to marry them. For sheer self-preservation he has learned to be on guard against everyone."
Seeing that his daughter's expression had turned to shock, Mr. Bennet smiled grimly. "I am being blunt, my dear, because it is the only way I can think to help you understand. In spite of your mother's desires, I have kept you girls away from the Ton precisely because the society there is so savage. Though Longbourn may be nothing compared to Pemberley and the Darcy connections, I know a little about what it is like to be a young heir under siege by ladies and their match-making parents. I cannot even imagine enduring the attention that Mr. Darcy must receive."
He turned to his daughter with a sudden clarity forming in his mind. "In fact, I would be willing to bet a great deal that your impertinence and lack of attention to Mr. Darcy may be precisely what attracted his notice in the first place. After years of being fêted for his wealth and connections, to be dismissed by a pretty, intelligent young lady must have been quite a novel sensation."
Elizabeth opened her mouth, but closed it when she couldn't frame any words. Her father continued.
"And indeed, to have his proposal refused and your refusal coached in terms of his failings (whether real or perceived) as a gentleman rather than as a figure of society must have been thoroughly strange. In terms of money and connections, you had everything to gain by accepting him. I suspect that you have given young Mr. Darcy a great deal to consider." Seeing that his daughter still looked skeptical, Mr. Bennet attempted to summarize his point.
"In short, you have treated Mr. Darcy as a man, rather than solely the sum of his wealth and connections. I suspect that is what he has always desired in theory, but he has had little experience with such relationships in reality and thus made a complete hash of it. If he has the sense to look beyond his hurt ego, then he should realize that if you ever were to accept him, it would be for his own merit. You have proven beyond a doubt that you are no fortune hunter."
Father and daughter reached the peak of Oakham Mount and settled on a large boulder. For some time, they looked out over the Bennet lands and enjoyed the afternoon sunlight in silence. A boy and dog followed a herd of grazing cows, moving them from one pasture to another. In the far distance, Mr. Goulding and his son were riding along the hedgerows that separated their land from Longbourn.
While Elizabeth contemplated more recent events, Mr. Bennet's thoughts drifted further into the past. He roused himself and began to speak.
"I started at Oxford University when I was sixteen. As you can probably imagine, I soon determined to focus my studies on the classics, particularly the Greeks. That is where I met your Uncle Gardiner and, as he will attest, I did little else but immerse myself in my books, except to emerge for debates and lectures." He quirked an eyebrow. "And the chess club, I will admit."
Elizabeth smiled, easily picturing her father in such behavior.
"At the time, I wished never to leave. I received my degree in three years but convinced my father to allow me to stay on and continue my studies. At times I let myself dream that Father would live forever, leaving me to pursue an academic career. You never knew him, but he was not terribly concerned with intellectual pursuits. He had some interest in politics, but no desire to participate in them. Really, the only time I remember him leaving the boundaries of Longbourn was for the hunting parties."
Mr. Bennet sighed and focused his memories. "In short, I had very little in common with him and no great friends among the neighbors. With Mother long dead and my sister married and living in London, I could see little attraction in returning to Hertfordshire."
"At Oxford, one of the professors took me under his wing, Mr. James Burbidge. I met him in my first semester, and he was a mentor… even a father figure, for I felt more comfortable talking to him than I ever had with my own father. He and his wife had me over quite often for dinner and such."
Mr. Bennet removed his spectacles and rubbed his eyes, before absent-mindedly cleaning the lenses with a handkerchief. "Not many in Hertfordshire know this story, Lizzy, and I expect you to keep my confidence. I tell it to you because I hope it will help you understand the mind of a young gentleman."
Elizabeth nodded and her father sighed. "The Burbidges had a daughter, Olympia. She was away at school for several years, but returned when she was eighteen and I was twenty. She was very pretty and, because of her father, very comfortable with scholarly gentlemen carrying on the sort of academic discussions I found fascinating. In short, I became infatuated without taking the time to actually get to know the girl. Sound familiar?" He smiled crookedly.
Lizzy smiled back, although she could not laugh at him.
"One Sunday we all went for a picnic along the river. It was a lovely day and Olympia agreed to go out in a punt with me. Somewhere in the course of our conversation, I suggested to her that if we were to marry, we could repeat such idyllic days for the rest of our lives."
Thomas Bennet sighed. He might be nearing fifty, but he could still remember the mortification he had felt as a young man. "She laughed--it did not even occur to her that I might be serious. She explained that she had no intention of spending her life wasting away in the dullness of the university community. She had returned to Oxford because it gave her the perfect opportunity to meet some young lordling who would sweep her away into London society."
"Oh Papa, I'm so sorry."
"Don't be. I was young and self-centered. It never occurred to me that she would not jump at the opportunity to join my life. Never occurred to me that she might have hopes and dreams of her own. I observed her but didn't bother to get to know her." He shrugged. "Some months later she got herself engaged to a rich Baron's son and was, for all intents and purposes, deliriously happy."
Not sure what to say, Elizabeth remained silent.
Remembering the point of his confession, Mr. Bennet turned to her. "For me, the hurt did not last long. I was enamored with the dream of escaping my responsibilities and mimicking my mentor's life, not the lady herself. It would never have occurred to me to write a letter such as your young man has done."
He paused before continuing. "To be honest, I have no idea what happened to Olympia, or the Baroness, I suppose she is now. She departed (for London, I assume) and within a year, your grandfather passed on and all my energies were focused on learning to run the estate."
Father and daughter sat quietly for some time, lost in their thoughts as a mocking bird filled the air with his songs. Finally, Elizabeth stirred herself and asked a question that she had long wondered about but never dared to raise.
"Papa? How did you and my mother come to marry?"
Thomas Bennet sighed. It was a question that he had hoped never to receive from his children, but he supposed that he should not be surprised that his disclosures that day had prompted it.
He stood, leaving his hat and walking stick on the ground. After making a brief circuit around the peak, he returned to the boulder and looked his daughter straight in the eye. "I will answer, but this is in the strictest of confidence, Lizzy. You will not even speak of it to Jane, you understand?" At her serious nod, he attempted to lighten the mood. "Though I suppose you may share it with Mr. Darcy if you find yourself scrounging for family secrets with which to repay him."
Seeing his daughter roll her eyes, he smiled. Fanny Gardiner might not have been the ideal he had once dreamed of marrying, but she had gifted him five beautiful daughters that he prized above anything.
"After my debacle with Olympia, I plunged myself into my studies. Really, what were girls to Plato and Aristotle? My only social outings, if they might be called that, were to the chess club. I had met your Uncle Gardiner over a chessboard and we became friends, which is odd, I suppose, given the disparity of our academic interests. I rarely ventured out of the classics library. Edward's course work might have appeared haphazard but he was always very focused-- every lecture or lab he took had a reason, educating him to take on a larger role in his father's business. He studied modern languages and culture so that he wouldn't have to rely on translators. He was interested in politics and economics so that he might predict the market. I remember he even took some geology courses so that he might better understand why certain gems and ores were found where they were."
"We were an odd pair, I suppose. I, the heir of a country estate, working to forget the responsibilities that would some day drag me from my beloved books. He was the only son of a gentleman's younger son, with a head for business and a dislike for frittering away his time in useless societal nothings. Old Emmet Gardiner had taken a small inheritance and bought a share in a brig headed for India. That was the start of his import business and he had established an excellent income at it. Edward planned to continue with his father and had no qualms with making his living through honest work, even if it labeled him a tradesman."
"Anyway, we roomed together at Oxford for several years and kept in touch even when he left to take over his father's business when old Mr. Gardiner died. It was a friendship that meant a great deal to me, particularly when, less than two years later, I received word that my own father was deathly ill. I returned to Hertfordshire and immediately found that all of my Greek and Latin were of absolutely no help in managing an estate."
After a long pause, Elizabeth's father continued. "I muddled along for some months until Father finally passed away. I used the funeral as an excuse to beg Edward to come out and apply his keen business sense to Longbourn's ledgers. And Edward came, bless his heart."
Thomas sighed. He was coming to the difficult part. "Edward brought his younger sister, Fanny, with him. Upon their father's death, he had become her guardian and he did not like to leave her in London without his supervision."
"She was barely seventeen, as beautiful as Jane is now, but…. Lively… Effervescent. I don't know how else to describe it. She said nothing particularly intelligent or witty, but a room was warmer with her in it, somehow."
Lizzy nodded with understanding, beginning to see her mother in a new light.
Mr. Bennet continued. "Edward and I spent most of our time buried in the study- my father had never been a particularly attentive record keeper and I had not been any sort of correspondent. My elder sister Jane, your sister's namesake, came to help me with the house and funeral. Unfortunately, she was attended by her husband."
Elizabeth was shocked to hear the level of venom in her father's voice. "Wilberforce Collins was not a moral man and I rue the day my sister met him, let alone married him. I realize that I should have affection for young William Collins as my sister's only child, and I do have sympathy that he grew up in the house of such a domineering, unprincipled miscreant… but the son looks so much like his father, I find it hard to forget."
Mr. Bennet shook himself. The man had died, quite miserably if Gardiner's information was correct. There was no need to hold on to such anger. "In short, Collins enticed Fanny into a compromising situation. Though Edward and I interrupted them before anything serious could happen, they had been seen and Fanny recognized, although luckily Collins was not."
He sighed, feeling old. "She was in need of a respectable husband and I was in need of a wife and helpmate. So I proposed, and once our engagement was announced, everyone assumed that it was I she had been seen embracing."
Thomas could see in his daughter's eyes that she was listening intently and considering all the new information. "She was not a brilliant wit, but she was pretty and affectionate and knew how to run a household."
He saw that Lizzy was still looking disturbed and tried to explain. "It was not the relationship that I hope you girls establish before you marry, but I had a sincere affection for her." He quirked his eyebrow in an effort to lighten the atmosphere. "And she was far more beautiful than an old bookworm such as myself could ever have hoped to attract."
Pleased to see his daughter smile, he wound up the story. "And so we were married. It was a quiet wedding because of my father's death. I suspect that is why Fanny dreams of lavish weddings for you girls." They both chuckled. "But seriously, Lizzy. I cannot imagine Longbourn without her, especially in those early years. I have never been lively and I had so much work to do. Fanny brought light into the house; she bustled around re-arranging the furniture and redecorating, had people over for dinner and jollied me out to socialize with the neighbors. And then, a year later, she gave me the gift of a beautiful baby girl. We named her Jane, for my sister who had died some months after my father. Over the years, she was followed by four more beautiful girls who I would not trade for all the jewels in the kingdom."
Father and daughter shared a fond smile. After some minutes of silence, Mr. Bennet clapped his hands together. "Well, I need to sort out this business of Lydia going to Brighton. Shall you walk back with me, Lizzy?"
"Thank you, Papa, but I should like to sit here a bit longer." She smiled up at him. "I have a great deal to think on. Thank you for talking to me."
Her father picked up his cap and walking stick and waved farewell. "Yes, yes. I will inform your mother that you may miss tea. Just be sure to be back before supper, or I shall not be responsible for all the tremblings and flutterings!"
Mr. Bennet left his daughter deep in thought and made his way back to the house.
Thomas Bennet might live a quiet life as a country gentleman, but he was aware of the evils abounding in the world. Longbourn provided a rural sanctuary for his family and he had let himself drift into a cocoon of lethargy. The information from Mr. Darcy had provided a rude awakening. For a moment, he considered what might have happened if he had ignored Elizabeth and never read Mr. Darcy's astonishing letter, but he pushed such thoughts aside. There were more important plans to work out. Foremost was how to deal with his wife and youngest daughter.
Fortunately, the walk was long enough that he was able to sort out a plan that had some hope of succeeding with a minimum of shrieking (he was still Mr. Bennet, after all). He arrived at the house in time for tea and, after explaining that he had given Elizabeth permission to absent herself, he sat and observed.
