I suppose the story of my life could be called sad, the tale of the ugly duckling among a family of swans. The history of the one not talented enough, not pretty enough, not charming enough. Yet I refuse to think of it as such. For while my life has not followed the course expected of a lady in my position, I find that I cannot feel anything but satisfied.
I would like to say my tale begins with Lizzy and Jane's wedding, but in truth it started long before. In fact, it started with my birth. Of course, after the birth of two girls, my parents were convinced I would be a boy, a situation that would have delighted them both to no end by breaking the entail on my father's estate. My being a girl rather changed the family dynamics.
Neither of my dear late parents were particularly patient people. And, in spite of the image my father usually portrayed, neither of them was particularly thoughtful either, at least not when it came to other people. They were not actually selfish, but rather self-absorbed; their vision did not seem to extend beyond their own concerns, not even with regard to us, their own offspring. Fortunately for my sisters, each of them had some particular claim on my parents' attention. Alas, I did not.
As I said, I was to be a boy. When Lizzy and Jane were small, my father was so convinced that a boy would follow that he quite comfortably put a great deal of effort into their education. However, by the time I was born, his patience was wearing rather thin. He had not yet given up hope of fathering a male child, but his optimism was waning when it came the time to begin my education. So he did teach me, but it was a half-hearted attempt. I, in my childish innocence, assumed that this was my own fault, so I worked harder. Yet while I was trying my very best to win his approval, he was becoming ever more disillusioned, and hence putting ever less attention into me. Eventually, he all but forgot me.
My mother, on the other hand, did not so much mind giving birth to so many girls, provided they were pretty. Jane was a beautiful child, and grew into a beautiful adult. And while Lizzy did not have typical classic beauty, she nevertheless had something about her features that was remarkable. (Years later, I accidentally overheard my brother Fitzwilliam whispering that it was her eyes that rendered her so uncommonly beautiful.) By the time Kitty was born, my mother was largely resigned to being the mother of only girls. And if they were to have no brother to protect them, then they needed to be exceptionally beautiful to make excellent marriages. In spite of everyone passing her off in favour of Jane or Lydia, Kitty is indeed very beautiful. Lydia is almost an exact copy of my mother, in looks and character, so she was inevitably the favourite. I was not homely, but not nearly as pretty as my sisters, and certainly not as charming, in whatever way. My mother barely even knew I was there.
And so I came to grow up in such a home, with such parents. I felt that I had to keep proving myself, though in my heart I knew what I would always be. The forgotten child.
The day of my eldest sisters' wedding was one of great joy for almost all my family.
Of course, I needn't tell you of the joy experienced by the brides on their own wedding day. That is assumed. Although I will say that had you been witness to the ceremony, the cherubic beauty of Jane and the glowing ecstasy of Lizzy would be images permanently imprinted in your memory, as they are in mine.
My mother could not believe her good fortune in having two daughters married to extremely wealthy, prominent gentlemen, and was heard to repeatedly tell my father that 'G-D has been very good to us.' And indeed, since it had been her primary focus to marry off her daughters, she could rejoice in the achievement of that goal. Kitty certainly would not lack suitors with her sisters married so well, and indeed she was only eighteen, with plenty of years still left to catch a husband. As for me, well I do believe she thought I should eventually find some clerk or other of my Uncle Philips'.
My father, while truly happy that both his elder daughters had married so well, so suitably and into so well matched marriages, was indeed sad for himself. One cannot blame him. Lizzy was always his undeniable favourite; while Jane was the calm, steady child, and I am certain that the prospect of his home without them was bleak indeed.
I believe Kitty thought much like my mother, in that having such well-connected sisters could only assist her in making an excellent marriage. Added to that was the fact that she had not had much opportunity to travel, and if nothing else, she would be afforded the chance to go to Derbyshire. On both counts, she was not wrong.
My own thoughts for the day were odd and varied. Underneath my staid, governess-like demeanor, I do have a romantic heart. I was very pleased that my sisters had done so well for themselves, and I almost envied their happiness. I say almost, because I well knew that my day for love and fulfillment would come. I wish I had not been so sure in my predictions, for the love and fulfillment I found near broke my heart. I was also very pleased that such excellent new connections would raise us out of the social pit into which we had been thrown with Lydia's elopement.
The months after the wedding were rather uneventful. We very soon settled into some sort of routine. It was a particularly harsh winter, so we were largely restricted to the house, a fact that was both beneficial and harmful to us all.
It was far too snowy out to go visiting. Mama would continuously complain of her nerves, her joints, her headache. I do believe it was the solitude that was the most detrimental to her health. It dampened her spirits and left her to focus solely on what was wrong with her, a state of mind unhealthy for both the body and the soul.
I do not doubt that if Mama had been up to visiting, she would have been at Netherfield every day, taking Mrs. Philips with her more often than not. Without our mother's advice and comments, the new Mrs. Bingley was able to settle into her new home and her new role. She was able to give her husband all the attention he needed. Indeed, at the very infrequent times we were able to see each other, such as at church, Jane seemed to grow more beautiful and radiant.
