Posted on 2016-03-17
Charles Bingley stood in the graveyard of St. Mary's, his hands thrust deep in the pockets of his greatcoat, and stared down at the inscription on the stone before him. He had remained there in the blustery winds for some time, his coat whipping about him, as his father sat inside talking to the rector about a donation to the roof fund.
The stone marker was as yet unweathered, chips of marble still clinging to the crisp edges of the inscription that bore the name of a beloved wife and mother. Charles reached up to rub the black band that suddenly felt constricting about his upper arm, and with a short sniff, held back the tears that burned at his eyes.
It had already been a few weeks since the earth had been laid atop the wooden casket, but the sound of the dirt raining down upon the pine was still fresh in his memory. He shuddered a little and hunched his shoulders against a blast of cold air that swept in from the north.
"I thought I might find you here, Son."
Charles looked up to find his father standing a few feet away, his coat buttoned securely to his chin and the brim of his hat waving madly in the wind. Despite the slow, solemn tone of his words, there was a subtle twinkle in Leonard Bingley's eye and a small smile visible beneath the bristly strands of his full beard. Charles felt his chin stick out a bit more as he turned back to the grave.
"The good reverend says that a new roof can be put on within a month, given how many laborers are looking for work, if the price were right," his father continued blithely, rubbing his hands together and breathing onto them for warmth. "Then after, he'll see about getting a stained glass window put in place of that plain one. I thought it might be of the Holy Family -- Mary always liked that image, I think. I did say, however, it was what you'd say contingent on the new window being less drafty than the old. Your mother would never have wished to be the cause of anyone catching cold." He chuckled, and the air from his breath puffed like smoke into the cold air.
Charles' shoulders rounded further, but still he said nothing.
"I were thinking just the other day," Mr. Bingley said, "on how your mother was dreading having to see you go away for school. I couldn't admit, of course, I felt the same, but so's the truth. She may not have to see it happen, but it'll be all the harder for me without her here. What does your tutor say on you joining at break? Have you been keeping up?"
There was silence from the younger Bingley, who steadfastly refused to turn in his father's direction. This behavior, however, did not seem in any way to discourage the elder; on the contrary, his smile appeared to grow a bit wider.
"I daresay your sister Caroline will be finishing up her schooling soon and would have been asking me to put up the funds for her entry into society come next spring, if not before.
"It's a bit of a blessing Louisa was so thoughtful as to find herself a husband this past year, or that might have been held up longer, and I'd have had the two of them to fire off at once come a year or so from now. Your aunt Dorcas would have stood them up in society here, no doubt, but I doubt anything less than London will be just right for our lovely Caro. She's got such high hopes."
The frown on Charles' face grew even darker, his lower lip extending even farther than before. But still, it seemed as though he would contain his grievance. The elder of the two was determined to continue, then, but as he drew in a breath the younger man spoke explosively: "And is that all mother's death is to you, then? An inconvenience? That you would have had to wait another year to take us all off your hands? Are you such a monster that you should care nothing for her passing, when she was everything to us? I could see it of my sisters, as they always seem to have nothing else in their heads than their comfort and advancement, but you! I thought better of you, father. I--" he broke off abruptly and turned away, the sleeve of his coat serving to hide his eyes.
"Oh, Charles, my lad," came the voice of his father, so soft as to barely be heard over the rush of a gust of wind. "Do you feel better now?"
A moment's hesitation, then a gaze of unrestrained curiosity. "Feel better for what?"
His father smiled sadly. "For getting that out in the open now. You've been bearing the weight of your disapproval of me for some weeks, now, but I know you to be too good to confront me on it."
The younger man licked his lips uncertainly, his eyes panning wildly across the landscape, as if in search of the answer to his confusion. The elder Mr. Bingley took pity on him and stepped closer, his arm going about his son's shoulders. Charles flinched slightly, but accepted the embrace. "Never doubt for even a moment I grieve your mother, Charlie," Leonard Bingley said. "She were the other half of me, the woman made for me by God's own hands, as it were, to make me fit to be with Him when I have the good fortune to join her in death. For I've no doubt her patience with my own failings helped make her ready."
To this, Charles still could not formulate any words of coherence, so his father continued: "I know you've been wondering at me ever since we laid her to rest, but this is who I am and I believe who Mary always wanted me to be. Your mother were a beautiful woman, Son, and I don't mean only the beauty of face and figure she never lost. Her beauty was one that shone from the inside, the way she loved."