Such was his usual mien that none of the Bennet ladies detected anything askance. He, however, schooled himself to use the brain he was so proud of to assess his family. Instead of looking at their silliness as his own private comedic performance (as had been his want), he observed his daughters, reminding himself sternly of their ages. Finally, he listened to his wife, and gradually realized that living at Longbourn had left her just as out of touch with the dangers of the world as it had him. Setting down his teacup, he stood. He had found a place to start.
"Mrs. Bennet? Would you come to my study--there is a matter I need to discuss with you."
The lady looked somewhat surprised--surely he knew that Lizzy handled all the household accounts? But she stood and followed him to his sanctuary. The girls barely noticed. Mary had her nose in a book, while Kitty and Lydia had spread out a scrap bag of ribbons and lace over the table and were arguing over how best to retrim an old bonnet. Jane was sitting in the corner, placidly hemming baby clothes for a poor tenant.
When his wife entered, Mr. Bennet shut the door of his study and guided her to a comfortable pair of chairs by the fire. Once they were seated, he spoke, taking care to modulate his voice in a calm, concerned tone, with none of the sarcasm and censure with which he spoke to her so often.
"Mrs. Bennet, I am in need of your advice. I am deeply concerned for our Lydia. I have heard from an acquaintance who, upon hearing that our dear girl was to go to Brighton, has cautioned me with some disturbing stories. I do not know how to say this easily so I shall tell you the unvarnished truth, though I warn you it is unpleasant. In short, I am told that it is not uncommon for young ladies, particularly those of our Lydia's liveliness and beauty, to be enticed into compromising situations soon after they arrive in Brighton. The girls are lured by promises of marriage, but then left in unwedded disgrace."
Thomas was glad to hear his wife's exclamations of horror, though slightly ashamed by his own dramatics.
"Yes, my dear, it is in every way horrible. These girls are shunned by all society, their only recourse to be sent to a distant farm in Scotland, never to be married or seen by their family again."
"Oh, Mr. Bennet!"
Thomas didn't like to do this, but it was necessary for Fanny to understand the consequences. "And worse, their families are also shunned. No decent gentleman would marry the sister of such a girl, and all of their former friends cut them direct."
"Oh, Mr. Bennet! What a terrible thing for our girls!" By now, Fanny was in tears, her imagination in overdrive.
"Yes, my dear. But you must remember that this has not happened to us. But you see why I have sought your advice on how best to protect our girls? My friend said that it was the most gentlemanly of officers, one who had all the goodness in his countenance and the kindest manners who was caught trying to seduce a fifteen-year old girl."
By now Mrs. Bennet was silent, her eyes round in horror. Thomas did not like to confront her with such unpleasant thoughts, but it was necessary for her to understand. "What do you think, my dear? Lydia so wants to go to Brighton, but I fear that Mrs. Forster, with a similar liveliness as our girl, may not know enough to look out for her."
Thomas waited, hoping that his wife's mean understanding of the world added to her honest love of her daughters would bring her to the correct conclusion. He was not sure he would be able to save Lydia from herself without the help of her mother. Thus, he was deeply relieved when she spoke in a calmer, more decisive tone than he had heard in a long time.
"Lydia must not go to Brighton. There are no two ways about it. She and Mrs. Forster would have had wonderful fun, and I am sorry for her to miss it, but that lady would not watch over her properly in such a dangerous place."
Fanny looked up at her husband with a spark of fear in her eye. "Thomas, do you think that there are such men in the regiment stationed here in Meryton?"
She blanched when her husband nodded emphatically. "I am afraid I do, my dear. In fact, tomorrow I shall be making the rounds of the shopkeepers in Meryton to see that Colonel Forster is made aware of any accounts his soldiers have not settled. It is the Colonel's responsibility to make sure that debts of honor are managed within his regiment, but it is our duty to be sure that our tradesmen are not cheated. I will take Sir William Lucas and Mr. Goulding with me. Perhaps your brother Mr. Phillips as well--it never hurts to have a good solicitor at our back."
For all of her pretensions, Fanny Gardiner had grown up the daughter of a businessman and understood the implications of unpaid debts. She looked up to her husband and for the first time in many years, they were in complete understanding. "I shall speak to Lydia. Kitty as well, now that I think of it. I have encouraged them to make merry with the officers, but our girls are full young and do not understand the dangers."
Mr. Bennet embraced his wife and the honest affection prompted tears to form in her eyes. Moving apart, she patted her eyes dry and gathered herself like a general readying to discipline her troops. "Well, then. I shall go to them now. Supper will be at seven as usual. Don't be late--Mrs. Hill found a lovely piece of fish."
Mr. Bennet smiled briefly as she let herself out of his study. Then he moved back to his desk and penned brief notes to his foremost neighbors and brother-in-law, asking them to call upon him the next morning on a matter of some importance. After sending a servant off to deliver the notes, Thomas settled back in his favorite chair and poured himself a glass of wine that he considered well-earned. The afternoon had been nothing short of astonishing. He was especially pleased with this new understanding with his wife, and hoped it boded well for their future. He could see that their daughters would be leaving Longbourn soon and surmised that in the not too distant future it might be just himself and Fanny left at Longbourn. It was rather like a chess game, he thought to himself. Groundwork laid now would pay dividends in the future.
Later, Mr. Bennet settled back in his most comfortable chair and allowed his mind to wander into memories. He thought of the story he had told Elizabeth, and all the details that he had left out. Details that he had observed himself and details that he had pieced together from his sister, father, and others.
Chapter 2. Mr. Bennet's Story
Posted on 2010-05-23
Reading Mr. Darcy's letter to Elizabeth had startled Mr. Thomas Bennet into some action. After speaking with Mrs. Bennet, he had rescinded permission for Lydia to accompany Colonel Forster's wife to Brighton, provoking no small outburst. Fighting his natural tendencies, he had kept to his plan and attended his family through dinner and then sat with them for two full hours in the drawing room, only allowing himself to retreat to his study once the girls had retired for the night.
Once safely behind the thick oak door, Thomas poured himself a generous snifter of brandy, slumped bonelessly into his most comfortable chair, and took a long sip. He could still hear his family moving around upstairs, preparing for bed, but at least they were separated from him by the thick walls of the Bennet's ancestral home. His ears were still ringing from Lydia's tantrum over her lost trip to Brighton. Now that he had realized his baby girl's true age (fifteen!), he was stunned by her childish behavior.
Lydia had been a beautiful baby--quite as pretty as Jane--but with a liveliness and energy that had reminded Thomas of his wife. It was easy to see how she had grown up as the spoiled baby of their family, effortlessly wrapping her mother around her little finger. When on Earth had he agreed that she was old enough to be out? He suspected that he had not; 'coming out' was not such an event in small town Hertfordshire as it was in London Society. Older children were often brought to gatherings and would gradually make the transition from the toddlers' pretend-dancing in the corner to joining the adults in their more formal sets on the dance floor.
Thomas still remembered being deeply perturbed when a young neighbor boy had invited Jane to dance in the adult circle for the first time, and only slightly less so with Lizzy. When had he ceased to care? Mary had shown little talent or coordination for dancing; he suspected that this was why she pretended to dislike the activity so much and regularly disappeared into a corner with a book at such events. He had to admit that as a father of beautiful daughters, Mary's attitude had been a relief, although he knew it was it was selfish of him.
His two youngest daughters were another matter entirely. After an evening spent attending to them, Mr. Bennet was beginning to think that Kitty might not be quite as silly as he had labeled her. Rather, it seemed to him that she had lost herself between Lydia's bold bullying and her own desperation for some tiny crumb of attention. Kitty's stunned response when he had attempted to speak with her that night had spoken volumes to him; clearly she had long given up any expectation of notice from her father. When she had finally responded, there had been a hint of hurt sarcasm in her voice; 'Why didn't you ask Lizzy, like you always do?' Mr. Bennet was man enough to recognize an arrow well-aimed, but determined that he would try again after rethinking his strategy on how to reach his second youngest.
Lydia's wildness was the most disturbing. Her clothes were nothing like the modest garments that he expected to see on a fifteen-year-old daughter of a country gentleman. Mrs. Bennet had always dressed her daughters well (often exceeding her allowance), and it had once amused him to see how she outfitted their beautiful little girls like porcelain dolls. Lizzy's habit of muddying her clothes during her energetic forays outdoors had left her mother with little choice but to amend their second daughter's wardrobe with more practical outfits.
Jane's serene countenance seemed to cloak a firm grip on the elegant styles she preferred; Mr. Bennet had often heard Mrs. Bennet fretting that she remembered a dress being ordered with more lace or trimmings than it finally appeared on Jane, only to catch a hidden smile between his two eldest daughters. He would not be at all surprised if much of the lace that Mrs. Bennet remembered demanding from the seamstresses ended up in the scrap bag that Lydia and Kitty used to retrim bonnets.
Mr. Bennet picked up his glass to take another sip and found that it had left a ring marring his great-grandfather's old oak desk. He grunted to himself. How had it come to this? Was he really sitting alone in his book room, worrying about the lace and bonnets of his womenfolk? He was letting himself be distracted from the true issue at hand: how to correct his family's behavior after years of leniency.
Thomas released a great sigh. After inheriting Longbourn, he had begun his adult life with the best of intentions; determined to be a fair and generous master, a good neighbor, and above all, a kind and attentive husband and father. Where had all his good intentions gone awry? He had five wonderful daughters and a wife who, though not the most intelligent or well-educated of her gender, was a warm mother and a generous hostess.
In the minutes immediately after reading Mr. Darcy's letter, Bennet had focused on the dangers posed by Mr. Wickham and on helping Elizabeth settle her turbulent emotions. Now freed of that crisis, Thomas' mind circulated past the other points made by the gentleman. He had long dismissed the poor behavior of his wife and youngest daughters as silliness to be laughed at. To have it summarized in such stark terms by a relative stranger and to have himself included in the list of improper conduct was startling.
After Mr. Bennet quelled his first impulse to laugh it all off and forced himself to consider Mr. Darcy's depiction more seriously, his indignation swelled rapidly into anger. How dare the young whippersnapper speak of him so! And to his favorite daughter, of all people! Certainly his own behavior was nothing like his wife and younger daughters…
Thomas sighed again and drained his glass, the fury leaching out of him. That was the material point, was it not? He was the head of the Bennet family, and therefore any improprieties committed by them were his fault… his responsibility. He was struck by the rightness of Elizabeth's words when she had come to his office earlier in the day and begged him not to allow Lydia to go to Brighton, arguing that the youngest's behavior reflected poorly upon her sisters and could materially affect all of their prospects in life. In the end, he was the head of the family, and any faults of behavior or education were his responsibility to correct.
Suddenly wishing desperately that he might hide away in his book room for the remainder of his natural life, Thomas allowed himself the extravagance of another glass of brandy before firmly turning his mind to more practical considerations. The day's revelations had made it clear to him that his eldest daughters, and perhaps all his daughters, would be marrying in the next few years. And none of them had any dowries to speak of, nor had he laid by any significant sum to supplement their provisions after his death.
His father, a devout misogynist at the end of his life, had written an iron-clad clause into the title of Longbourn. First, the Bennet estate could never be split up among multiple heirs. Second, only males could inherit; if the master died without male issue, then his sister's son would inherit, provided that that man adopt the Bennet surname as his own. Because of this, Thomas Bennet's five daughters would inherit nothing but what their mother had brought to the marriage and the little that their father had set aside or invested in business ventures with Mr. Gardiner.
Thomas ground his teeth. Because of his father's determination to keep the estate whole and in the family, Longbourn was set to pass to the halfwit offspring of the despicable Wilberforce Collins.
