ane Bennet happened to be standing in the entrance hall when her younger sister Elizabeth rushed in, out of breath and disheveled from her race up the front walk. Jane immediately put aside her plans to take a cup of tea to her mother, who was upstairs with one of her frequent attacks of nerves, to assist with this new -- and still unknown -- source of distress.
"Why, Lizzy! Whatever is the matter?" Concern was written plainly on her features.
Elizabeth, still gasping for air, fought to suck in one or two heaving breaths before she could answer her sister's kind inquiry. "Jane." Gasp. "Jane, you must tell me..." Wheeze. "Jane, what day is this?"
Jane was confused by her sister's question, but answered without hesitation. "Why, it is Friday, Lizzy. The thirteenth, actually."
"Oh, I must be going mad, Jane. Do you come upstairs with me, for I must lie down and rest, but I will tell you everything that has happened."
Jane solicitously helped her sister up the staircase and into her bedroom, where Elizabeth hastily removed her bonnet and coat and sat down upon the bed.
"Now, Jane, before I start, you must promise not to say a word until I have done, because I am sure I will sound completely insane."
"Very well, Lizzy, I promise." Jane sat down next to her sister, and listened to the following tale.
Jane, you remember that I went to Meryton this morning with our sisters Kitty and Lydia. They had no other thought than to look for officers, Mr. Denny and Mr. Sanderson in particular, although if the gentlemen were not about, they would have no objection to selecting material for a new dress. Thinking that they would need a chaperone to prevent them from their usual wild excesses of behavior, I had decided to go with them, although I confess I was not without hopes of seeing Mr. Wickham. We encountered Denny and Sanderson on Market Street, and we were happily engaged in conversation when my eye was suddenly caught by something coming down the street. It was a brand-new high-sprung barouche, painted a lovely yellow color, drawn by two perfectly matched chestnut horses, and driven by one of the most handsome men I had ever seen. Such fair skin, and such black hair! Astonishingly, he pulled his vehicle to a stop just where we were standing, turned an astounding pair of green eyes upon me, and most gallantly tipped his hat.
"John Willoughby, at your service, ma'am," he said, and then inquired if I cared to take a ride around the town with him.
And this is where my madness begins, Jane, for I threw caution to the winds and accepted his invitation! Kitty and Lydia were probably amazed, but I cannot say, for it only took an instant for this Mr. Willoughby to take my hand, help me into the barouche, whip up his horses, and drive us away. Oh, what a ride we had, Jane! I should have been terrified at the speed, but instead I was exhilarated. Mr. Willoughby proved to be an entertaining companion, because he managed to keep up a flow of conversation while he was driving us at such a breakneck pace. I hardly understood any of it -- he kept saying something about coming to town to have his hair cut, which was really a cover for having a piano-forte delivered to someone named Jane Fairfax. Have you ever heard of such a person in Meryton, Jane? Neither had I, but I made no answer. Mr. Willoughby also said he had relatives in the area, whose estate he was going to inherit. Again, I had never heard of these people before -- who on earth are the Tilneys, and where in the neighborhood is Northanger Abbey? I was confused, but I was enjoying the adventure too much to care.
At last, we completed the circuit of the town, and Mr. Willoughby deposited me back at Market Street, where Kitty and Lydia were still waiting for me. I did not see Mr. Willoughby drive off, because Lydia was obviously bursting with news and instantly claimed my attention. "You will never guess what has happened, Lizzy," she cried, "so I shall tell you. Wickham is no longer engaged to marry Mary King. In fact, he tried to elope with some girl called Emma Woodhouse, and then he was challenged to a duel by Mr. George Knightley, and he was shot, and they had to carry him back to the barracks, and they have called in a surgeon to look after him. Isn't it exciting?"
Exciting or not, Jane, it was simply too much to take in. I positively fled down the street and came here as quickly as I could. Oh, Jane, has the world gone mad, or have I?
Jane listened to her sister's astounding tale with as calm a face as she could manage. She kept her promise not to ask any questions, but her wide eyes betrayed her curiosity and astonishment. She could think of no explanation for the bizarre scene that Lizzy had just witnessed, and her sister was normally not given to making up stories.
