Beginning, Next Section
Posted on: 2010-02-18
Charles Bingley scaled the steps to Longbourn Manor with an enthusiasm he didn't feel and regarded the house with something like trepidation. In his hand he held two small pieces of paper which had been worn by being constantly put into and removed from his pocket. One contained the direction to Longbourn, the other was a letter from Mr. Edgeworth of Claycombe Park in Durham. His person could only be called rough. He caught a glimpse of himself reflected in one of the windows and hardly recognized himself. His hat was a dreadful thing that drooped on one side. He wore a rough linen shirt that scratched his skin, a leather waistcoat, dark and poorly cut trousers, and a coat of such poor quality he had shuddered to put it on.
At least his wretched appearance matched his state of mind.
With a shake of his head he pulled himself from his reflection and his reflections and rung the bell. The door was answered by a middle-aged woman in a very plain cap and neat dress.
"Mis--er, Charles Bingley, ma'am, here to see Mister Ridgeway."
"To what purpose?"
He cleared his throat. "Employment, ma'am."
"Do you have a letter?"
"Come with me."
He was led through the front foyer. His first impressions of the house's interior matched his impressions of its exterior. It was a respectable establishment, neither ostentations nor shabby. There were hints of luxury in the furnishings and the textiles, but nothing to suggest very great wealth. Bingley dated the house from the early part of the century, perhaps from just before the ascension of George I.
He was led to a small office in the back of the house and presented to Mr. Ridgeway, the steward of Longbourn. Bingley remembered to take off his hat as he stepped inside and said, "I've come to inquire about a position. I was told at the inn that something might be available here."
Mr. Ridgeway peered at him over a pair of spectacles. "Do you have any letters?"
"I do, sir," Bingley said and handed him Edgeworth's still sealed letter.
Mr. Ridgeway looked it over carefully. "Mr. Edgeworth was very complementary."
"Yes, sir." He ought to have been. This was all his fault. Him and Ashbourne. He wasn't certain which of them he hated more at that moment.
"You are a long way from Durham. May I ask why you've chosen to come here."
"I have family in London, sir."
"Why not seek employment in London then?"
"Because I have family in London, sir," Bingley said with a smile.
Mr. Ridgeway chuckled. "Quite right." He drummed his fingers on his desk. "I gather from this letter that you are used to a grand sort of household. Longbourn I'm afraid is not so grand. The house keeps few menservants, and you'll find no livery here." He cocked his head and looked Bingley over. "You're young, well looking. Five foot ten, are you?"
"Five foot eleven in my stocking feet," Bingley said, uncomfortable with being so blatantly sized up like a side of beef.
Mr. Ridgeway laughed again. "Well, you won't find yourself paid a premium for that here." He drummed his fingers on the desk again, considering. "How do you feel about indoor work? Have you any experience with it?"
"The missus, she likes to keep one indoor manservant around. John left us last month to get married and hasn't been replaced. The master objects to the cost, but I know he'll agree if the mistress takes a fancy to you. It is not the work you were told of, but do you have any objections to it?"
"No sir," Bingley said, afraid to say anything different, though he would have preferred to keep out of doors despite the coming winter. It seemed less humiliating somehow.
His next object it seemed was to be briefly introduced to the mistress of the house. Mrs. Bennet was a woman of about four or five and forty. Her face still held the traces of the beauty she must have possessed in her youth, and her figure was good. She looked him over briefly, declared him a "well looking young man, far more stately than the manservant the Lucases had lately employed" and was done with him. And that, it seemed, was that. Never having been engaged in the office of hiring a servant--excepting of course his own vallet--Bingley was rather surprised to find the process as quick as it was.
Mr. Ridgeway had a maid show him to his room. The maid, Matty, was a young girl who looked about fifteen, small and light. Between the moment of Mr. Ridgeway leaving them and their arrival at the door of his room, Matty did not cease talking.