Thomas Bennet sipped some brandy and his eyes came to rest on the Bennet family bible. He idly flipped it open to the record of births, deaths, and marriages inscribed on its opening pages. As his eyes read the names of his dead relations, his mind filled in their stories and he let his current troubles fade from his consciousness for a moment, in favor of memories.
In 1759, the heir of Longbourn, Mr. Horatio Bennet, had married Miss Elizabeth Smythe, to the great joy of his elderly parents. The couple had lived quietly in the country and had one daughter, Jane, and one son, Thomas. Mrs. Bennet died when her son was only six but Horatio never remarried, being a solitary man by nature and well satisfied with the care of his housekeeper and cook. He taught his son a little about the estate he was to inherit before sending him off to school, but having little understanding of females, he paid scant attention to his daughter other than to ascertain that she was fed and clothed and, when the vicar mentioned that the girl had a lovely singing voice and a good ear for music, to arrange that she might join a neighbor's daughters at their lessons on the pianoforte.
Thus, Miss Jane Bennet had grown up in an odd sort of gentile neglect. Since her mother had passed when the girl was but twelve, she had been expected to act as hostess on the rare occasion that her father had visitors. She learned to sit quietly and see to the guests' needs. As the conversation was often beyond her limited experiences and education, she learned to ask questions that would lead others into conversing. However, as her father rarely attended social occasions in the neighborhood, she herself spent little time with other families or young people her own age.
As neither of her parents had had siblings and all of her grandparents were dead, the girl turned to Longbourn's housekeeper, Mrs. Wagner, a great deal and spent more time in the kitchens than most young ladies might. Luckily, the Wagner family had served Longbourn for decades and the good woman made certain that none of the servants took advantage of the motherless girl as she attempted to fulfill the mistresses' duties.
Some girls might have been jealous of a younger brother given so much attention as the estate's next heir, but Jane had always adored her little brother and took on some of the roles of a mother-- putting him to bed, reading stories or telling him of their mother. Thomas was a quiet, thoughtful boy with an underlying wit that became more apparent as he grew older. He was never loud or boisterous, but a twinkle in his eye would often give him away when the object of his joke became aware of it. Like his father, he had little interest in girls except for his sister and preferred to spend his time with his books, studying dutifully what his tutor directed him. When Thomas was twelve, his father decided it was time for the boy to further his education and sent him off to school. Although he wrote his sister often, Jane felt the loneliness of her existence at Longbourn, where their father sequestered himself in his study or rode out to see to the estate but rarely entertained company.
Perhaps because of this neglect, Jane married young and perhaps unwisely, to a much older gentleman named Collins who, though a gentleman by birth, later showed himself to be one of those perennially disappointed by his allotment in life. In visiting Longbourn to conduct some business affairs with old Mr. Bennet, Mr. Collins noted the quiet daughter who, it seemed to him, was well-trained in serving the men and running the household. After confirming that her dowry was adequate to his needs, it took little effort on his part to flatter a girl unused to a man's attentions into believing herself in love and beloved.
Mr. Bennet was rapidly applied to and, though knowing little of Collins except through their association in a recent business venture, assumed that it was the natural course of things--girls grew up and left their father's home for a husband's. Although he had loved his wife, he himself was not a romantic and his years as a widower had made him more cynical than most. "Happiness in marriage is largely a matter of chance." He thought to himself, before giving his consent.
Thomas Bennet did not meet the fiancé of his beloved sister until he traveled from school to Hertfordshire for the wedding. Despite his best efforts, he could not like Collins, finding the man condescending and peevish, but without the intelligence or even social standing to support his attitudes. However, Thomas kept his thoughts to himself as his sister was happier than he had ever seen her. He was somewhat concerned when his father mentioned that the business alliance with Mr. Collins had failed but the financial loss to the estate was not great and, at fifteen, Thomas was not confident enough to question his parent's decisions.
The sky was grey and dull on the February morning that Jane Bennet wed Wilberforce Collins. Although the bride was blissful and the groom appeared pleased with himself, the morning's festivities were marred when it began to sleet and the groom insisted that the couple depart for his London house early. Jane was saddened to leave the wedding breakfast so soon after it had begun, particularly after Longbourn's servants had made such an effort to please their young mistress. However, after a lifetime's habit of submitting to her father's will, she never thought to question the demands of her new husband. After a long hug and a few tears with her brother and a more formal acknowledgement from her father, Mrs. Jane Bennet Collins entered her husband's carriage and set off for her new life. Later, Thomas would remember the bleak weather of the day and wonder if the fates were signaling the future of his sister's match.
The siblings would not see each other until their father's funeral eight years later, although they corresponded regularly. In 1791, Thomas was called away from his studies at Oxford with word that his father had been thrown from a horse and was seriously ill. For some weeks, the son struggled to keep up with the estate's ledgers and planting schedules, even as the father struggled against death. Thomas allowed himself to believe that his father would recover and release him back to his university position until, after nearly two months, the doctor and parson took the young man aside and forced him to face the facts.
After a night spent in Longbourn's study emptying a bottle of brandy, Thomas Bennet rose the next morning and never mentioned his desire to return to Oxford again. He wrote to his sister, suggesting that if she wished to farewell their father she should journey to Hertfordshire immediately. Jane arrived two days before their father breathed his last, and though she spent every moment by his bedside, he never uttered any final words of affection for her to hear.
Young Mr. Bennet (as he was now known) also wrote a letter to his old friend Edward Gardiner with whom he had roomed at university. Edward's own father had died two years previously and Thomas dearly hoped that his friend's experience with the legal intricacies of inheritance, combined with his excellent business sense, could help him from what currently felt like a quicksand of accounting.
After his own father's passing, Edward Gardiner had assumed full control of the family business and tried to look after his sisters as best he could. His elder sister Alice had recently married a young solicitor named Phillips, but Fanny remained at home with increasingly wild expectations of her own marital prospects. During one of her sister's parties, Edward found Fanny flirting with a leering captain in an unoccupied room, nearly to the point of being compromised. Although he repeatedly tried to restrain her, her vivacity continued to override her common sense.
Edward Gardiner's father had been a good man but extremely strict with his household, keeping Edward's sisters carefully guarded. He had enjoyed Fanny's exceptional beauty and lively nature at his table, but paid little attention to his daughters' education or understanding, believing that his rules would keep them safe until he passed the duty on to their husbands.
Unwilling to leave Fanny to her own devices while he traveled to Hertfordshire for the Bennet funeral, Edward made the fateful decision to bring her with him. During the weeks that the Gardiners spent at Longbourn, Fanny seemed even more lively than usual, but Edward shrugged off the observation as his sister's normal spirits made more noticeable by the somber mood of the house. He spent much of his time in the study with Bennet, helping his friend through the estate's paperwork and ledgers. It was an assumption that would make him shake his head for many years.
One afternoon, the two gentlemen decided to take a break from business and, seeing the time, moved toward the drawing room where the family was accustomed to taking afternoon tea. Bennet was turning his head to speak to Gardiner as he opened the parlor door but stopped at the stunned look on his friend's face. He snapped back to the room and felt his jaw drop.
Wilberforce Collins had become bored while accompanying his wife to her father's funeral and resentful after learning that he gained little from the dead man's will. He currently had an armful of very lively Fanny Gardiner entwined on the sofa. Collins' coat was on the floor and Fanny's hands were in the midst of unwinding his cravat, while the shoulders and neckline of her own gown had been drawn far lower than the dressmaker had ever intended. The so-called gentlemen's hands ceased their groping, but he looked more irritated at the interruption than embarrassed by his actions. Fanny's complete incomprehension of potential consequences to her and her lover's discovery were made clear by her first words.
"Eddy! Wilber has invited me to visit him in London!"
At his brother-in-law's searing look, Collins rapidly extracted himself from the sofa and, jerking on his coat, strode out the other door without a word. "Oh! Well." Said Fanny, adjusting her gown to a more ladylike arrangement, although with little change to her demeanor.
"Oh, Fanny." Said Edward, sinking into the nearest chair with his head in his hands. Luckily, it was only then that the maid brought in the tray of tea and cakes, clearly curious over the odd manner of Mr. Collins' departure but with nothing but speculations. Fanny moved forward to pour for the gentleman, fussing over the pretty china. Edward and Thomas remained silent as they took their first sips and collected their thoughts.
"Perhaps Miss Gardiner might like to rest in her room after tea." Suggested Thomas, attempting to be delicate. "My housekeeper's niece, Sara, is hoping to become a lady's maid, and would be delighted to assist her. Perhaps her hair…?" At this point he ran out of words and waved his hand vaguely at his own brown locks, having little experience or interest in ladies' hair styles except to know that they were often ornate and could take hours to arrange.
Edward recognized it for what it was--a ploy to keep Fanny occupied and out of the way with a trusted servant, preventing her from seeking out Collins again, or worse, spreading stories of their "friendship." He agreed immediately and with a little encouragement his sister was off to her room with the maid to try out new hairstyles, although this fun was to be delayed for some time as her brother sternly lectured her about proper behavior.
After nearly an hour with his sister, Edward had managed to ascertain that the compromising position in which they had found her was the furthest that she and Collins had gone--previous encounters had been limited to a few stolen kisses in the garden (events that Edward tried very hard not to picture in his mind). Finally, Edward left his sister cooing over hair ribbons with the maid and made his way downstairs to Bennet's study, feeling decades older than his 21 years, yet wishing mightily for the wisdom that would come with those decades.
The two men returned to the study that afternoon in a very different mood than they had left it. Mr. Bennet had quietly questioned Longbourn's trusted housekeeper, Mrs. Wagner. He related to his younger friend that a rumor was circulating among the Meryton servant population that Miss Gardiner had been seen embracing a man in the garden, although no one was certain who he was.
The morning after the incident with Fanny, Wilberforce Collins bullied his wife into their rented carriage, ignoring her quiet pleas that she wished to remain for some days more to mourn with her family. After seeing his sister off with barely a glance to her husband, Thomas noted the sun just peaking above the horizon and took himself off for a long, solitary walk across land that Bennets had lived on for centuries. After some hours, he returned to the house and calmly sat down to breakfast with Edward and Fanny.
Serious in demeanor, Thomas paid more attention to his friend's sister than he had before. Although unread, she was well versed in acting as hostess and had a happy, unpracticed demeanor that pleased him. After an hour, during which Edward became increasingly concerned by his friend's behavior, the men retreated to Longbourn's study.
The two friends sat, remaining silent for some minutes until Bennet roused himself to speak.
"Edward, I would like to ask your permission to court your sister, with the intention of asking for her hand in marriage."
Although he had been expecting something of the sort, Edward was still stunned. "Thomas… I don't know what to say."
"Then say yes."
"I appreciate your offer; it would certainly solve the rumors of my sister's compromise, but it is not your responsibility."
"Her reputation was tainted while she was a guest in my house, by one of my own relations. Therefore, it is my responsibility and so shall be the solution."
"Thomas, you take too much upon yourself. Since my father died and our sister married, Fanny has become as silly a creature as I have ever seen. Her thoughtless flirtation is not your fault. She… she is not the sort of lady you might hope to marry."
Thomas sighed. Edward knew a bit about his failed infatuation with his mentor's daughter at Oxford. "While it is true that I do not yet feel a passionate love for her, I do feel an affection already and I have hope that time together would help it grow."
"She knows nothing of books, much less Greek philosophy--our father did not believe in educating females except for their duties in the household."
"I have no need of a fellow student to debate Plato and Aristotle--that is my past life. I need a companion, someone who can run this household." Thomas sighed and rubbed his eyes for a moment before continuing. "Edward, I am aware that your sister is not the most brilliant or educated of her sex, but she has a liveliness about her that Longbourn and, in truth I, am in need of. There is little society in this neighborhood and I fear being the prey of every matchmaking mother in the county. You know me well--what do you suggest? Would you send me to Almack's in search of a wife? I would be a disaster."