One very strange side effect of our enforced confinement was that Kitty and I became close, to both our benefit. With no-one else to speak to, we were forced to talk to each other. I won't deny that at first we spoke entirely past one another. Having such different pursuits, we had nothing in common. She spoke only of bonnets and ribbons, and I spoke only of Fordyce and history. She drew and painted badly, and I sang and played badly. We became frustrated with each other very easily, and I am ashamed to say that a wholly inappropriate comment from me one day reduced her to tears. I think I told her she was shallow and stupid, but it has been too many years for me to remember that insult to my most beloved sister.
It was an idea of her's that eventually broke the impasse. Thinking that I read for the sake of reading rather than the sake of gaining knowledge (which was indeed the case, however I dared not accept that fact), she suggested that we read a romance novel together, aloud. I was very tempted to start quoting all manner of philosophers, chastising her that such reading was inappropriate for young ladies' minds. Something made me control my tongue, and I consented.
From the first page we were both drawn into the glorious web the author had woven, and together we followed the intrigues, pursuits and schemes of the heroine. I cannot tell you what we read; it has been far too long. I do remember that the novel was set in London, and that as soon as we finished it we set out to find more. With each successive novel our post-mortems became more in-depth and analytical. We discussed a woman's role in the world, the nature of love, the meaning of friendship, the hurt of betrayal. We both developed our capacity for emotional understanding, and we began to understand each other.
Reading frivolous novels not only developed our hearts, but our minds as well. The third or fourth tale was set in India. I was very intrigued, and managed to cajole Kitty into researching the subcontinent with me. Kitty had, and has, an amazing memory for facts. She became very absorbed in the subject material. Ironically it was I who started our quest for information, but she who drove it. We made a point of reading novels written in another time, another place, and took the trouble to learn about each setting as well. That information was never of much use to me, but Kitty later took much delight in rattling off facts about wherever her and her husband visited.
When I reflect on it, I cannot say it was an unpleasant winter. In fact, it was probably one of the most pleasant of my life. For the first time, I had a friend. At first Kitty was only kind to me because she had no-one else to be with, to gossip with, to share with, but as the time passed she came to like and respect me for who I am. My manners softened, while hers sharpened. My mind opened while hers focused. My conversation became more spontaneous, hers less so. On the odd occasion that we separated for the morning, she would seek me out to share a passage she had read, while I would ask her opinion on a new trimming for a dress. From being so different, we became remarkably similar. I loved Kitty like I had never loved anyone before, because she was my sister, and because she was my friend. What was most gratifying was that the sentiments were returned. No longer was I the forgotten child; somebody really loved me.
Indeed, it was not the winter that was unpleasant; it was the spring.
By the time the snow melted and the weather became pleasant enough for an outing, every member of my family was feeling rather housebound. My mother was suffering from too little company, my father from too much. Needless to say, everyone was glad when my mother insisted on a visit to Meryton at the first suitable opportunity.
I, for my part, was surprised that Mama would rather visit Aunt Philips than Mrs. Bingly, but she did seem to have a reason. Jane was to meet us at the milliner; mother could then show her well-married daughter to the whole town. From there we proceeded to my aunt, and had a rather pleasant tea. It was still too cold to open the window, so there was no calling to the street or other such undignified behaviour.
Mama was so engrossed in her sister that she left Kitty and I to enjoy ours. Jane seemed to be very happy indeed, relating the goings on of her household. We learned about her plans to decorate her own private sitting room; what she had ordered for dinner that night; how she longed to see Lizzy again. In turn she heard about the novels we had enjoyed; the mental travels we had made; our exceptional patience with Mama. To be fair, Jane and Kitty carried on the conversation rather than I, but I was proud of myself for even attending, both the visit and the conversation.
We ate luncheon with my aunt, and returned with barely enough time to dress for dinner. Of course, that circumstance did not bother me, what with my grand toilette, but Mama was rather flustered. I refrained from pointing out that it was her insistence of having to say 'just one more thing, sister' on the first four occasions we tried to bid her farewell that caused us to leave at such a late hour. Indeed, Mama was so disturbed that she did not make it down to dinner at all.
I was not in the least surprised, for given that she had been sedentary for so very long, it was to be expected for her to feel extremely fatigued after so busy a day. I am ashamed to admit it, but the meal was one of the most pleasant we shared in many months. My father, sister and I conversed quietly and respectably, on everything from the weather to Jane's health. Our words were not punctuated by screeches, sighs or complaints about how the partridges should have been cooked for just a little longer. The servants were allowed to come and go, as they needed, and to simply perform their duties without interruption. Nevertheless, I did feel slightly guilty about Mama, and took Kitty with me to see her after the meal.
I was very surprised to find her fast asleep. She was still in her visiting clothes, minus her bonnet and wrap. Not even her shoes had been removed. Mrs. Hill was able to provide us with a little information on this puzzling circumstance. Mama almost never missed dinner, however put out she felt that day.
'The madam came home complaining of how tired she was, Miss Bennet. She gave me her bonnet and wrap and said to just let her lie on the bed for a little while. By the time I returned, she was asleep, shoes on and everything. I thought it best not to disturb her.'
'Yes, Mrs. Hill, a wise decision. I do believe my mother needs sleep more than food at this moment,' Kitty concurred.
However, when Mama did not rise for breakfast we began to feel significant concern.