"There's five girls, plus the missus and the master. Mr. Bennet is a good sort, won't trouble you much, but don't be expecting you can cheat him. He knows what goes on, for all that it looks he don't. The missus yells at all hours of the day and night, but mostly for Hill, that's Mrs. Hill to you and me. If the missus is having a bad day, Mrs. Hill is having a bad day, and you and me is having a bad day. You ever worked in a house with six ladies? No, don't suppose you have, or you never would have come to Longbourn. Miss Bennet is a nice sort, and won't ever get you in trouble. I scorched one of her gowns once, broke down crying, sure as I was going to lose my place, but she just sighed and told me nevermind. She must never have told her mama, or I wouldn't never be here anymore. Miss Elizabeth is not so nice, or I don't think she would have hid the gown from her mama in any case, but she don't expect too much. Miss Mary is always in her books and mostly never asks for anything. You must needs to watch out for the youngest two. They always have something or other to be fetched or carried or ironed or washed and they go complaining to their mama if it isn't done just right. The missus is looking to get all the girls married off. Miss Bennet is the prettiest of them all, and I wonder she ain't married yet. If I were half so pretty as her, and with a dowry of a whole thousand pounds (though I understand for folk of her quality that's not so much), I'd have been married years ago. I'm nineteen now, and hoping to be married soon. I've saved eighty two pounds and nine shillings for my dowry on account of I've been working since I was twelve, and mother don't expect me to pay her all of my wages. Miss Elizabeth has a fair chance of catching a man, she's pretty enough, but nothing to her sister, I think, but she's too forward, or I heard John, that's the man we had afore you, say that men don't like a woman so forward as that, and some of the things she says, he's take a wife in hand for saying. Miss Mary is a plain little thing, and never interested in doing anything about it. And the younger two, well, they're just as wild about the men as can be, but Mr. Bennet says they're silly girls, and I heard him wonder that any man would want such a silly wife, though if you want my opinion, he took a very silly wife for himself."
Here they reached a very small, cramped, and cold basement bedroom, which it seemed he was expected to be grateful for as, being the only man servant lodged in the manor house, he did not have to share it with anyone. With effort, Bingley made the appropriate noises of gratitude which seemed to assuage Matty who, she told him, was forced to share with two others up in the attic. A brief question about how many were employed in the house set her off again.
"Well, Mr. Ridgeway is the steward, of course, you met him already. Mrs. Hill is the housekeeper. There's two of us housemaids, Me and Tilly. Rose and Sarah are the junior kitchen maids, and Foster is the cook. Mary is the scullery maid, on account of she's only thirteen and the missus says she don't know how to do anything but scrub pots, but sometimes I shows her the upstairs work. It'd be good for her, if she could get a place upstairs. Mrs. Hill is always cross, and she likes to order us girls about. Don't you take no mind if she don't like you, she never did like John none, on account of his being a man, and she don't think it's good to have a man in a house with so many ladies, but the missus likes to keep a man about, on account of it looks good, and reminds everyone of how high and mighty the Bennets are."
Bingley managed to break in here and ask if the Bennets were well known in the neighborhood.
"Oh, bless me, yes. Longbourn is worth a clear 2,000 a year if it's worth a shilling. There's not many near Meryton who can match that. The Lucases aren't worth half so much, for all that they put on great airs on account of their father being Sir William. The estate won't go to the girls, though, on account of there being an entail, which the missus is always going on about, and how horrible it is for the girls. Oh, but listen to be rattle on and on. Mrs. Hill will scold me something terrible if I don't get back to my work. You settle in, and then you'd best go up to see the master, supposin' he might want to meet you, now that he's going to be paying your wages and all," Matty said, all without seeming to take a breath, and was gone before he could respond, leaving Bingley alone in his small, rather uncomfortable room to contemplate his new position and try to make sense of all Matty had said.
Bingley allowed himself several long moments of quiet contemplation, but quiet contemplation was not something he was prone to on the best of days, among which this could hardly be counted. With one more uncharitable glance around his small room, he went about his business. His first task was to fetch the last of his things from the inn where he had spent the night. After he returned, Bingley went down to his new room and surveyed his accommodation more thoroughly. There was list carpet on the floor, and a narrow bed made up with only one rough linen sheet to cover the mattress, and a thick wool blanket. A shabby-looking table with a wobbly leg held a taper. It had a small drawer which was found to contain a worn Bible with loose pages. There was but one small window that let in thin light, and old, peeling wallpaper in a pattern that was not attractive and had never been fashionable. Two poorly done paintings, painted on pieces of wood and unframed, hung on the walls. One was a landscape. He frowned at the other for some time, attempting to determine what it was supposed to represent before giving up with a shake of his head.