Edward Gardiner couldn't help but laugh at the thought of his friend the bookworm thrust among the London popinjays and debutants. It was the turning point of the argument and by lunchtime, Edward had agreed that they would discuss it with his sister.
Miss Fanny Gardiner might be a silly, vain young woman, but she had a mean understanding of society's structure and was well aware that marriage to a gentleman with his own estate was a clear step up in the world for the daughter of a tradesman. Thomas Bennet might not be as flashy as some of the officers she had flirted with, but he was handsome in a serious sort of way and life as mistress of his estate would be far more stable than that of a soldier's wife. The final satisfaction in her new situation came when her sister Mrs. Phillips wrote that her own husband had just been taken on as partner by a solicitor in Meryton, a village just a mile from Longbourn. Thus pleased, Fanny accepted Thomas Bennet's offer of marriage and assured her brother that her every happiness was secure.
Mrs. Collins died less than a year later, supposedly of a fever but her brother Thomas often thought it more likely that she had willed herself to death out of sheer misery in her marriage. Her husband had written to offer his regrets that they would not be able to return to Hertfordshire for Thomas Bennet's wedding, due to "business". Thomas had been more relieved than he cared to admit.
The first years of the Bennet's marriage were content. A year after her wedding, Mrs. Fanny Bennet bore her husband a beautiful baby girl with his own blue eyes and a serene smile. Thomas insisted that she be christened Jane and promised himself that she would have a better chance for happiness in life than his sister. It was not until the birth of her third daughter that Fanny learned of the nature of the estate's entailment should she not produce a male heir and her nerves began to fray.
Some weeks after his sister's death, Thomas had received a letter addressed to him in a strange hand. The writing was clearly feminine but the writer seemed more intent on being clear and precise than the loopy copperplate taught to young ladies. Upon opening it, he found a short note and a second letter enclosed in the first, this one clearly in Jane's handwriting. In an effort to control his sudden emotions at the sight of his dear sister's hand, Thomas forced himself to read the outer note first.
To Mr. Thomas Bennet, Longbourn, Hertfordshire:
Please accept my sincere condolences on the loss of your sister. Forgive me if I speak out of place, but I served as housekeeper for the Collinses since she arrived as a new bride and, if I might be as bold to say so, she will be dearly missed.
Two days before she passed, Mrs. Collins had a good morning when the sickness lifted somewhat. She called for her small writing desk and spent several hours composing letters. I, thinking that she was finally recovering, tried my best to keep her from overtiring herself, but she refused to stop until she was finished. I now understand that she suspected her end was coming and took the time to write her last words to those she most cared most for. She entrusted these letters to me, requesting that, should the worst come to pass, I see them to their destination.
Enclosed please find the letter she left for you. She often referred to you as her dear little brother with the warmest of expressions.
Thomas took a moment to slouch back in his chair and close his eyes tightly. Some of his station might have found such a letter from a servant to be a presumption, but as Thomas Bennet had always found the study of people's personalities fascinating regardless of rank, he saw only what it was; a sharing of sorrow between two people over the loss of a loved one.
With a sigh, young Mr. Bennet set down the opened letter and picked up the second, running his thumb over his sister's familiar handwriting. With a quick brush at his eyes, he broke the seal and read.
11 February 1793
My dear brother Thomas,
I have been unwell enough this last week to retreat to my bed. You know me well enough to perceive that this sort of inactivity is not to my taste, but it has given me much time to think and ponder. I was so sorry to miss your wedding last month, both because we have so little family left, you and I, but also because you have always been so dear to me… even when you would follow me around, tugging on my skirts and asking "why?" all the time! Ah, you did drive Cook half mad with the way you got underfoot in her kitchen, do you remember? Those are good memories.
Though you have never said anything, I think you know that my life here has not always been the happiest. And yet, even with the sorrows and frustrations, I do not regret that I left our father's house for this life. It has given me the chance to see and do things, to meet people I never would have crossed in Meryton, however dear.
Would you believe that Mrs. Hill and I went to hear Mary Wollstonecraft read excerpts from her treatise on the education of women last fall? It was our great secret expedition. Thomas, you may think me turning into a blue stocking in my old age, but I agree with much of what she says on the education of women. We are not mentally feeble by nature… or rather, there is just as great a range in intelligence among beings of my gender as those of yours (I am sure we can both think of examples at the extremes!). It saddens me to see young ladies raised to believe their value lies in their figure, their ability to embroider cushions and decorate screens, and perhaps worst, the ability to carry on hours of small talk without saying anything of substance!
A few months ago, I attended a supper at the home of some of my husband's business associates. After dinner, while the men were at their port and cigars, I began talking with the second daughter of the house--a pretty young lady of about 17 or 18, with the dowry and connections to expect a reasonably excellent match in her future. She had recently read a play that I had seen and we began to discuss it. In her enthusiasm, she dropped her proper façade for a few minutes and let me see her brilliance. She cited lines, dissected subtext, and identified allusions to other works that I had completely missed. She would have easily held her own with even you, I believe! But it only lasted for a few minutes. One sharp look from her mother and the light in her eyes was shuttered. It was as though a life-size talking doll had taken her place. The play was "lovely" and then she began talking about whether the weather would be fair for the Creighton's garden party later that week. Ever the proper and ladylike topic, but, oh Thomas, that such intelligence and wit should be so suppressed!
William is an obedient little boy, but I admit have wished for a baby girl, though I think it is not to be. Dear Thomas, if you should be so lucky as to have a daughter, teach her to value herself--her intelligence, her character, her abilities. Educate her! I have heard so many young brides dismissed by their husbands as stupid because they could not keep the housekeeping accounts without help. Yet when were they ever supposed to practice their arithmetic when throughout their girlhood they were told that mathematics is too much for the female brain! Men (and you are as guilty of this as any, my dear Thomas) complain of women's silliness, that all we talk about is lace and bonnets and balls, and yet is that not what we are encouraged to focus on from a young age, really from birth?
Dear Thomas, I did not intend this letter to be any sort of sermon, but the thoughts that have been stewing in my mind appear to be flooding out of my pen. I loved our father as you did, but with all my heart I believe you have the potential to become a greater master, husband, and father. I hope you have many children, and you invite their laughter into your book room, as you call it (even the girls--perhaps one of them will even learn to beat you at chess!) There will be sorrows and disappointments in your life, much as your big sister might wish she could protect you from them. Do not let these become the focus of your life. I see in you a witty sarcasm that could descend into cynicism and misanthropy if you allow yourself to focus on the ill in life. Remember to see the joys, the beauties, the amusements, however small.
Perhaps that old saying says it best--Think of the past only as it brings you pleasure. You will say that these are very deep thoughts for your ever practical big sister! Always remember that you are in my heart.
Your loving sister,
Jane Bennet Collins
P.S. My dear brother--if this illness takes me to our Lord, I have asked Mrs. Hill to send you this letter, maudlin as it is. As you have probably guessed from my letters, Mrs. Hill has been my closest confidant and steadiest support throughout my years in London. It is nothing improper--she keeps her manner as befitting a servant and respects me as mistress, but I do not think I could ever have had a dearer friend. I have left her a letter of recommendation written in as glowing terms as I could make it, but I have just remembered a thought I had after reading your last letter. You mentioned that dear Mrs. Wagner's arthritis and sight were worsening rapidly and you might be looking for a new housekeeper soon, particularly as your marriage will necessitate a livelier household than Longbourn has seen in many years. In the case that I no longer have need of her, I would like to recommend Mrs. Hill to you. She has a story which is hers to tell, but I am certain that you would find no more respectable, capable, and loyal servant should you search across England. -jbc
After reading his sister's letter for the first time, Mr. Bennet set it down carefully on his desk, lifted his shaking hands to his face and wept as he had not since he was a young lad.
Some twenty years later, the harsh truths relayed in a letter to his daughter from a young gentleman he had barely noticed reminded Mr. Bennet of his sister's final letter. Unlocking a hidden, lead-lined cabinet that contained all his most important papers, Thomas retrieved the yellowed pages and carefully unfolded them. Reading his sister's script again brought tears to his eyes, but also reminded him of the ideals that he had striven for as a younger man, ideals his sister had suggested he might attain as a master, husband, and father.
Chapter 3. The Morning After
Posted on 2010-05-29
Mr. Bennet had not yet risen from his bed when Mabberly arrived to help him shave, but the appearance of his valet was enough to convince him that it was high time to face the day. There was much to be done, however little he was looking forward to it. In short order, the Bennet patriarch was seated at the breakfast table with his wife and daughters, wishing that he had not indulged in a second glass of brandy the night before.
After two cups of strong tea, Mr. Bennet squared his shoulders and forced himself to get on with it.
"Well, girls. What will you be doing with yourselves today?"
The question was so unexpected that the table fell silent for a moment before Lydia turned her attention back to Kitty and continued babbling about one of the officers--something about dressing in women's clothes and passing unnoticed among his fellows at a card party. Mr. Bennet sighed.
At his right elbow, Jane spoke softly. "I shall be visiting the Wagner's this morning, Papa. Young Annie just had her baby last week and we have a basket of clothes and food for them."
Mr. Bennet nodded, pleased. To be perfectly honest, he hadn't really been aware that his daughters were visiting Longbourn's tenants and continuing the tradition of charity baskets. He was mildly ashamed. Turning to his left, he queried. "Lizzy? Will you be accompanying Jane on her mission of mercy?" To himself, he grimaced; it was too easy to fall into his old habits of sarcasm even when the situation did not merit it.
Elizabeth did not seem to notice her father's tone--it was what she was accustomed to, after all. She was just happy that he seemed to be making some effort to inquire about his daughters' activities. "No, Papa. Hill and I must go over the month's housekeeping accounts this morning."
Her father nodded, something of his sister's letter on the importance of educating girls in matters other than embroidery and useless conversation coming back to him. He turned to his next daughter, tucked between Elizabeth and Kitty at the table and clearly not expecting to be addressed by her father. "Mary?" When she did not respond, Elizabeth poked her with an elbow and Mr. Bennet realized that his middle daughter had been reading from a book hidden in her lap.
When her startled eyes met his, he repeated his query. "Mary? What shall you be doing today?"
After opening and closing her mouth several times in surprise, Mary finally managed two words. "Studying, Papa."
Bennet smiled--he might be able to reach this daughter. Unfortunately, Mary took his smile as one of derision, and tucked her chin so that all he could see was a slightly crooked part in her soft brown hair.
"Mary?" He tried in a gentler voice. He was rewarded by a pair of eyes peaking up at him from under a thick fringe. "What are you reading, my child?"
"Fordyce's instructions on the importance of charity." She squeaked, clearly expecting to be mocked.
Her father sighed, sorry to see how his sharp tongue had affected his daughter. He was struck by an idea. "Mary, I would be pleased if you would take some time from your studies this morning to accompany your sister on her visit to Longbourn's tenants." Seeing that she was about to argue, he continued in a firmer tone. "Charity is indeed a virtue, daughter. However, we must remember that it is the practice of charity that is virtuous, not simply its exposition."
He looked Mary straight in the eye until she nodded slightly, then relented. "It is a worthy subject for your consideration, my dear. Bring your Fordyce to my book room this afternoon and we shall discuss it further. I should like to hear your thoughts. Did you know that charity is one of the Five Pillars of Islam? According to their holy book, Muslims believe that each year a percentage of their possessions must be given to the poor and deprived." Mr. Bennet noted that his daughter was looking at him wide-eyed.
"Muslims, Papa?" Mary's curiosity overcame the shyness she had learned to practice around her father.