Yesterday, in the carriage returning from Meryton, our mother had insisted that today she must visit 'Dear Mrs. Bingley, because it is only fair that she have the distinction of a visit from her own family.' Such an outing could not be missed, an opportunity to minutely examine every inch and corner of Netherfield in order to boast to her neighbours. If Mama was not well enough for that then surely there was a genuine problem.
Indeed, as we were concluding our meal, Mrs. Hill came to inform us that her mistress was unwell, and kept to her room. The silence confirmed the true nature of her illness; had it merely been her 'nerves', we would have heard her shrieks from the hall. My father did not seem at all concerned, but Kitty agreed that we should attend her. We found further evidence of her distress on leaving the breakfast parlor; a tray with tea and toast was being carried into the kitchen, untouched.
On entering out mother's room, we were not confronted with a happy scene. Mama lay in her bed, entirely still. Her complexion was pale even for one who had not ventured out of doors for months, aside for the violent flush on her cheek. On hearing the door creak, she moved, but it was a difficult, painful action. Without opening her eyes, she mumbled a few words. The sound shocked me; it was hoarse and deep, entirely unlike what I knew my mother's voice to sound like. When I placed my hand on her brow, it felt hotter than the cup of tea I had so recently grasped. In spite of my complete lack of nursing skills, I understood that the situation was serious.
Immediately I instructed a maid to fetch cloths and water as cold as she could find. I sent Mrs. Hill to call my father, needing his more experienced opinion. All the while, Kitty just stood and stared, entirely unaccustomed to seeing our mother genuinely ill. I drew her aside and asked if she was well.
'Oh, Mary, what is wrong with Mama?' came the tearful reply. 'She is never truly ill! What are we to do? I have never seen her in such a state. What will become of us if she leaves us? We shall never manage without her!' And she promptly dissolved into real sobs, pouring forth from deep inside her, all at once guilty and fearful and anguished and angry. It took every ounce of willpower I didn't know I possessed not to imitate her, for I was plagued by every one of the emotions she felt, and more besides. Still, I inhaled slowly and deeply, and controlled myself. It would not do for me to fall apart at this moment, much as I wished to. I guided Kitty over to the sofa, and rang for a strong cup of tea.
Next on my agenda was to seek out my father. I knew his reticent ways, and expected him to pass it over as another of my mother's ridiculous fits of nerves. And indeed, when Mrs. Hill returned with the message that he would not come see her at that moment, I steeled my face and prepared for a confrontation with an old and lazy lion.
When my father bade me entry to his study, the welcome I received was not unlike that of the several other occasions when I had a need to see him.
'Good, it is only you, Mary. I thought it might be Hill again, nagging me to go see your mother. I have no business with another bout of her nerves.'
'Indeed, Father, that is why I came to find you. I do believe that my mother is really ill today, and I beg you to come see her to judge for yourself.'
'Nonsense, child. Your mother has never been truly ill, and I do not doubt the case is the same today. Now go away and leave me in peace.'
As I closed the door to my father's library, the old feeling visited me again for the first time in many weeks. In spite of how well we had all been getting along, the situation was no different to how always was, always would be. For all my days, I would be dismissed with a 'now go away.' It amazed me how after so short a period I had lost the art of suppression, and a wave of raw, molten emotion overwhelmed me. I felt lonely, unwanted, forgotten. I passed the day in a flurry of activity, trying to bury the agitation under occupation.
However, by dinnertime I lost my patience with my father. My mother's fever had not broken, and if anything it had worsened. In place of the stillness, a delirium had settled. She continually tossed and thrashed, throwing the bedclothes hither and thither, and occasionally hitting her own face or abdomen with a flailing hand. She had not eaten anything since the previous luncheon, and the maids had only managed to dribble a few sips of water down her parched throat. Added to all this, she had begun to cough at intervals, with short sets of dry, hacking coughs wracking her body and further disturbing her rest. She clearly needed to be attended by a professional, and I informed my father that I was calling the apothecary, with of without his permission. He seemed mildly surprised at my mood, but once again waved me off telling me to 'do whatever you feel is needed.'
Fortunately, by this time Kitty had recovered herself enough to be of use, and she attended our mother while I summoned the apothecary, and penned a quick note to Jane.
On behalf of our mother, I apologise for not visiting you today. Unforeseen circumstances prevented the outing. Our mother is indisposed, having awoken with a raised temperature and hoarse voice, and has now started to cough. If you have a chance, we would appreciate a visit from you to give your opinion, but do not trouble yourself if it is inconvenient.
Your affectionate sister,
I reread the note quickly before dispatching a footman to Netherfield. It conveyed my concern, and my wish for her attendance, but hopefully without disturbing Mrs. Bingley unduly. At this moment, I could wish for nothing more than the calm, steady presence of Jane.
It took several hours for the apothecary to arrive, although when he did, Mr. Jones commended us for calling him, saying it was much needed. He and Mrs. Hill remained closeted up in my mother's room for almost an hour, and when he emerged he entreated us to call my father. Needless to say, I was exceedingly alarmed, and from the expression on Kitty's face, she was likewise.
We repaired to my father's library where Mr. Jones gave us his prognosis. It was not good at all.