He opened his portmanteau and surveyed the extent of his worldly possessions. For all intents and purposes, £5 in a leather purse represented the entirety of his fortune and that had already been reduced by his brief stay at the inn. He had brought no clothing but what was on his back and a linen nightshirt. He had brought his shaving kit which he set out on the table. The inlaid wooden box, ivory-handled razor and comb, and silver mirror seemed jarringly out of place and he thought to himself that he should have acquired something simpler before he left London, but it was too late to think of such things now.
There were two books, both plays. He laid Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, and Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer on the table with a sigh. He had not brought his pocket watch, but it was still bright day outside. He reported briefly to Mr. Ridgeway, to say that he had settled in, and was sent to see Mr. Bennet. One of the maids, not Matty, led him to the door of the study. He straightened his hair, a truly lost cause, as even his valet was unable to properly control the unruly mop on his head, and knocked softly. A muffled "come in" beckoned him inside.
Mr. Bennet was a man of nearly fifty, old fashioned in dress and grooming, seated at a large wooden desk. His study seemed to double as a library, or perhaps it was better said that the library doubled as his study, for the room seemed more important as the former than the latter. It was an impressive collection of books, many in Greek and Latin, which greeted his eye as he looked around.
"So," Mr. Bennet said, barely granting him the courtesy of looking up from his book, "you are the new man."
"Yes, sir. M--er, Charles Bingley, sir."
"Charles, yes. And, ah, have you any plans for matrimony, Charles?"
Bingley blinked. "I--not at this time, sir."
"Any plans to join the Navy?"
"Good. I have lost the last three men I employed within a month of their being hired, two to matrimony and one to the Navy, and I would prefer to keep you for more than a fortnight, if you please."
"There's little chance of me leaving in the next fortnight, sir."
"Very good." Mr. Bennet finally raised his eyes from his book and looked him over. "Have you no better clothes?" he asked and when Bingley answered in the negative, said, "Well, I shall have Mr. Ridgeway provide you with something a little finer. I'm told you're used to outdoor work. I'm sure you'll appreciate the chance to be indoors this winter, but a little bit of presentation will do well, I think."
Mr. Bennet looked him over again. "You speak very well for one of your rank, Charles. Have you had the benefit of an education?"
"Of what kind?"
Bingley thought fast. 'Eton, then Oxford' seemed likely to raise a great deal of questions. "My uncle was a curate, sir. He undertook some of my education."
"Do you read, then?"
"Very good. A man who has books, and the capacity to enjoy them, is never friendless. There is a small servant's library near the kitchen. I daresay it is very rarely used, but I encourage you to avail yourself of it."
"You speak very well indeed," Mr. Bennet said, narrowing his eyes slightly and Bingley forced himself not to shift.
"Thank you, sir. I have...I try to...present myself well."
He could very nearly see Mr. Bennet give the matter a moment's further contemplation, then dismiss it utterly and return to his book. It seemed the mystery of his new servant's speech could not hold its ground against the lure of Plato in Greek. He waited a moment longer and then Mr. Bennet glanced at him again, slightly exasperated. "Yes, well, that will be all, Charles, you may go."
Bingley thanked him again and gratefully made his escape, wondering if he was about to be betrayed by his own tongue. Deep in that thought, he did not see the young lady until he had nearly bumped into her.
"A thousand--that is, I beg your pardon, ma--miss--er," he stammered, his flustered speech a sad attempt to change his way of speaking. He looked at her, embarrassed, and found that he had nearly bumped into an astonishingly pretty woman. Habit taking the place of thought, he straightened, and then bowed politely, cutting a good figure despite his shabby clothing.
"Quite alright," she murmured kindly, distractedly picking at a stray thread on her gown, and strode past him without another word or indeed seeming to notice him at all. Bingley stared after her, oddly captivated by her movements, until she disappeared through one of the doors.
"She's a pretty one, ain't she?" Matty said, appearing at his elbow.
"Was that Miss Bennet?"
"Sure it was her," Matty said. "It's a wonder she ain't married, though Meryton don't provide much in the way of her sort of husband, I suppose. Mrs. Bennet wouldn't let her settle for less than a thousand a year is my guess, though she'd take five hundred for any of the others, for all that she talks of them having lords and sirs someday. Come along. I'm to take you to Mrs. Hill, but I'll show you the other girls afore we go to see her."