"Muslims--followers of the Islamic religion. Sometimes called Mohammedans or Mahometans, although that is incorrect; they do not worship Mohammed but consider him a prophet, just as we Christians believe Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah and the son of God." Thomas saw that he was well beyond his daughter's knowledge, but encouraged by her obvious interest. "Well, well. I have some business to attend to this morning, but come into my study this afternoon after tea and we shall discuss it. At university I came to know a man from Jerusalem; he was translating various ancient religious texts and studying the intersections between the Christian, Islamic, and Jewish faiths. Fascinating--I shall see if I can find the notes I took on his lectures."
Not much later, Mr. Bennet retired to his study, pleased that he had made some progress with at least one of his daughters. His hope for a bit of quiet before meeting with his neighbors and seeing to the safety of the Meryton shopkeepers' pocketbooks was not to be, however. Within minutes, there was a great pounding on his door accompanied by the sounds of his wife and youngest daughter in high dudgeon.
Thomas groaned, but rose and opened his door, allowing his sanctuary to be invaded by his high-strung wife and the daughter he feared was most like her.
"Mr. Bennet! You must tell her--she will not listen and is determined to disgrace us all!" Wailed Mrs. Bennet, waiving a lacy handkerchief in the air like a white flag.
Simultaneously, Lydia was stamping her foot and snarling. "Papa- I must have new clothes for Brighton, for there shall be so many balls and parties and I have nothing to wear! Mama promised but now she won't take me…"
Mrs. Bennet turned on her spoiled daughter. "You most certainly are not going to Brighton--such a dangerous place! I have half a mind to keep you away from Meryton until the regiment has left!"
"But you promised! I am to be Mrs. Forster's particular companion! And make merry with all the officers! I can't miss the parties! I must go to Brighton!"
The spat continued on for some minutes at such a decibel that Mr. Bennet could not catch their attention long enough to get a word in. Rolling his eyes, he moved to shut the door, and then picked up an old straight-backed wood chair from the corner and set it behind Lydia. Neither female took any notice of his activity until he picked up four heavy ledgers from a shelf and dropped them on the floor beside them with a satisfying "THUMP!"
Before Lydia had a chance to wind up her tongue again, he spoke sternly. "Sit down and be silent, child."
Lydia sat in the uncomfortable chair, crossed her arms and pouted. Thomas nodded severely and moved to stand before her. "Lydia. You are fifteen-years-old, yet you act like a girl of five--a spoiled, reckless little child who should still be on leading strings."
Seeing that she was about to argue, Mr. Bennet pointed at her sternly. "Silence, I said. You will listen." He waited as Lydia humphed and kicked the rungs of the chair, but she held her tongue.
"It is because of your poor behavior that your mother and I decided you are not mature enough to travel without one of us to look after you. You will not be going to Brighton, much less ordering any new gowns. I shall explain the change in plans to Colonel Forster when I see him this morning."
Red in the face, Lydia leapt to her feet and shrieked at her parents. "But you promised! I want to go to Brighton--the balls! The officers! You said I could!"
Mr. Bennet put his hand on Lydia's shoulder and rocked her back into the chair. "Quiet! This is precisely the type of behavior that prompted our decision, child. In fact, if you continue as such, you will also force me to reconsider whether you are truly mature enough to be 'out' in society."
Lydia's jaw fell open and her eyes goggled, too stunned to speak for a moment. For the first time in her young life she saw her parents united--Mrs. Bennet was standing beside her husband nodding in agreement, even to his last statement! Lydia snapped her jaw shut; clearly a different tactic was necessary.
Her father watched in disgust as his youngest daughter's expression shifted from fury to cunning to wretchedness, crocodile tears dribbling down her cheeks.
"But Papa… Mrs. Forster is depending on me… You don't want me to let her down, do you?" She whimpered, patting at her cheeks with a hanky.
Mr. Bennet couldn't stop a snort. "Lydia Bennet. You are a fifteen-year-old girl with little education and no sense that I can see. Mrs. Forster is a married woman full-grown. If she needs assistance, she can turn to her husband or the other officers' wives. She has a household to run; she will not be spending her days trimming bonnets and her nights at balls and parties. And if she is spending all her time on such frivolities, then she is not a lady whom we would wish you to model yourself after."
Much of what Mr. Bennet said passed straight over Lydia's head; she was not interested in reasons, just approval. Seeing that her father seemed to be standing firm, she turned her watery eyes to her mother. "But Mama… if I go to Brighton, one of the officers is sure to fall in love with me! Denny and Carter like me a great deal already, and now that Wickham is no longer engaged to Mary King, he has begun to pay attention to me as well!" Her begging voice began to gain enthusiasm as she repeated her favorites' names, but her mother was already shaking her head.
"Oh no, my dear! It is too dangerous! I admire a handsome officer in a red coat as much as the next girl, but we do not know anything about these militiamen. Who knows what sort of trouble they might get you into, and then we would all be ruined!"
"But Mama…" Lydia's voice returned to a wail.
"Lydia..." Remonstrated her father.
"But you promised!"
"BUT I WANNA GOTO BRIGHTON!!!"
"SILENCE!!!" Mr. Bennet had finally had enough. "This is not a discussion. You are not going to Brighton, and that is final. In fact, you will not be attending any assemblies or parties for the next month, at least. In one month, we will review your behavior and decide if you have shown adequate improvement to be allowed out into company."
"No buts. For now, you will go to your room until you are calm enough to act like a sensible little girl, as it is quite obvious that the proper behavior of a young lady is well beyond your capacity." Thoroughly disgusted, Thomas rang the bell for a servant and motioned for is daughter to stand.
Fortunately, it was the housekeeper herself who answered Mr. Bennet's summons. "Mrs. Hill, excellent. Lydia shall not be going to Brighton or anyplace else for the next month, so you may tell Sarah that she need not see to any packing, regardless of what Miss Lydia claims."
Hill's eyebrows rose at the sight of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet united and apparently taking their spoiled child in had. Wisely, she simply nodded and said nothing. Mr. Bennet continued in a stern tone.
"For now, she will be going to her room."
Lydia couldn't stand it any more and flounced to the door, crying over her shoulder. "I hate you! I want to go to my room! I don't want to see you ever again!" And with a last huff, she swept from the room, whipping the door open so hard that it slammed into the wall.
Mr. Bennet sighed and turned to his wife who had teared up at her favorite's harsh words. Patting her on the shoulder, he said softly. "There, there Fanny. It had to be done; it is for her own good. She cannot go on like this, and it is our responsibility--yours and mine--to take her in hand." He offered her his handkerchief in place of her damp one and then turned to their patient housekeeper.
"Mrs. Hill? As you have no doubt guessed, we have come to the conclusion that our youngest daughter needs to … err… modify her behavior." Mrs. Hill met his eye and nodded in such a way that Mr. Bennet understood that she thought it was high time. He cleared his throat.
"Please tell the other servants; I would not be surprised if Lydia will be more difficult for a time. If she causes you or the others any trouble, come to me immediately."
Hill nodded and left the study, privately wondering if Mr. and Mrs. Bennet had any hope of reforming their wayward daughter. On the way to the kitchens, she sighed and rolled her shoulders. She was really getting too old for this, but she was determined to see all the Bennet girls off and married before she retired to the pensioner's cottage that Mr. Bennet had promised her. She sighed again and reminded herself that she had worked for far worse masters.
While Mrs. Hill was reporting the startling turn of events to those in the kitchen, Mr. Bennet spent some minutes comforting his wife. He was pleased to see that her eyes seemed to be opened to Lydia's poor behavior.
"Fanny, I have a difficult time understanding that our babies are growing into young ladies. It seems just yesterday that Jane was put in my arms for the first time."
"Oh Thomas, I know, I know."
"But, just as we had to be on guard when they were toddlers, so we must do now that they are young ladies. Do you remember when Elizabeth was nearly run over by that wagon in Meryton when she was four?"
"Oh Thomas, how could I forget? I took my eyes off her for one second and she was out of the shop and half way across the street!"
"Yes, my dear; we were lucky that day, and many others I suspect."
Mrs. Bennet nodded, lapsing into memories of her children's escapades until Mr. Bennet spoke again.
"I have been trying to think of how best to make Lydia understand how to behave in a way that she will be safe in Society… safe from men who are not gentlemen. The best I can guess is that it is like teaching her not to run into the road when a wagon is barreling down on her; a combination of clear rules backed up by punishment for breaking them and praise when she obeys." He paused. "We must be united in this, my dear."
Mrs. Bennet nodded with a determined glint in her eye. "Yes, Thomas. I believe you are right. In fact, I shall go now and check that Lydia did indeed go to her room. It would be just like her to sneak off."
After Mr. Bennet agreed with her plan, Fanny rose and prepared to deal with her youngest daughter. She paused with her hand on the doorknob and turned back to her husband, barely able to look him in the eye.
"Thomas, I've never thanked you for what you did… marrying me, I mean. But I want you to know that I do know how a proper gentleman's daughter should act, even if I do not always manage it myself. I shall do everything I can to set Lydia right."
Thomas Bennet felt tears forming in his own eyes and moved forward to take his wife of twenty-odd years in his arms. "Oh, my dear Fanny, you are a good woman with a good heart. Neither of us would measure up to Society's caricatures of perfect behavior, if strictly examined." He paused, disliking to speak of his emotions, but forced himself to go on. "Though I may not show it very well, I firmly believe that I am the lucky one. Longbourn came to life the day you became my wife."
"Oh, Mister Bennet… God has been very good to us."
"Yes, my dear, He has."
And with that, the Bennets parted in far better spirits than one might have expected given the cause of their meeting.
Not much later, Mr. Bennet met with his neighbors and explained his concern that Meryton's shopkeepers had been extending credit to the soldiers, but that some individuals might be tempted to depart without settling their debts. As the regiment was set to march within the week, the gentlemen readily agreed to accompany him into the village, assemble a list of debtors, and then share it with Colonel Forster.
Mr. Bennet's neighbors were surprised to see the usually retiring gentleman taking on such activity but easily agreed to follow his direction. The Bennets had been the leading family of the district for generations and it was somewhat of a relief to see the current patriarch finally step up to his role in the community.
Mr. Wickham was probably less pleased, although the gentlemen never saw him. The Lieutenant's name figured prominently on the lists of unpaid debts produced by Meryton's merchants. Colonel Forster was displeased to see the extent of his new officer's expenses, but his face had brightened when he recalled hearing that Wickham had had an excellent run at cards on the previous night. When the regiment departed for Brighton later that week, the shopkeeper's ledgers were balanced and George Wickham's pockets were quite empty; a situation that Mr. Darcy's godson was not at all pleased with.
Needing a bit of solitude after the unaccustomed activity, Mr. Bennet rode a roundabout way back to Longbourn, finally handing over his gelding's reins to the stable boy not long before tea.
"How is it around the house, Davey?" Inquired Mr. Bennet. The young man was Mrs. Hill's son and, though he was somewhat simple, he usually had a good idea of the comings and goings of the family.
"All's well that I know of, Sir. Miss Jane and Miss Mary went out earlier with a basket. I asked 'em if they wanted the carriage, but Miss Jane said they'd rather walk."
Mr. Bennet nodded with approval. A long walk outdoors would do Mary good, as would time in company with Jane's good sense.
After he had washed and donned clean clothes, Mr. Bennet descended to his study and asked for a tray to be sent to him. In the course of his activities in Meryton, he had missed lunch and now his stomach was rumbling in protest. He allowed himself a half hour to eat and read a favorite chapter of Tom Jones before settling down to the tedious duty of checking over Longbourn's ledgers and calculating the annual taxes. When Mary tapped lightly on his door, clutching Fordyce's Sermons to her chest, it was a relief.
"Ah, yes. Come in Mary, come in. You needn't look so frightened, child; come, let us sit by the windows where there is good light." After they settled themselves, Mr. Bennet prompted her. "So, how was your morning?" He was pleased to see Mary's expression brighten.