'Mrs. Bennet has some sort of bacterial disease. She is very ill indeed. I believe her fever has been present since this morning?' I nodded, and he carried on. 'Then it is imperative that we break it as soon as can be. If we do not break it before dawn, I fear the chances for recovery are very slim. I recommend that one of you be in attendance with her at every moment, along with the house-keeper. There is a potion on her dresser that is to be administered every half hour - the house-keeper has my directions - with as much water as she will take. Is there anything else you wish to know of me?'
My father sat through this speech with a look of increasing shock and disbelief. As the apothecary finished, he roused himself to ask, 'Is my wife really ill? I thought it was another of her fits.'
'Indeed, Sir, your wife is gravely ill and I suggest you yourself take the opportunity to attend her.' He stood and bowed to us, and added 'I will return at sun-up. The footman can see me out. Good evening.' And he was off.
I cannot clearly recall when happened between when Mr. Jones left and the first rays of the sun spilled through Mama's window. I know Kitty and I hastened to my mother's room, finally with my father following. I assume we must have attended Mama, but I cannot say for sure. I must have fallen asleep in Mama's armchair at some point, for I awoke to see the beginning of the day and my father sitting at my mother's side, stroking her hand. She looked exceedingly pale, even more so than before, and once again she was still. I approached the bed and took her other hand in mine, only to find it was still hot.
I turned around in response to a sound, and saw Kitty standing at the door with a fresh bowl of water and pile of towels. She caught my eye and slowly shook her head, her face pale and drawn. It was the worst thing I had ever seen.
Mr. Jones arrived about half-an-hour after I awoke, and we were sent to Mama's sitting room while he examined her again. This time he made short work of it, and within a quarter of an hour he was out again with a very grim look on his face. He did not need to say anything for us to understand his meaning.
'There is not much time. I suggest you send for Mrs. Bingley at once, and write to your other daughters by express immediately.' My father heeded him.
Jane was with us within another half-hour, and she was a great source of strength to us all. On first looking at Mama, she was extremely shocked, but she quickly pulled herself together and set out to cool our mother's brow and ensure her comfort. Jane spoke soothingly to us all; particularly to our father who seemed to not believe what was happening. But slowly Mama became stiller and stiller, and colder and colder. By noon it was all over.
The rest of that day is a blur in my memory. I have flashes of senses: Mama's cold hands; Papa's empty eyes; Jane's quiet sobs; Mrs. Philips' screams; the roses Mrs. Hill brought in. A never-ending stream of images, sounds and smells that do not fit together in any discernable order, which makes them all the more distressing.
Charles came to spend the night with us. Mrs. Hill kept a vigil over her mistress' body. Dinner was served, although nobody ate. At the close of the meal an express arrived from Lizzy saying she would be with us by teatime on the following day. Mr. Jones returned in the evening to administer us each a sleeping draught, saying it was imperative that we rest, lest we also fall ill.
Lizzy arrived with her husband the following evening, with the Gardiners soon after. Lydia came by next morning, and nothing anyone could say would take away the disbelief of it all.
We buried Mama on Saturday morning in the graveyard at Longbourne Church. All her friends, that is to say the whole of Meryton, arrived to bid her farewell. I do not remember the funeral, though I know we passed the time in Jane's sitting room rather than Mama's. Shortly after, Papa, Kitty and I closed up Longbourn and departed for Pemberley, at Mr. Darcy's insistence.
I was never my mother's favourite child. In fact, I was the one who did not capture any of her attention. When she took note of me at all, it was generally to disapprove of my appearance or activity. We were such different people with such a different focus in life that I surprised myself with the depth of my grief at her passing. Yet in spite of everything, she was my mother, and I mourned her loss from the bottom of my soul.
I dwell so much on the event of my mother's passing because it had a vast impact on me. It altered the situation of my family, and it altered the way I view the world. Had she not died when she did, and in the manner she did, the course of my life and my place in the world may well have been very, very different.
With my mother's death, I became the ranking female in the family. Jane and Lizzy had moved on and established homes of their own, and I remained to run my father's house and to take on all the assorted other duties of the eldest lady. Had I myself married, this would obviously have changed, but as I did not I became a sister/mother substitute, attending births and so on. But exactly how I fulfilled my role will become clearer as I continue with my tale.
The manner of my mother's death, and my role in attending her throughout her short illness, opened my eyes to a whole new aspect of my personality. I was born to be a care-giver. This may seem like an odd realization for a woman, as it is our gender-defined role to be mothers and wives, devoting our lives to the service of others, yet for me it was an epiphany. I had never had much of an affinity for children; my patience with the young Gardiners was minimal at best. Yet in caring for Mama, and for Papa after her death, I found my calling in life.
Surprisingly enough, in my pedantic studies I had amassed a wealth of medical knowledge. Had it been an option for a woman, I would have pursued further studies and a career as a physician. Had I been married I would have pursued a career as a midwife, but such an occupation was unacceptable for a single young lady. So I made alternative plans and did what I was meant to do in another way.
We arrived at Pemberley three days after Mama was buried, exhausted and broken of spirit. In spite of her continual complaints and worries, I think we all somehow believed Mama was indestructible. Her death came as more of a surprise than a blow. We all knew we could continue the course of our lives without her, but we never really thought we would have to. It was in this way, accepting that the Angel of Death claims everyone in his own time, that we passed away three months of deep mourning alone at Pemberley. We did not go out and we did not see visitors, excepting for Mr. and Mrs. Bingley who visited with us for most of that time.