"Lizzy, do lie down and be quiet a while. Perhaps you had a touch of sunstroke, walking to Meryton in all this heat. I will fetch something cool for you to drink, and when you have rested, all will be well. Really, Lizzy, next you'll be telling me that Mr. Darcy isn't as proud as we all think he is."
Meanwhile, at Netherfield...
Charles Bingley raced into the library with surprising speed, making a beeline for the decanter of brandy on the sideboard. Disdaining the use of a glass, he took a swig straight from the bottle. His friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy, who had been spending the afternoon reading, waiting for the day's heat to dissipate, watched these actions with alarm.
"Bingley! Good Lord, man, are you quite all right?"
Bingley set down the brandy and turned around. "Oh, Darcy, it's you. You startled me! Tell me, Darcy, do I look sane to you?"
Darcy considered his friend carefully and replied, "Perfectly so, except that you do not usually drink heavily in the afternoons. Taking after your brother-in-law, are you?"
"Don't laugh at me, Darcy! I am in earnest. Does my sister Caroline seem sane to you?"
Darcy tried hard, but he still could not prevent a smile from appearing on his lips. "Yes, except that she remains convinced I will marry her."
"You're doing it again!" Bingley was becoming angry, and instead of giving in to his urge to hurl the brandy decanter at his friend, he took another large drink out of it. His hand was positively shaking as he forced himself to set it down. With a despairing sigh, he then crossed the room and collapsed into one of the armchairs.
"Bingley, what's wrong? Your behavior is making me most concerned. Please tell me."
Bingley gazed up at him with haunted eyes and replied, "Caroline is gone. I found a note from her just now, and I simply cannot believe what it says. Here, you read it."
Friday, 13th -- (month obscured by an ink blot)
My dear Charles,
Have I ever mentioned my dear friends Isabella Thorpe, Maria Bertram, and Lucy Steele to you? Very likely not, since you never took any interest in my friends, and none of them has enough of a fortune to tempt you into marriage. However, as dear friends should, they have been constantly looking out for marriage prospects for me, and it is with great joy I may say they have succeeded.
I expected that I would only ever marry for money, so my surprise is no less than yours when I declare that now I can and will marry for love! Henry Crawford is the most charming man in the world, and I am sure I should pine away and die without him. By the time you read this note, we will be well on our way to Gretna Green.
Do your best to console Mr. Darcy when he learns of my departure. I suppose he is now free to think of Eliza Bennet's fine eyes as much as he chooses.
Never had Darcy felt a surprise of this magnitude. Caroline Bingley? Eloped? Who would have thought it was possible? Laughter threatened to break forth again, but he restrained himself out of consideration for Bingley.
He was given no opportunity to console his devastated friend, whose glazed eyes were staring into nothingness. Either shock or alcohol had put him into a complete stupor. A servant appeared in the doorway, bearing yet another letter on a tray.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Darcy, but this letter has just arrived for you by express."
"Thank you," Darcy said, picking up the envelope. What can this possibly be? he thought as the servant bowed and vanished down the hallway. He broke the seal and read the lines it contained.
Friday, 13th -- (month written illegibly)
My dear cousin,
Propriety be damned! I have been waiting to claim my dearest love since the year '06, and I will wait no longer! Thanks to the insufferable interference of William Collins, Anne de Bourgh and I were separated, when our hearts and souls have always been one.
I am writing this just before my darling and I begin our flight to Gretna Green. It will be impossible for us to see you after the wedding, for we will immediately board the Laconia and sail for France. As much as I love my dear girl, I would rather face the wrath of Napoleon than the wrath of her mother.
Wish us luck, and I will write again when I can.
With friendship, as ever,
With a new understanding of Bingley's sudden need for brandy, Darcy stumbled over to the decanter and poured a large glass of the liquor for himself, which he downed in one breath. Then he helped Bingley out of his chair, and both gentlemen made their way upstairs, where they collapsed into their respective bedchambers.
Needless to say, everyone at Longbourn and Netherfield went to bed early that evening, hoping that reality would be restored the next day.