She led him to a small drawing room. The door was half open and he could see a rather plain girl seated at the piano forte. Her playing, while technically very good, lacked spirit and he found himself bored with even the brief performance.
"That's Miss Mary. And behind her, Miss Elizabeth."
He saw, seated near the window with a book, a pretty young lady, not as handsome as the eldest Miss Bennet, somewhat smaller and of darker complexion.
Matty gestured for him to follow her and led him to another small sitting room where he heard rather than saw two young ladies arguing over bonnets or trimmings or some such. Before Matty could say anything, they unexpectedly rushed from the room and bumped into Matty, sending Matty, who was a good deal smaller than either of them, to the floor.
"Watch where you're going, Tilly!" The taller one cried and turned back to her sister as Bingley helped Matty back to her feet. She seemed to neither notice nor care that the young lady could not remember her name.
"I shall tell Mama on you, I shall!" the smaller one shouted.
"Oh, la, Kitty, you act like a child! 'tis only a bonnet."
"It is ruined! Mama! Mama, you must come and talk to Lydia!"
Bingley stepped back out of the way, eager to have no part in their argument. Miss Lydia turned and looked at him. "Who are you?"
"Charles Bingley, ma'am. I was only just hired."
"Do we have a new man? No one told me. You are too handsome to be a servant," she said. Bingley blushed.
"Mama!" Miss Kitty shouted again and Matty tugged at Bingley's sleeve, gesturing for him to follow her. He was grateful to escape the shouting.
He was led finally to the kitchen where the same neatly dressed woman who had answered the door was in conversation with the cook.
"Mrs. Hill," Bingley said, "you asked to see me."
Matty gave him a surprised look, and Mrs. Hill turned to him with a vexed expression and went back to her conversation with the cook. Bingley blinked. He had never in his life been so summarily and rudely dismissed by...well by anyone, but most especially not by a woman such as her. He was forced to wait until the rest of her conversation was over, then she finally turned to him.
"Mrs. Hill, ma'am," Matty said when she saw they had her attention. "This is Charles, Mr. Ridgeway told me to bring him to you."
"Thank you, Matty, you may go," Mrs. Hill said, and Matty disappeared from the room as quickly as she had earlier appeared by him.
Mrs. Hill looked him up and down, an appraisal he was going rather tired of. "Did your mother never teach you any manners?" His mother had died giving birth to him, but it hardly seemed the time to bring it up. "Next time you see that I am in conversation, you will wait until I acknowledge you, then you will speak, is that clear?"
"Yes, ma'am," Bingley said. It was of course only polite. He realized that he was not in the habit of extending such a courtesy to housekeepers and maids. "I apologize."
"Hmm. You have settled in, then? You are ready to work?" she asked and Bingley, surprised that he would be put to work so quickly, only nodded. "Good. Cook has several large pots that need to be scrubbed out that are too heavy for the kitchen maids. You will carry them outside where Mary will scrub them. When you have done that, return to the kitchen, Cook has tasks for you. When Mary is done, you will carry the pots back inside. Do you think you can handle all of that?"
"Good," Mrs. Hill said, and left him to his work.
It was several long hours later before Bingley found another moment to rest. The pots were heavy, and Cook's tasks had mostly involved moving, lifting, fetching, and carrying things that the kitchen maids could not handle alone. His arms ached as though he had spent an hour in the boxing ring. He sat down on a small stool and rubbed at the back of his neck.
"You best not let Mrs. Hill catch you off your feet," Matty said and Bingley jumped. "Are you done with Cook? If you have done with her, Tilly needs furniture moved, so she can clean behind it. Mrs. Hill said you could do it, so me and Tilly wouldn't have to do it together, which is what we do when there's no man about."
A rumble in his stomach reminded him that he hadn't eaten since his simple breakfast at the inn, and he asked about meals.
"You missed dinner. That's always served at one. There's a supper around eight, and breakfast is at six thirty."
"Aye. Mrs. Hill would have it at six, but the family sleeps so late, there's no sense in not letting us have the extra half of the hour, for all that Mrs. Hill would keep it from us."
He was led to where Tilly was cleaning, and left to be told what furniture to move and to help clean the higher places, where Tilly, who was even smaller than Matty and far less talkative, could not easily reach.