At the end of that period we began to reintegrate ourselves in the world. Well, most of us did. Papa had no inclination to leave Mr. Darcy's library, and we did not try and force him to. He seemed quite content, but not at all inclined to mix with the rest of the world. Given his reticent nature, this surprised no-one, and while Lizzy did insist he take dinner with the rest of the family, no other demands were made on his time.
I went along with Lizzy to visit her tenants. The very first day we went to a farmer's wife who was ill. The cause of her illness was not known, but she seemed to be in dire need of some care and attention. I begged Lizzy to leave me there and collect me after her calls, and my very surprised sister agreed. By the time I returned to Pemberley house, I had managed to coax the woman into taking some broth, and she was sleeping peacefully when I left. From that day on, I was went to the homes of the sick and the dying, attending and caring as I could.
Georgiana, that is Miss Darcy, had become close to both Kitty and I during our stay. Kitty and Georgiana had discovered a mutual love and reasonable talent for drawing. I said before that I played badly and Kitty drew badly, but with a little assistance and a few useful corrections from Miss Darcy, we both improved greatly. Anyhow, the other young ladies started to spend their days riding the estate and drawing the magnificent views that were to be found from every rise and hill. The northern boundary of the estate was shared between Pemberly and Caversham, and it was there that the ladies began to frequent. At night I was privy to the details of the gentlemen who lived there, a Lord Alexander Sumersgill and his friend Mr. Edward Mortimer. Within the week the gentlemen had been invited to dinner at Pemberley, and became frequent companions to Georgiana and Kitty, respectively.
The Bingleys began to search for an estate in Derbyshire, and accordingly Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy spent the greater part of most days traveling the county, and those neighbouring, in search of a suitable estate. Eventually one was found, not thirty miles from Pemberley, an occasion which gave much joy to both their wives. Jane and her husband began traveling back and forth between Hertfordshire, London and Derbyshire, signing purchase agreements and arranging for the removal of furniture and other belongings.
By this time we had discovered that Lydia was with child, and had been instructed to remain in her bed on account of her 'situation being unstable', as she wrote us. Indeed, her letters became very frequent, and it often happened that the post would come bearing a letter for each of her sisters from Mrs. Wickham. We responded in kind, sending her newsy accounts of our minimal social interactions, as well as romance novels. We were all exceedingly shocked when she requested more serious reading matter, explaining that 'I read these books and I think of Mama and all her grand plans and schemes for us all, and I just can't stand it!' So we did. It was decided, that given my recent inclination and my un-married and un-courted status, I would be the sister to attend Lydia, as it was only fair that she have some member of her family present. Accordingly I joined her in London, where Wickham's regiment had been posted for a short while, and attended her through the last two months of her pregnancy.
I was in agreement that wherever Lydia was staying could certainly not be a suitable place to bring a child into this world. Lydia frequently applied to either Mrs. Bingly or Mrs. Darcy for assistance with her expenses, for while her expenses had dwindled to the food she ate and a few dresses with a wider waist, her husband's had increased with her confinement. She often wrote of the dismal conditions in which she lived, and expressed a wish of being back in Longbourn with her family. Even her affection towards her husband began to cool, and she was certain he would be out drinking at the time of the birth. Without the diversions of parties and officers, or the simpering affections of Wickham, Lydia's perspective on the life she had chosen came into relatively clear focus for her. Given all this, it was decided that as soon as I arrived in London, Lydia and I would remove to the Bingley townhouse, and stay there until Lydia was well enough to travel to Pemberley to join her family. A perfect plan, I dare say, but life is not perfect.
The leaves were falling from the trees as I set off for London. A maid had been sent with me, both for my trip and to remain and assist me during and after the birth. Nancy was older, and while she had never married and given birth herself, she had been present at the births of all her nieces and nephews. I chose her specifically for her experience, and as a result of her stories of difficult births and stillborns, I spent the numerous hours in the carriage reading everything I had been able to find. I learned about the normal birth process and some of the many things that can go wrong, I investigated some common illnesses of infants, and finally, I looked up several of the more common birth defects. Whatever happened, I was going to be prepared.
We arrived in London rather late at night, and I decided to wait until morning to fetch Lydia. When I discovered where exactly she was staying, I was more than grateful for my decision; it was not a part of London ladies should be frequenting, let alone moving around at night. So the next morning Nancy and I, with Bates, the Bingleys' coachman, set out to find Lydia.
I had expected the worst, knowing that Wickham was a rake and a profligate, yet even I was shocked at my sister's circumstances. The room, for I could not call it more than that, was small and dingy, with very little light penetrating the grime-encrusted windows. It contained a bed, a table and several chairs, and almost nothing else. There was a trunk next to what was plainly Lydia's side of the bed, containing the few worldly possessions still hers. A workbasket and a faded, broken old sofa completed the furnishings in the horrible little space.
But more surprising than her accommodations was Lydia herself. I found my sister quiet and subdued, humbled. Her marriage was not what she had expected, and her life was utterly miserable. My greeting was beyond what I could ever have imagined, even in these circumstances.