"Very well, Papa. Jane and I visited the Wagner's and gave them the charity basket. They were so appreciative--even for the smallest things. I would never have known what to pack, but Jane seemed to know just what they needed."
Thomas nodded--to himself he noted that his eldest daughters probably knew what went on in his tenants' lives far better than he himself did. "She knows because she has taken the trouble to learn; by spending time with them, she understands their lives better and they are more comfortable telling her what they are lacking."
After a few minutes discussing Longbourn's tenants and the obligations of the Bennet family to their servants, Mr. Bennet turned the conversation to what he knew of the beliefs of charity in other cultures-- the Muslims, the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans--and the pair spent an enjoyable hour in discussion. When Mary left, she was clutching several books in addition to the Scottish clergyman's manual on proper behavior and her father had hope that he had broadened her mind just a bit and possibly gained himself a new student.
He returned to his office chair and heaved a sigh. Now, what to do about Kitty and Lydia? His eyes drifted around the room until they alighted on the chessboard that Mr. Gardiner had given to him as a wedding present long ago. For the day-to-day matches that he played with Lizzy or against himself, he preferred the older, plainer chessboard that had belonged to his grandfather with its worn pieces and polished wood.
Mr. Gardiner's set had come from the Orient. The pieces were individually painted in a rainbow of bright enamels, each with such detail that one could see the long, lacquered fingernails on the Queen's hands and individual feathers in the plumes on the Knight's helmet. Thomas had always kept them in a box on a high shelf, protected from little fingers that might break the fragile figurines. However, now he considered that they might be just the thing to capture a young lady's attention and so he eased the box off the shelf and spent the remainder of the afternoon cleaning the pieces.
That evening after dinner, Mr. Bennet brought the chess set into the family drawing room to many "ooohs" and aaaahs." Lydia had had to be sent to her room half way through dinner, so the group was already somewhat calmer than usual. Mary's attention soon returned to her new books, but Kitty was quite entranced by the exquisitely painted enamel figurines.
In short order, Mr. Bennet was showing Kitty how to set up the board and the remainder of the evening was spent teaching her about each piece and the moves it was allowed to make. Elizabeth retreated to the corner with Jane, allowing Kitty the pleasure of their father's uninterrupted attention.
Later that evening after his family had retired, Thomas poured himself a glass of claret (he was off brandy for awhile) and sat alone in his bookroom, well-pleased with himself. He had no illusions that Kitty would grow into any sort of chess prodigy--she was not nearly as quick as Lizzy had been to pick up the moves and strategies. However, his second youngest had shown an honest interest which he was glad to support. In truth, he was willing to latch on to anything that would exercise her mind.
It was not for several days that Mr. Bennet unearthed his second youngest's real passion.
After a windy ride around Longbourn's fields, Mr. Bennet unexpectedly came across Kitty standing in the front hall with her nose nearly touching a framed painting. The Bennets had never been great art collectors, but Thomas had always enjoyed this particular painting of a girl in a white dress, running through a field of wildflowers with her hair blown loose and bonnet trailing behind her.
Kitty was so focused on the brushwork of the painting that she positively jumped when her father spoke from just behind her.
"Lovely, isn't it?" Seeing his daughter flush, Thomas realized how he had surprised her. "I apologize for startling you, my child. I did not mean to interrupt, but you seemed very intent."
Kitty smiled apologetically. Her father had paid her more attention in the last few days than he had for years previously, but she did not yet wholly trust his new gentle manner. "I'm sorry, Papa. I didn't mean to hurt it."
"Looking at it will do no harm; that is what it is here for. If you wish to examine it more closely, we can even take it down from the wall and bring it where there is better light." He paused but continued when his daughter didn't answer. "What do you find about it that so intrigues you?"
Kitty looked at him carefully and decided that her father was truly interested. She turned back to the painting and gestured with her finger. "I was out watching the wind blow across the hay field this morning. Do you know the grass stems roll, almost like waves on water? I think it is the undersides of the leaves showing that also changes the color as they bend in the wind. I was trying to see how this painter captured the wind so perfectly; do you see? There is a blue sky and a few puffy white clouds, but the moment you look at the painting you know there is a big, breezy wind blowing right across the meadow."
Kitty recalled herself and peaked at her father out of the corner of her eye. "It probably sounds silly…" She began.
"Absolutely not!" Reassured her father, placing his hand on her shoulder and looking at the painting more closely than he ever had before. "I'd never noticed that before, but you are quite correct. And I think you are right about the colors--the bent stems are just a bit lighter than those upright, unbent by the wind--a hint of pink. And I suppose that adds to the story--why the girl's hair has blown loose and her bonnet won't stay on."
Father and daughter stood in silence studying the painting for a few more minutes until Mr. Bennet stirred himself. "Kitty, have you ever tried drawing yourself?"
Kitty looked flustered. "A little, but everyone always got angry with me for ruining so much paper…"
Her father nodded, clearly pleased. "What you need is your own sketch book, and perhaps a set of charcoals or watercolours. I can't claim to have any talent myself beyond some basic drafting skills, but I do have a book or two on learning to draw in my library. Basic figures, composition and such. Come along and I'll see if I can't find them. Then this afternoon we shall go on an expedition and see if there are any art supplies to be found in Meryton. I suspect that Culter's should have something, but if not we shall write to your Aunt Gardiner and she can send them from London."
Pleased but still rather amazed by his behavior, Kitty quietly followed her father into his study. When he began climbing a ladder in order to poke around the contents of a high shelf in the corner, disturbing clouds of dust in the process, she couldn't repress a grin. "Is your answer for everything in a book, Papa?"
Chapter 4. Wounded Ego, Broken Heart.
Posted on 2010-06-03
As the carriage left the village of Hunsford and turned on to the main road toward London, Fitzwilliam Darcy allowed his eyes to close and rested his aching head back into the cushions. He had not slept well in weeks and barely at all the two nights since his failed proposal to Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
Elizabeth. The very thought of her name made his stomach clench. He had returned from the parsonage that evening full of wounded fury. How dare such an impertinent chit speak to him so! She had refused him! His insulted ego had kept him energized through the night, writing a letter that would expose her to the truth and thus shame her with his innocence. In hindsight he could only marvel at how blinded he had been to his own bitterness.
Darcy's fury had lasted until the moment he had placed his letter in her hand the next morning. He had stalked through his aunt's groves for nearly an hour, his irritation mounting at being made to wait (neglecting the fact that there was no appointment for her to be tardy for). When he had finally sighted her, he had marched up to her with all the hauteur with which the young Master of Pemberley, nephew of the Earl of Matlock, could muster.
He cringed in memory of arrogant tone he had used to demand that she read his letter, leaving her no way to defend herself from such an impropriety. Gentleman, indeed! More the actions of a spoiled, petulant child denied a new toy for the first time in his life.
He had practically shoved the letter into her hands, he remembered. But the next moment she had looked up at him and, in the warm light of an otherwise insignificant Thursday morning, William had felt all his self-righteous anger and hurt pride melt away, leaving only a great, aching sorrow.
Feeling the overwhelming need to hide himself away and weep for the first time since the death of his mother, Darcy forced himself to make a deep bow, took one last look at the lady who had stolen his heart, and then turned and walked stiffly away. He walked swiftly with little idea where he was going except that it was away from Elizabeth and away from his aunt's house. Eventually, he found himself descending a rocky outcrop to a ledge jutting out over a creek.
Discarding coat and cravat, Will leaned back against the large willow whose draping branches formed a protective green curtain between him and the world. He pressed the heels of his hands against his face, but no amount of his father's strictures on the effeminate nature of tears could stop them from coming, leaking silently from his eyes. How could it possibly have gone so wrong?
Some hours passed before Darcy's sense of duty nudged him hard enough that he felt it over the pain of his broken heart and wounded ego. Though he wished for nothing more than to remain alone in his peaceful green grotto, he knew that the longer he remained away from Rosings, the more strident would be his aunt's demands when he returned.
Sighing, he stood and, after donning his coat and setting himself to rights, climbed up and re-entered the world, feeling exhausted. Taking the most direct route back to the main house, every field and flower seemed to remind him of some delightfully witty comment or arch look of Miss Elizabeth.
Darcy had just reached the paved courtyard at the rear of the house when the door opened and his cousin exited, clattering down the steps.
Seeing his younger relative, Colonel Fitzwilliam hailed him. "There you are, Darce! I was just coming in search of you, to make sure you didn't miss luncheon." He stiffened his features so as to mimic their aunt. "Had you done so, your future mother-in-law would be most displeased."
The cousins rarely mentioned Lady Catherine's matrimonial plans for her daughter between them. Darcy had only the energy to give Richard a pained look. Did even his cousin--as close as any brother--understand him so little?
Genuinely concerned by his cousin's ill appearance, Richard drew him off to a more private corner in the courtyard and made his best guess. "What has happened? Did you talk to Anne? I've wondered if she even wants to marry, given her poor health. But surely she wouldn't refuse you, given her mother's attitude."
The irony that Fitzwilliam could come so close to the cause of his misery and yet be so far off the mark at the same time struck Darcy forcibly. Fighting off the tears that had plagued him earlier, he let out a mirthless laugh and forced himself to speak before his cousin could make another guess.
"No, Richard. Such a thing never occurred to me." Leaving his cousin to wonder if he was referring to asking Anne De Bourgh to marry him or to the possibility of being refused, Darcy continued. "Come, let us repair to the dining room before we are missed."
Richard made a last attempt. "Darcy, are you certain you are well? Really, you are quite pale. If you are ill, we can put off our departure again. Is that why you missed dinner last night?"
Darcy waved him off and started up the steps. With no desire to explain his absence the previous evening, he concentrated on the present. "I slept poorly and skipped breakfast to get some fresh air. We shall depart tomorrow morning as planned."
"Very well. We can visit the parsonage after luncheon to farewell the Collinses and their guests." As the Colonel had followed Darcy into the house, this last was uttered as he entered the room where their aunt waited.
"Why would you be visiting the parsonage on your last afternoon at Rosings?" Demanded Lady Catherine, turning from one nephew to the other. "Certainly you had much better spend your remaining time with Anne!" She waved in the direction of her daughter, missing how the girl shrank back, pulling a wool shawl more tightly around her.
Seeing that Darcy was not going to respond, Richard applied his most charming manner. "Ah, but we must farewell our new acquaintances before leaving Kent, for we would not wish our poor manners to reflect poorly upon yourselves."
Even Lady Catherine could find no fault with his logic, so she was forced to adopt the idea as her own. "Very well. You shall visit the parsonage this afternoon; I am sure that Mr. and Mrs. Collins shall appreciate your condescension."
The Colonel nodded obediently and managed to hide his smirk in a glass of wine.
After allowing a footman to serve her, Lady Catherine continued. "Miss Lucas has little to recommend herself other than being a quiet little thing, but Miss Bennet has a bit of wit about her. I believe I shall have her extend her visit. Certainly she is nothing to Anne, but she is a genteel, pretty sort of girl, even if her unfortunate connections and lack of fortune make it impossible that she shall marry anyone of consequence."
Darcy started at how close his aunt's words came to those in his head when he had met the young lady in question.
Unconscious of her nephew's discomfort, Lady Catherine continued. "Indeed, she has managed to gain herself a reasonable education, despite the lack of governess or masters. Though such independence in a lady would be deplorable at our level of society, of course, I believe she has done well to raise herself within the sphere in which she was born."
Darcy could not restrain his desire to defend Elizabeth. "Miss Bennet is the daughter of a respectable gentleman."