His next chance to sit came at supper, when he was able to see all of the servants assembled together. Mr. Ridgeway, of course, did not eat with them, and would not have even if he had not lived in a house of his own on the estate with his wife. Neither did Mrs. Hill eat with them, though Bingley had been told by Matty that she took breakfast and sometimes dinner with the servants. The table was then himself, Matty and Tilly, and the junior kitchen maids, laundry maid, and the scullery maid, as well as the coachman, and two stable boys. There was little conversation, even Matty seemed too tired to speak, and though Bingley's upbringing made him uncomfortable with his own silence, his exhaustion and hunger made it hard for him to do anything about it. Indeed, his hunger was so great that he scarcely noticed the poor quality of the food, and had eaten two platefuls before he noticed how stale the bread was, or that the meat had begun to turn.
The meal did not last long, and when it was over they all scattered quickly, having last minute tasks to complete before they would be allowed to bed. As he was leaving, he caught sight of Mary, looking down at her raw, red, cracked hands and then up at the table full of dishes and cups that fell to her lot. While he watched, she buried her head in her hands and wept silently for half a minute, then raised herself up and got to work.
It could not have been much past eleven when he returned to his room, though it felt much later. The narrow bed and ugly wallpaper no longer mattered to him. Barely stopping to take his shoes off, he laid down on the narrow mattress and was asleep almost before his head had touched the pillow.
He woke the next morning before the dawn when Mary came in to collect the chamber pot by the door. Every muscle in his body ached, and he had never in his life wanted to move less. He rolled over and pulled the blanket over his head, thinking he would sleep just a few minutes longer, and was soon again dead to the world.
The next time he woke it was to a sharp knock at the door. He stumbled from bed and found Mrs. Hill on the other side of the door.
"I see you have chosen to forgo breakfast this morning," she said without preamble. "That is your choice. The time at which you start work is not. Make yourself presentable and be upstairs in the kitchen in ten minutes, do I make myself clear?" He nodded. "If I ever have to wake you again, you will be dismissed without references, I trust that is also clear."
He assured her it was, and she turned on her heel and left him to shave and put his shoes on with all haste.
Disappointingly but not surprisingly, he was not offered anything to make up for his lost breakfast and was immediately sent to see Mr. Ridgeway who had for him a set of used but presentable clothing that could almost have been said to fit him, but that the coat was too loose around the arms and the trousers too short at the ankles. It was made clear to him that the clothing belonged to Mr. Bennet and that any attempt to make off with it or sell it would be considered theft and punished as such. Bingley managed to catch a glimpse of himself in a mirror and was dismayed with the sight; though it was better than the fourth hand clothing he had changed into shortly after leaving London.
There was no shortage of work and by noon he would have given up every penny of the five pounds he had brought with him in exchange for an hour's uninterrupted sleep and a cup of tea. Still, he was awake and aware enough to pause in his tracks when he heard Mrs. Bennet's voice from one of the sitting rooms exclaim, "My dear Mr. Bennet, have you heard? Netherfield Park is let at last."
Naturally, it was Matty who gave him the details.
"'Do you not want to know who has taken it?' the missus cried, and the master said, all droll and dry like, 'You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.' So, the missus said, 'Why my dear, you must know, it was taken by a man from the north, a lord, who came down from London yesterday in a chaise and four to see the place and took it immediately. He will take possession by the end of the week.' And the master said, 'And what is his name?' 'Ashbourne, Viscount Ashbourne, the eldest son of the Earl of Buxton.' 'Is he married or single?' Bless me if that's not all anyone cares about. So the missus said, 'Single my dear, to be sure, what a fine thing for the girls.' 'How so?' the master said, 'How can it affect them?' And the missus got all in high dudgeon for of course she was thinking of the great lord marrying one or the other of the girls, for all that she don't know whether he'd as lief not take a wife at all."
Bingley helped her take the heavy rug down from where it hung, strung up between the two trees to be beaten, and said, "A woman like Mrs. Bennet cannot imagine a single man of large fortune who is not in want of a wife."