'Mary! Oh, sister, how glad I am to see you.'
'And I you, Lydia,' I said, as I approached her. It took all the self-control I could muster to stop my voice from shaking. Lydia was a proud, stubborn girl, not the pathetic creature in front of me. I couldn't reconcile what I saw with what I knew. It was not hard to feel genuine compassion for her, and I approached with tenderness. Stretching my hand towards hers, I added 'Come, we will get you out of here, into a nice comfortable room with some good nourishing food for you and the baby.'
But she grabbed the hand I offered and would not let go, throwing her other arm around my neck and beginning to sob. 'Oh, Mary, you were right. You said this marriage would come to no good, and it has not. He is gone! He left last week saying he had no need for a wife who could not, who did not . . .' and here she paused, to my great surprise, for I understood her meaning. Indeed, this was not the same girl who had left us. We sat like that for several minutes while she cried on my shoulder, and Nancy packed her few meager belongings. After a while I asked her if she felt well enough to move.
'Yes, please. I want nothing more than to leave this place, to be gone from these memories forever.'
So we carefully climbed down the stairs, and settled Lydia into the carriage, with rugs and pillows to ensure her comfort. All the while, she clutched my hand as if it were a lifeline anchoring her to some place of sense and sanity. I instructed the driver to go very slowly, and to avoid areas of heavy traffic. A prolonged journey was bound to be less stressful than a bumpy, disrupted one, I reasoned.
On arrival at Grosvenor Street, a footman was enlisted to carry Lydia to what was to be her chamber, adjoining mine. I ordered her some clear broth and bread, and settled her down to rest. That evening, over the light dinner she was able to eat, my sister told me of what befell her.
'At first it was wonderful, everything I expected being married to be. Wickham was even more attentive than ever before. I was the center of attention at every party, of every outing. I found several of the officers' wives to be very entertaining, and as I am the daughter of a gentleman, I took up a place of prominence in my new circle. For a while, Wickham controlled himself and did not incur any new debts, so we lived almost within our means, and my circumstances were good and my pleasures numerous.
'But even before Mama's death things started to change. At home he would become impatient with me, getting irritated over nothing. Quite often, if I said something that annoyed him he would slap me. Now very hard, mind, but still, it was not necessary or appropriate. I know Mama irritated Papa, but he would never treat her so! He would go out and leave me at home, alone, sometimes for an evening, sometimes for two or three days. Then Mama passed away, and I was inconsolable. I realize now that it was in part because it was about that time I became with child.
'He was so cruel then, Mary! He hit me more and more often, and harder, and was home even less. He said it was because he didn't like my figure becoming more round, or that he couldn't handle the nausea that plagued me. I would faint all the time, and become very dizzy when I stood up. Eventually he called a physician to see me, and I was told to stay in bed for the duration of my pregnancy.
'In spite of the fact that I was not fit to travel, Wickham insisted we come to London, saying that there was more for him to do here while I was busy with the baby. For a while we carried on as in Newcastle, but before long his patience wore out. He'd been gaming and drinking more than ever before, and one night he came into the room, drunk and screaming.
'He yelled that marrying me had been a mistake, and the inconvenience he was now saddled with did not nearly make up for the revenge on Darcy. He told me I was stupid, childish and selfish and that he didn't want to have anything to do with me or my baby, irrespective of the fact that it was his too. He looted my trunk for anything of value, and took off. I haven't seen him since.'
I didn't know what to say to my poor sister. The truth of the matter was that, while it would be embarrassing that her husband had left her, Lydia would have a far better life without him. Her baby would not be born out of wedlock, and her reputation could be salvaged. Without Wickham, she could return with me to Pemberly and raise her child amongst her own family. But I couldn't say any of that to her; I assumed she must have been grieving for what she could have had.
But, showing perceptiveness I didn't know she was capable of, Lydia stopped me. 'I know you think I'm upset about Wickham's leaving, after all the effort I put into him. Really, though, I'm not. He was too cruel for words. Running away with him, and then not listening when Mr. Darcy suggested I leave him, those are mistakes I can never erase. But now, with my baby, I have another chance; I can teach him what I was never taught, raise him properly to be a decent human being. I know all of you are angry with me, should be angry with me, and I deserve it. Yet still, all I want is to be back with all of you, always.'
By this point we were both crying, and I moved to embrace her. I could feel her pain, her remorse, her humility. She was begging for a second chance, and I was certainly going to give it to her. She curled up in my arms and cried herself to sleep. For the first time in my life, I felt the true responsibility of being a sister.
In the early hours of the next morning, long before the first show of the dawn, I was woken by Lydia's screams. The baby was coming, and it seemed much too soon.
That day was the worst I have ever seen, worse than anything that happened to me before or since. I saw things that terrified me more even than what I saw in my work as a 'nurse' at home, in Derbyshire. But I suppose even the most horrific malady seems worse when the victim is someone dear to you. I never wish to relive that day again, although I often do in my nightmares.
As soon as I heard Lydia's call, I was out of bed and in her room. She was lying on her bed curled up in a fetal position, covers thrown aside. She was clutching her abdomen and crying. I could see a puddle of blood forming on the sheets.