He paused, his gaze turning to the graveyard, but looking somehow past it. "She's got company that suits her now," he said at last. "The angels ... well, as the good reverend would have it, they're just souls and no bodies, when we've got both. Some people, though ... people like my Mary ... you can see how God made them to match. They live life just as they're going to do in death, when all they've got for now is their souls, and you know that love is so pure that God made them as close like to his chosen ones as you can get. Oh, I'm not saying your mother didn't have her faults," he said, with a smiling glance at his son. "She never were one for cooking anything worth eating, and she couldn't sew a straight seam to save her life, but all that don't matter to me. She were mine, for as long as I could keep her, and that were enough for me."
"So, then why--" Charles began, but stopped, unsure how to formulate his question.
"Why don't I grieve like you?" his father asked. Charles, with some hesitation, nodded. "For one, because I know I'll be seeing her soon enough. Right now, though, I have to keep on; I have to finish the job Mary and me were given in raising the three of you and putting you on the path of finding what we had. I can't do it for you, and that's my cross, but I also can't do it if I'm looking too much at what were, rather than what is. I've provided for your bodies fair enough -- and whether I'm here for tomorrow or ten years from now, there'll be enough for that -- but now I've got to make sure the other half is well enough. And I can't help you find joy if I can't find it, myself."
Charles contemplated this for a while, his shoulders hunching as a blast of cold air whipped through and nearly tore the hats off their heads. "I've always thought I'd want to marry someone like Mother," he said finally. "But how would I even find her?"
His father laughed, then, a big, hearty sound that echoed off the buildings around them. "You've got plenty of time, my boy. You're just going into university, and your life laid out before you. And, beside that, you can't ever know when it'll happen. I met your mother in the center of a lane in the exact middle of nowhere, when she was so good as to stop and give me directions to a friend's house. But that's what I have to make you ready for: to have the eyes to see the soul inside when it's there in front of you. Your mother's was as like an angel's as I'd ever seen, and I knew it right then. I knew I'd give anything to see her smile as she did a million times more, and I can only hope I did that as well as I could before she was taken. I can only hope she's smiling now while we talk on her."
For a moment, all of the emotion that Charles had missed seeing in his father rushed suddenly to the elder man's eyes and he paused, his chest heaving. "I want you to find her, Charlie," he said once his voice had regained some strength, though even as he spoke it continued to tremble. "I tried with your sister Louisa, and I'll continue on with Caro until I can't anymore, but I know you'll listen to me on this: find the woman that makes you want to give her a million smiles, the woman whose soul is that of the angels, and marry her. I'd say be sure you can do it -- be sure you can give her those smiles, and not crush the beauty of that soul -- but I know you've got that joy and love in you, too, Charlie. If I can see you do that, I'd be no less happy than had I your mother here right now, next to me. I can only hope I have the chance to meet her."
Charles, unabashed of the tear rolling down his cheek, nodded. "I'll do my best, father." he said, his voice hoarse. "I'll find her, and I'll make her happy."
Five years later, in Hertfordshire...
"...I don't recall meeting with pleasanter people or prettier girls in my life," Bingley said, shaking his head. "It was a fine Assembly, and you cannot make me sorry we attended. Everybody we met was most kind and attentive, and I saw no formality, no stiffness. In fact, I felt as if I were acquainted with all the room within but a few minutes."
"Oh, Charles," his sister Caroline said on a long-suffering sigh. "Of course you would. You never seem to see that they all wish to be acquainted with you only because they all hope to raise their status in the world. Or, indeed, their daughters' statuses. Is that not so, Mr. Darcy?"
Bingley tried to object to such a characterization of the entire population of Hertfordshire, but his friend turned from his contemplation of the fire and raised an eyebrow in query as he said, "Could there truly be any doubt? Every mother in the room had sized us up to the shilling by the time we'd set two feet past the threshold."
"But does that matter in the least for their daughters, Darcy?" Bingley said. "Of course their mothers would be looking for the comfort of their children. But I certainly didn't see any grasping behavior among the young ladies; they were all that was good and pleasing. And quite lovely, besides."
Darcy smirked. "Especially, I imagine, your Miss Bennet."
Bingley laughed and acknowledged that he could not conceive of an angel more beautiful. "Come, Darcy. You say all of this, but I cannot believe you to be so blind as to have seen so little worth in our neighbors. There must have been someone, some young lady you felt at least some interest in."
Caroline rolled her eyes, Louisa snorted delicately, and Darcy pursed his lips. "On the contrary, Bingley, I saw nothing more at the assembly than a collection of people in whom there was little beauty and no fashion. I felt not the smallest of interest in any, and received from none either attention or pleasure. I will acknowledge, however, that your Miss Bennet is pretty," he said with grudging approval, but then spoiled it by adding: "but, really, she smiled too much."
Bingley's sisters chimed in readily with this assessment, but Charles himself merely smiled and murmured so softly his friend could not hear, "No, not enough, Darcy. Not nearly enough."The End