His aunt dismissed the comment with a flick of her hand. "Do not be simple, Fitzwilliam. Who is her mother? Who are her uncles and aunts? If I imagined myself to be ignorant of their condition, I would admit that she had virtues enough, but without the advantages of a more advantageous birth, she has little hope other than to throw herself at any available gentleman. She should have snapped up Mr. Collins when she had the chance."
To say that his aunt's pronouncement made Darcy queasy was an understatement. And yet, there was more.
"Her mother must be beside herself--five daughters and an estate entailed away to a distant cousin. I remember the Countess of Waverly suffered much the same fate, although in her case, she had three daughters and the estate was inherited by her stepson who threw them all from their home less than a month after the death of the old Earl. The last I heard, she had the eldest girl married to a clergyman and the second to a retired army officer. As best as could be hoped for, I suppose, and she has some reassurance of a home in her dotage."
Darcy's stomach continued to roil and his attention wandered as his aunt began to expound her uninformed yet strident opinions on entailments. He needed some quiet solitude to consider why her words so upset him. It was a similar feeling that he had felt when, as a university student, he had been faced with a mathematical equation that seemed perfectly solved, but some inner sense told him that further exploration would reveal a fatal error in the logic.
Though inelegantly phrased, Lady Catherine's words about the Bennet family's circumstances were little different from the rules that had been imprinted upon him since birth. Had he not used similar words to discourage Bingley from pursuing Miss Bennet? He cringed--perhaps that was not a good example. As he considered his aunt's statement, what struck him most clearly were her final words. He had never given any thought as to why Mrs. Bennet's nerves might be so frayed, why she was so desperate to put her daughters forward.
Darcy knew from managing his sister's interests that, although Georgiana had 30,000 pounds in name, in truth he was in full control of her inheritance and would continue to be so until he turned it over to her husband. After Ramsgate, he had had his solicitor tie her inheritance up with so many strings that she could not touch it without the agreement of her guardians or the man Darcy approved to marry her. After hearing Lady Catherine's astonishing commiseration with Mrs. Bennet's nerves, his thoughts wandered into previously unexplored realms. What would it be like, he wondered, to be so completely dependent on another?
Colonel Fitzwilliam was growing increasingly irritated with his cousin. They planned these annual visits together so that neither would have to bear the uninterrupted focus of Lady Catherine for any length of time. However, after skipping two meals, Darcy was making no effort to take his turn engaging their aunt. By desert, Richard had had enough of deflecting his aunt from noting Darcy's inattention. Anne was silent as always--even when she was in good health she could not be relied on to speak more than monosyllables.
Somewhere in Darcy's mind, he registered an expectant silence at the table and was dismayed to see his aunt looking at him imperiously, clearly expecting a response. Seeing that his cousin had no idea what their aunt was demanding of him, Richard allowed the silence to hang for a moment, until he was assured that Darcy felt the embarrassment before stepping in.
"Thank you for the kind offer, Aunt Catherine, but I must return to London tomorrow--my duties to the army require it, you understand. However, if Darcy wishes to accept your invitation and extend his visit, I can very easily find an alternate means of transportation to London."
Thankful for his cousin's rescue, Darcy spoke at once. "I appreciate your hospitality, Aunt, but I have business in town that cannot be delayed. We must leave tomorrow morning, as planned."
Lady Catherine spent the remaining minutes of the meal expounding her displeasure at their departure while simultaneously admonishing the two young men to be mindful of their responsibilities, completely unaware of the contradiction inherent in her words.
When the meal finally concluded, the participants dispersed to different ends of the house. After sending her ever-submissive daughter to her apartment for a nap, Lady Catherine took herself to her study to review the housekeeping accounts. Darcy climbed the stairs and sequestered himself in his own rooms, desperate for a bit of quiet to calm his emotions before facing the occupants of the parsonage. Colonel Fitzwilliam hid himself in the library and treated himself to what he considered to be a well-earned whiskey.
An hour later, the two cousins met in the front hall and, with few words, departed for their visit. Although both men were too deep in thought to notice, they walked toward Hunsford with measured, resolute steps in near synchrony. As they neared the lane that separated Rosings from the parsonage, Darcy stopped abruptly. The Colonel had taken several steps before he noticed and turned to his cousin, raising his eyebrows in question.
"Richard. I should have told you earlier. I had something of an… argument with Miss Bennet."
"Yes, well, that is not unexpected, is it? She's made it quite clear that your behavior in Hertfordshire did not impress her, and certainly your manners here have not improved her opinion of you."
After snapping his jaw shut--it would not do to present the appearance of a gaping trout to his cousin--Darcy forced his mind to the point he needed to convey. "While my behavior and manners may not have been what they should, Miss Bennet's opinion has been poisoned by another source; George Wickham."
Fitzwilliam's irritation with his cousin was immediately set aside in favor of a boiling temper. "Wickham! Has he finally crawled out of whatever foul hole he hid away in last year? We must do something immediately--that blackguard must not be allowed to prey on any more innocent young ladies! I am as protective of Georgiana's reputation as you, but enough time has passed that we can have him punished without endangering her!"
A wave of guilt swept over Darcy; Richard's reaction was that of a true gentleman. HE would not have left Hertfordshire without warning the populace that they harbored a viper in their midst. Focusing, he forced the guilt into a corner of his mind with all the other emotions that threatened to overwhelm him, to be dealt with later.
"I agree, Cousin. But for now, I need your help. Wickham has told Miss Bennet his favorite sob story--that my father educated him for a position in the church, but upon Father's death I refused George his inheritance because of jealousy over my father's affection."
Richard snorted and Darcy continued. "Her words made me aware of how far he had wormed his way back into polite society. I… I have told her… the entire story."
Richard was startled. Even in his greatest fury, he would not have revealed Georgiana's near elopement to anyone and until this moment he would have sworn that Darcy would do the same. Indeed, it was Darcy who had turned Richard from challenging Wickham to a duel before the vermin had run to London and gone to ground, leaving poor Georgiana a sobbing, miserable wreck. In his mind, Richard had known his cousin to be correct--any hint of retribution, not to mention a duel, would have brought unwanted attention and most probably a blemish to their charge's reputation. However, the memory still had his hand reaching unconsciously for the sword that had hung at his side in battle.
"You told her about Georgiana?"
Darcy shut his eyes tightly for a moment, before responding carefully. "Yes. There was no other way to convince her and I would not leave her unprotected."
The colonel was looking at him oddly. "You trust Miss Bennet that much?"
"Yes." Darcy answered succinctly. "I suggested that she refer to you for confirmation." He finished hollowly and turned to continue toward the parsonage.
Fitzwilliam matched his step automatically, still reeling over the trust his cousin had placed in the pert country miss. "Of course I shall reaffirm everything you have said. But Darce… I am certain that she believed you--she's known you much longer, after all. I can only claim an acquaintance of these past few weeks, and most of that has been in the company of our exceedingly intrusive aunt."
When Darcy only grunted in response, Richard continued. "Really, Darcy. Wickham might have charmed her into believing him for a time, but when confronted with the facts by a respectable gentleman such as yourself, I am certain that an intelligent woman such as Miss Bennet would know who to believe. Why just yesterday we were speaking of how honorably you care for your friends."
That was enough to stop William dead in his tracks. "What?!" Was all he could utter.
The colonel knit his brows in consternation over his cousin's odd behavior. "I met her walking yesterday while making my annual tour of the park. It was nothing improper, I assure you. She asked if I knew the Bingleys and we discussed what good care you take of your friends." He attempted to lighten the mood. "I attempted to raise her impression of you by telling her of how you had lately saved young Charles from the inconveniences of a most imprudent marriage!"
Seeing Darcy's pale complexion flush red, the Colonel was concerned but also thoroughly confused. "Really Wills. She is not the sort who will repeat it as gossip--I made it clear that I wasn't certain that it was Bingley you spoke of, just that he was the type to get into a scrape of that sort. You removed him before he could be accused of jilting the silly girl, didn't you?"
Will leaned against a tree solid enough to keep him upright, despite his weak knees. "Is that really how I sounded?" He asked softly.
The colonel was uncertain if Darcy was speaking to himself or Richard, so kept quiet. After a few minutes, his silence was rewarded with a partial explanation.
"Richard, the lady in question was Miss Bennet's most beloved, elder sister." Said Darcy through gritted teeth.
"Oh." Breathed his cousin, suddenly contrite. "Bloody Hell, Darce. I'm sorry--she said something about how you enjoyed the power of arranging things as you liked and I just wanted to make her understand that you take your responsibilities toward your friends very seriously. It was the first example that came to mind."
This thought was followed by further revelations. "She said she had a headache, but it must have been from being upset, not the sun as she claimed. That explains why she didn't come to dinner last night." He turned to Darcy with pity on his face. "You must have met her this morning on her walk. My God, man. I'm sorry--she must have been furious, and I would wager that once triggered, Miss Bennet's temper is even sharper than her wit."
Darcy worked a moment to regain control before forcing himself back on the path to the parsonage. "Don't worry about it, Richard. I made a poor enough impression on Miss Elizabeth that she was well-prepared to believe me guilty of anything."
The colonel was disturbed to hear the bone-deep melancholy in Will's voice, but was unable to come up with anything suitable to say before they reached the steps of the parsonage. If nothing else, his cousin's issues were enough to make him forget his own problems for a few moments, he thought.
It was perhaps beneficial to the equilibrium of both cousins that Miss Bennet was absent when they were shown into the parlor. They managed not to sigh in relief when Mrs. Collins explained that her friend had left after luncheon to run an errand into the village. Mr. Darcy made his farewells in his usual sedate manner before departing, leaving Colonel Fitzwilliam behind.
William breathed an immense sigh of relief upon entering the relative safety of his own rooms at Rosings. That he had not been forced to face another round of Elizabeth's righteous anger seemed no small blessing. After telling his valet that he wished to be left alone until it was time to dress for dinner, Will removed his coat and vest, loosened his cravat, and settled in a chair by the fire. Like everything at Rosings, the chair had been chosen to impress rather than comfort, so it was not long before he stood, moving to the side table to poor himself a brandy. It was a small glass, but he was unaccustomed to drinking much liquor and combined with the heavy lunch, he suddenly felt all the exhaustion of his sleepless nights.
Some time later, the rumble of thunder woke Darcy. Checking his pocket watch, he noted that he had dozed for less than an hour but the light had dimmed dramatically. Though not yet six o'clock, a blanket of dark clouds had moved across the sky, hiding the sun. Wary of how such weather might affect his travel plans, Darcy left his rooms and moved quietly through the house to a little used sitting room whose windows faced full west.
Standing at the windows, Fitzwilliam Darcy watched dark clouds scud across the sky. Though thunder rumbled repeatedly, the only lightning he could see was well to the south. Counting the seconds between thunder and lightning as one of Pemberley's stewards had taught him as a boy, he estimated the main storm to be some five miles distant. The London road might get a bit of rain, but not the brunt of the storm, he guessed. For some minutes, he admired the power of the natural world and let himself be reminded of the insignificance of his own problems. Then, a distinctly human noise caused him to turn back to the room.
"Anne?" He said with some surprise, having thought himself alone. His cousin was across the room, curled in what looked to be a comfortable armchair that had been turned so as to catch the light from a side window.
The sound that had drawn his attention were some papers that had fallen to the floor from her small writing desk. With her embarrassment at being caught clear, Anne loosened the thick blanket that was wrapped around her just enough to reach for the nearest page. "Hello, Cousin." She murmured, not meeting his eye.
Without a thought, Will moved to retrieve the other papers. After handing them to her, he stood considering for a moment, then pulled a second chair over to where she sat. Perhaps he could begin to rectify one of his errors immediately. "May I speak with you for a few minutes, Anne?"