I won't describe what I saw that day in detail, for it was too horrible to put into words. At first Lydia cried almost constantly, from pain during the contractions and wishing for Mama between. But as the day progressed her screams became intermittent and then died away altogether; she did not have the strength to even whisper.
My niece was born just before midnight, after nearly an entire day of labor. It took me a moment to see that all was not well with her, but the situation with her mother was far worse. Lydia was still bleeding, and what with the amount of blood she had lost, I was amazed she was still with us. But she was determined to meet her daughter, so I gently swathed the newborn in soft cloths and handed her to her mother.
It was a tender moment. Lydia was too faint and ill to be much aware of her surroundings, or indeed anything except her daughter, and it took all her strength to remain even nominally focused on her. So she did not notice what I had. Still, the sight of a mother greeting her child for the very first time is something that becomes forever imprinted in your heart.
As I placed her daughter in her arms, Lydia pulled her head off the pillows. Her eyes filled with tears, and she looked at her daughter with such adoration. Her entire being was suffused with the complete devotion of a mother for her child, and even though I knew what was to come, for both of them, it filled me with such joy and peace to watch. Lydia placed her finger in the baby's grasp, and expressed the wonder that only a new parent has at such a simple action, even though in her child it was not normal. After a moment, Lydia sank back against the pillows, eyes closed, and just held her for what felt like an eternity.
I just watched them, and after a time I thought Lydia had fallen asleep, so I moved to take the baby from her. But as I touched her arm, she opened her eyes and gave me a most penetrating stare. When she spoke, her voice was barely a whisper.
'Look after her for me, Mary. I know you will be wonderful. And call her for Mama. Name her Frances, will you?'
I nodded, my throat too choked with tears to leave room for words.
'You are a wonderful sister, Mary. All of you were, more than I deserved.' She was silent for a moment, closing her eyes as if to rest before she could add 'more than I deserved. I love you all.' She closed her eyes once more, and I put my cheek against her mouth to ascertain if she still breathed. She did, so I placed a gentle kiss on her forehead, and called a maid to watch her while I took Frances to the upstairs maid, whom I knew could nurse her. By the time I returned to put the baby in her crib, Lydia was gone.
I managed to send an express to Pemberley before the grief overwhelmed me completely. Lydia and I had never been close, never identified with the other, yet for it all she was my sister. And in the days since I had come to London, I had seen a different side to her, a true and deep side that I did not know she had. During her confinement she had become a wonderful woman; she had developed her mind, perfected her skills, realized her mistakes, and developed an emotional bond with the child growing inside her. The baby was a creature leaching her of all her strength and independence, yet she loved her! She loved her, and she loved me, and in turn I loved them both.
I wept for what Lydia had almost been, for the woman she almost became. I wept for the child she would never raise. I wept for my sisters who would never know the strong, brave woman our Lydia had become. I wept for my father who had just lost a child. I wept for myself, for losing someone who had only just become to dear to me. And I wept for Frances, for the life she had to lead.
For, you see, Frances will have a difficult enough life as it is, without the tragedy of never knowing her mother. I almost wished I had not made the effort to read so much, because now I felt that knowledge was just hurting me further when I could take no more pain. From the moment of her birth, I knew; Frances is a Mongoloid child.
I recognized all the signs, noted all the characteristic features. Frances has the flat head, broad nose and slanted eyes. Her tongue is large and flat, and her mouth is open. Her hands are flat and broad, not as curled as an infant's should be. She is quiet and cries very rarely. The worst is that she permanently has a slightly blue colour, a sign of a heart defect.
I lay on my bed and wept for I know not how long. I knew there were things to be done, problems to be solved, arrangements to be made. Yet I could not bring myself to do any of it. I only roused myself when I heard the baby's soft cry; I could not ignore her! Frances was brought to my room after being fed by the upstairs maid, and then we both slept for some hours.
We went on like this for two days, Frances alternately sleeping and eating, and me alternately feeding her and watching her. Occasionally the housekeeper would prevail on me to eat something, or I would fall asleep with the infant, but we kept to my room for the entire two days, until the Bingleys and Darcys arrived.
Once again, I have great slabs of time that simply were not archived into my memory, and the time of the funeral is a blur in my mind. Charles later told us that Wickham did attend, although with a smirk betraying his feelings. I imagine it took much of Fitzwilliam's self-control not to treat him as he deserved.
The rest of my family must have arrived for the funeral, although I do not remember their coming. Aunt Gardiner visited me often, although I do not recall ever seeing her. I know that after three months Francis was deemed well enough to travel, although the actual journey eludes me. All I remember of the time is my little Frances.
Eventually I did gather my wits and start to function. Frances was developing more slowly than normal, which I knew was entirely expected, as did the rest of the family, once I apprised them of the situation. It was high time our lives began to return to some form of normality.
And indeed they did. In time, Mr. Mortimer and Lord Summersgill each proposed to my sisters, for by this time Georgiana was my sister too, in name and in feeling. The ladies both thought a double wedding, like Jane and Lizzy had, was wonderfully romantic, so they planned one for spring when Pemberley would be shown to perfect advantage.
The Bingleys had by now properly settled into their estate, Beaconwood Manor, and Jane was discovered to be with child. I rejoiced at the news, for in spite of my previous experience with a pregnant sister, I had a very good feeling about this child. Before long Lizzy also announced that she too was expecting. As it was now apparent that we would not be returning to Longbourne, a cottage was built for Papa, Frances and I on the edge of Pemberley property, at the Beaconwood side. We were to move just after Kitty's and Georgiana's weddings.
The weddings came and went, and life settled into a routine. Papa sent for his books from Longbourne, and my precious Frances continued to grow. Belatedly, she took her first steps and said her first words, and she was the joy of my days. In the mornings I would ride out to attend the tenants of Pemberley, or Beaconwood, depending on the day. Evenings would be spent either at home, in our little cottage, or by the fireside of one of my sisters. As Lizzy said, the society of the area had been rather small and unvarying before we arrived, so it was not that we shunned the other principal residents; there simply weren't any save the extended Bennet-Darcy clan. Indeed, I found myself entirely satisfied with my lot.
I attended the births of both Andrew James Bingley and George Edward Darcy, both of which occurred without too much drama. I assisted the elderly midwife for both my sisters, and began to attend the births of farmers' wives as a result of both the midwife's age and my growing experience.
By Frances' fourth birthday, she was sufficiently developed for me to take her along with me on my outings. This helped me greatly, as I was always hesitant to leave her for too long. If she traveled with me, she could play with the farmers' children while I worked. The fact that she did not have normal mental faculties did not disturb the farmers' wives. I do believe that because I was held in such high regard my baby was allowed to have friends too.
Frances may not have the intellectual capability of any other child, but her emotional capacity is enormous. If someone falls, she is the first to run and ask 'Are you hurt?' in her slurred and stuttering speech. She will hug and kiss the child until his tears subside, and then gently bring him to his mother or me to attend to his scrapes. Everyone deserves, and receives, her love and attention, her hugs and kisses. Her kindness overflows to all those around her - her cousins, her aunts, her 'Papa'. Indeed, her Papa adores her, and he allows her indulgences her never allowed us, such as sitting on his lap in his library after dinner. But I suppose grandchildren are always allowed liberties that their parents were denied.
My day unfailingly begins with my little angel crawling into bed with me, stroking my hair and kissing my cheeks. When I eventually open my eves, I am rewarded with such a dazzling smile that I cannot help but greet the day as if it will be the most wonderful one. And, indeed, it very frequently is. My precious child gives my life purpose and meaning, and I love her more than anything in the world. I would give anything for her, because she has given me everything I have, every grace, every blessing, every reason.
I say all this now because I know my time on this earth is short.
Last year I attended a man with consumption. The poor farmer was exceedingly ill when I arrived; the house had the stench of illness, and it seemed as though the whole family suffered along with their father. For him, every breath was an effort, and he coughed up large amounts of blood whenever he tried to speak, or indeed do anything. As I helped him move into a position in which I could feed him some broth, his wife informed me that he had taken no solid food in almost a week, and indeed, he did not take any from me that day or any other time I attended him. It was my first case of the disease, and I learned much about it from attending him, among other things how to diagnose the malady.
I worked with him for nearly a fortnight, but by the time I arrived it was far too late to do anything but ensure his comfort. It is sad, but that is all I can do for many of my patients. They are determined to work even with a 'trifling cold' or a 'mild headache', and they only stop when the malady becomes crippling, by which time it is often too late. Sadly, I treated many cases of consumption that winter, and into the spring.
So I suppose I am just as difficult as my patients. Several weeks ago I began to cough occasionally, with the fits gradually becoming more and more frequent. Yesterday I coughed up a small amount of blood. Not enough to cause major alarm, but enough for me to know my fate. I have always had a case of knowing too much, rather than not enough. I know that blood is a typical sign of consumption, and that it is going to kill me as surely as it had killed my patients.
And as my time on this earth slowly draws to a close, I think on what I have accomplished. I have lived less than thirty years in this world, and one wonders what can be done in such a short time span. I have no husband to mourn my loss, nor any children to remember me. I did not leave any written record of my days here, nor is there a pictorial catalogue to pore over. Yet that does not mean I have not left a mark.
My legacy will be staked out in the memories stored in the hearts of my loved ones. Frances will remember me as her beloved 'Auntie Maymay,' her caregiver, her playmate and surest confidant. My father will remember me as the devoted daughter, to him and to Frances, the dependable, stable, constant one. Jane, Lizzy and Kitty will remember me as their friend, their advisor, their midwife, but mostly as their beloved sister. And the tenants of Pemberley and Beaconwood, my dearest patients, will remember me as their nurse, their friend, their savior.
Indeed, it is only as I lie here on my deathbed that I finally realize that I never was, and never will be, what I always believed myself to be. The forgotten child.
All medical information is from The MERCK Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, 16th Edition. I am taking the story to be set in the mid-1800s, at which time there was no known treatment for tuberculosis (TB, previously known as consumption). I have followed the disease quite generally, but should anyone want a detailed account of the aetiology, prognosis and management of the disease, I recieved a very complete set of notes from my pathology lecturer last week ;) As far as I can gather, the mechanism of infection, and the contagious period of the disease, were also not know, hence Mary's lack of precautions.
All information on Mongolism, today known as Down's Syndrome or Trisomy 21, is from the same source.