This time Darcy's cousin looked him full in the face, but her expression reminded him disturbingly of a small, frightened rabbit caught in a snare. Adding another portion of guilt to that already weighing on him, he realized just how unfair he had been to his cousin. By never openly contradicting Lady Catherine's dreams of a Darcy-De Bourgh marriage, he had provided himself with a buffer from some of the husband-hunting Ton (at least, those who listened Lady Catherine). However, he had left his poor cousin to bear her mother's whims and fancies while never considering that he held the keys to her prison as firmly as did her mother.
Settling himself, he gathered his thoughts before speaking. "Anne, your mother has spoken often of her desire for a match between us two, but we have never discussed it ourselves."
"Oh!" She murmured, before red spots bloomed in her otherwise pale cheeks when she realized that she had spoken aloud. Sinking as far back into her chair as she could, Anne peeked up at her intimidating cousin. He looked more surprised than angered, so she chanced a few words. "I apologize, Fitzwilliam. I was only surprised that you would want to talk about… that." She ended weakly.
Darcy spent a few moments studying his little cousin, realizing that although their family often spoke about her, he could not think of a time when he had actually spoken with her beyond the standard courtesies. Elizabeth's words echoed in his head; '…your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others..." Well, this was one error in behavior that he could correct. He decided that it would be best to be direct.
"Anne, I will be honest. I care for you as a cousin, almost a brother, but I am not sure that I could ever feel for you as a husband should love his wife."
Anne looked up at him in shock, having spent a lifetime with a mother who dismissed love as the stuff of childish fairytales; certainly nothing to do with the business of marriage. To hear her serious, ever-dutiful cousin speak of such feelings as important left her stunned.
Darcy forged ahead. "I also worry for your health. Being Mistress of Pemberley is not an easy duty for the most fit of women." Forcing his mind away from a vision of Elizabeth's healthy pink cheeks and sparkling eyes, he considered how to speak of a subject important to him but most sensitive to his sickly cousin. "Lately, I have been thinking a great deal on what I want from marriage. Though Richard would probably laugh at my saying such a thing, I should dearly like to see Pemberley's nursery full of children again."
Anne could not help but squirm. Most of what she knew about marriage and the production of children came from her mother, whose own marriage had been a wholly miserable ordeal. Anne's more recent observations of the newly wedded Collinses had done nothing to change her distaste for the institution.
She was not certain how a man would "plant his seed" in her, as she had read in her novels, but it seemed to involve a great deal of petting (which she had no desire for) and pain (according to her mother). A tenant had once presented a newborn babe, only hours old, to Miss De Bourgh for blessing. The thought that such an enormous thing would grow inside a woman and then force its way out terrified her. Anne still recalled the pain of passing a stone when she was sixteen with a shiver, and it had been barely the size of a pea.
In short, Miss De Bourgh was uncomfortable around men in general and her tall, serious cousin in particular. She had no desire for children and, to be honest, no desire for any physical relationship of any kind. Though Lady Catherine believed herself to have educated her daughter on the running of an estate, Anne had paid as little attention to her mother's poorly conceived lectures as to the lengthy monologues that lady considered conversation. Though Anne would have liked to have some space away from her overbearing parent, she had no real desire to run an estate or even a household. It all sounded so very… exhausting.
Seeing Darcy looking at her expectantly, Anne realized that her cousin was waiting for her to respond. Deciding that he might not like it if she said that she would prefer a quiet cottage somewhere in a warm climate with unlimited supplies of chocolates and novels, she decided to see how he would react to a small bit of truth.
"I do not think I have the energy to do such things." Considering her cousin's face for a moment, she finally identified the emotion in his eyes as relief. She was not certain that she should allow such a feeling in her suitor, as her mother had made it clear that any gentleman, the Prince of Wales included, would be honored should the heiress of Rosings deign to give him her hand. However, retribution would take energy that Anne did not have, so she tried to focus on conveying what she did want.
"I do not believe that I wish to marry at all. Please do not take it personally, Cousin."
Darcy reminded himself that he was speaking to the daughter of Lady Catherine, so quelled any thought of laughter and modified his tone accordingly. "Do not worry about offending me, Anne. If you are certain, then I shall speak to Aunt Catherine tonight after dinner."
Anne nodded slightly, but enough that Darcy was satisfied his plan met her approval. "Is there anything you do wish for? Anything that I could suggest to Aunt Catherine when I speak with her? Perhaps a trip to London or Derbyshire?"
Anne shook her head. "I think not, but I shall consider it, Cousin." Darcy's current expression had brought back a long forgotten memory of young Fitzwilliam Darcy earnestly insisting that she take the last biscuit at a tea party the girls had hosted in the Pemberley nursery. "It has been a long time since I visited Pemberley." She said softly.
"It has been a long time since we have had a family gathering of any sort at Pemberley." Will responded seriously.
"I remember visiting Derbyshire when we were children." Offered Anne. "Mother would complain about how far north it was, but we loved it. The house always seemed so warm and happy." Unspoken was the comparison to the unhappiness that had pervaded Rosings. "Uncle Darcy was so jolly, and Aunt Anne was always playing the piano or the harp." She trailed off. "Except for the last visit, of course."
Both cousins looked down and thought of the terrible summer of 1800 when a small pox epidemic had swept through Derbyshire, leaving the cemeteries full and many a family decimated, including the Darcys and De Bourghs. Ten-year old Fitzwilliam had traveled with his father to visit Matlock, leaving his mother and baby sister at Pemberley. William had been happy to go as he greatly preferred his Fitzwilliam cousins to his De Bourgh relations who were visiting Pemberley at the time.
After being warned of the epidemic, Mr. Darcy and his son had been forced to remain at the Fitzwilliam estate for several weeks until the sickness had burnt itself out. When they returned, baby Georgiana and her grandmother were the only Darcys still alive at Pemberley. Lady Catherine had survived through sheer will-power, but buried her sister, husband and two sons, leaving only her daughter, Anne, whose constitution was permanently weakened. The number of deaths among the household staff, tenants, and villagers in Lambton and Kympton had been horrific.
The sound of boots alerted Anne and Will that their solitude was soon to be interrupted. "Ho there." Spoke the colonel as he strode in. "What are the two of you up to? I had to ask the butler for directions when he said you were hiding in here!"
Seeing that Anne looked frightened, Richard instantly regretted his teasing manner. "Not to worry, Anne. I am exaggerating, as always." Trying for a lighter tone, he added. "Our King's army spent a great deal of time teaching me to gather information and track my prey silently but with deadly accuracy." He waggled his eyebrows and succeeded in drawing a soft laugh from Miss De Bourgh.
"Our cousin exaggerates, as always." Said Darcy drily. Seeing that Richard was about to repeat his demand for an explanation of their position, he continued. "Anne and I have been discussing our mutual desire NOT to marry, and how best to apprise Aunt Catherine of that fact."
"Ahhhhhh. Well." Colonel Fitzwilliam had just spent a delightful hour chatting with Mrs. Collins and to be honest, his mind was still at the parsonage. Until, that was, his cousin's startling announcement.
Darcy, however, had noticed that Richard was dressed for dinner. Checking his pocket watch, he stood. "I fear that I must go dress now if I am to keep to our aunt's schedule. Anne?"
Anne rose also, but shook her head. "I do not need to change. I shall wait for you in the red drawing room, as usual." With barely a whisper of sound, Miss De Bourgh left the room and disappeared down the hall, still muffled in her thick shawl.
After watching his cousin retreat, Darcy turned to go opposite, climbing the stairs to the suite of rooms his aunt always assigned him. It took Richard some minutes to sort out what had just occurred, but then he followed in Darcy's footsteps. If he understood correctly, there would be fireworks tonight and he wished for a few more details so that he could avoid getting burned.
So it was that the family party gathered but a few minutes before they were signaled that dinner was ready to be served. During the meal, Darcy was even quieter than usual. His manner went unnoticed by their hostess as Lady Catherine was quite content with having her monologue uninterrupted. In truth, he felt oddly removed from the group, as though observing them all for the first time. He was struck by his aunt's ornate gown, jewels and turban, ridiculous for a small, family meal though perfectly in line with the heavy decorations evidenced throughout the house. Her reference to wealth and connections as a woman's primary virtues struck him forcibly.
Darcy had not quite worked out how best to approach the subject of marriage, so it was perhaps lucky that he was not the only one who wished to discuss it. Once the meal was over and the four moved to the drawing room, Lady Catherine seated herself in her favorite chair and directed her nephew to sit on the settee to her right, beside her daughter. She had noticed Darcy admiring Miss Bennet and had decided that it was high time for him to marry Anne before he was trapped by some fortune hunter.
With more determination than subtlety, Lady Catherine dismissed the servants from the room and spoke exactly what was on her mind. "Fitzwilliam." (It was important to remind him of his obligations to his mother's family; she would never understand her brother's use of such common nicknames as William or, heaven forbid, Wills.)
"It is high time that we formalize your engagement to Anne. I have been thinking that the family will be gathering at Matlock this August for my brother the Earl's birthday; it would be an excellent venue for a wedding of this magnitude." Richard made an odd sound in his throat but Catherine decided to ignore it.
William squared his shoulders before speaking in a calm voice. "Aunt Catherine, while I respect your wishes, I am afraid that this one shall not come true. Anne and I have discussed it and decided that we do not wish to marry." Even the portraits on the walls seemed to hold their breath awaiting her Ladyship's response. They were not disappointed.
"Of what are you speaking! Certainly you shall marry. As I have told you for years, your mother and I planned the union while you were in your cradles. From your infancy, you have been intended for each other. It was the favorite wish of your mother, as well as of hers."
"That may be so, Aunt, but your wish does not confine me to my cousin by either duty or honour if such is not my inclination."
"Obstinate, headstrong boy! I am ashamed of you! Is this your gratitude for my attentions to you? Is nothing due to me on that score?" cried Lady Catherine.
Darcy took a deep breath and counted to ten in Greek to control his rising temper. "I understand your concerns, but Anne will not be left unprotected even if she decides to never marry. All of her cousins care for her and her fortune provides her with security to live as she wishes."
Lady Catherine's face was turning red which unfortunately highlighted the thick powder and rouge that her maid applied to mask her aging features. "Never marry!" She sputtered.
"Aunt Catherine, it seems likely that Anne's poor health prevents her from assuming the responsibilities of running a household or acting as hostess in society."
"Anne's health shall be perfectly well by the time she marries. And if there are duties she must refrain from, then I can assume those responsibilities for her. As I should have been allowed to do when your own mother died!" Lady Catherine's voice had risen to a shriek.
Darcy felt as though he had been punched in the gut. He knew that his father had had little contact with Lady Catherine after Lady Anne's death; each year William had travelled with his Uncle Henry's family to visit Rosings. His father had never accompanied the Fitzwilliams and Lady Catherine and her daughter had not visited Pemberley since the small pox epidemic. However, it had never occurred to Will that there had been a conscious break between the two. He glanced to Richard but it was clear from his cousin's wide eyes and slight head shake that he was surprised as well.
William forced himself to put aside the questions his Aunt's angry, unguarded tongue raised and return to the point he needed to make. "Aunt, I have tried to be delicate, but you surely understand that I must have an heir, and Anne's health makes it unlikely she would survive a pregnancy."
By now, Lady Catherine's fury had gone beyond all sense. She stood and shook her walking stick inches from Darcy's nose. "You are just like your father--all men are alike. Fools! Hypocritical, weak fools. Acting all moral and noble and gentlemanly, but in the end, unreliable, untrustworthy, and good for nothing."
Uncomfortable with his aunt's offensive posture, Darcy stood. When he straightened himself to his full height, the lady was faced with her nephew as a tall, strong, young man looming over her. Catherine took a step back and looked at the others in the room. Seeing no support in the faces of either her daughter or other nephew, she turned back to Darcy.
"You do not know what I have suffered!" spat Lady Catherine before sweeping from the room and retreating to her chambers.Continued In Next Section