Matty laughed as they strung up the second rug. "Well, I hear tell from Rose, who heard it from little Sarah Smith, that our great Lord Ashbourne has 25,000 a year. Bless me! It'll be Miss Bennet, to be sure that the missus throws in front of him, for she is the prettiest by far. I think her the prettiest girl in the whole world, and if she can't catch a lord, none of 'em can, for all that she might not want him, once she sees him, for I heard tell from Rose, who heard it from Sarah Smith, that he's not handsome, and has the marks of the smallpox, and is nearly five and thirty, though I suppose a great house in London and fine gowns will make up for an old, pocked husband. To tell true, I would take any husband at all, as long as he could keep victuals on the table, and didn't beat me. What would you do with 25,000 pounds? I would buy myself a pretty white gown, like the Miss Bennets have, and a lace cap, like the missus wears, and I would sit around all day and eat raspberry tarts. Have you ever had a raspberry tart? I had one once, and I thought it tasted like summer in heaven. Well?"
Bingley, who had lost the trail of the conversation somewhere between smallpox and raspberry tarts, and was in any case distracted by the confirmation of the news that Lord Ashbourne was taking up residence at Netherfield, though he had suspected it was him from the moment he had heard the house was let, did not answer until she prompted him again with, "What would you do with 25,000 pounds?"
"Buy a yacht, I suppose," Bingley said, somewhat absently, as he had been thinking lately that he wanted one, and was just prudent enough to desire an increase to his fortune before taking on the expense.
"A yacht? What would you do with a yacht?"
"Race it on the Thames," he said. What else did one do with a yacht?
Matty considered. "Could I go with you?"
Bingley chuckled. "If I find myself in possession of an unexpected 25,000 pounds, I will buy a yacht and you can sit on deck and eat raspberry tarts."
Matty grinned and began beating the rug. "So the missus was in high dudgeon," she said between swings of the beater, "but of course that's nothing new, for the missus is always in high dudgeon about something, but this time it was about the master not going to visit the great Lord Ashbourne, though of course anyone who knows the master at all would know he was only teasing her, but the missus never can tell when the master is teasing her, for all that he does it all the time. And the master said that he would write to Lord Ashbourne and say that he could have any of the girls he wanted, only he was going to give preference to Miss Elizabeth, on account of he likes her the best. And then of course the missus started crying about her nerves, and I left, on account of she always needs to be waited on when she starts crying about her nerves, and I had work to get to.
"But I heard from Tilly, who has it from the groom himself (and you do know that Jeb is sweet on Tilly and is always telling her things afore anyone else) that Mr. Bennet went to visit Lord Ashbourne almost as soon as he came into the house, which was two days ago, and only a day after he looked at the house, which is certainly very fast, and the house wasn't even ready for him, and the master said he thinks it very strange that a man should take possession of a house so fast, for all that the missus says that the rich can be as eccentric as they want, though I'm sure she won't be so forgiving if he don't marry one of her girls." She let the beater fall to the ground and rubbed her shoulder. "Only the master told Jeb that he's not to tell the missus where they went, on account of he wants to tease the missus more. I mean, he didn't tell Jeb he wants to tease the missus, but anyone would know that's what he wants to do, except the missus, who don't know her husband very well at all."
They gathered up the rugs and carried them back inside. Bingley had to help move the furniture so that the rugs could be spread back out. By the time it was all done, it was nearly time for dinner. Bingley sat down at the table gratefully, glad to see that Mrs. Hill had not chosen to join them. He had eaten only three dinners in the house, but he had already had opportunity to see how much less constrained the company was when Mrs. Hill was not present. Now that Matty had told him, he noticed how Jeb maneuvered things so that he could sit by Tilly, though Tilly seemed not to notice him at all. She was more talkative than he'd seen her before, and as he was seated across from her, he found himself the main object of her conversation, a great deal of which seemed to revolve around him. As Bingley would rather have retaken his Latin oral exams than spoken about himself, he turned the conversation back towards her. By the time he had cleaned his plate, he had learned that she was one of two girls, that she had had a brother but he had been pressed into the Navy and they didn't know whether he was alive or dead, that she had only a father living, that she was seventeen, that her favorite color was yellow, and that she loved horses.
Jeb broke in to tell her that he knew the horses in Mr. Bennet's stables better than anyone, and Bingley, grateful for the change of subject, managed to spend the rest of dinner conversing about the horses Mr. Bennet kept, which one was too placid, which had too much spirit, and which had been bought only to show the neighbors that it could be bought.
"Do you ride, Charles?" Tilly asked, leaning forward in his seat.
Bingley answered that he did, and though he tried to inquire of Jeb which horses were the best for riding, the man seemed uninterested in talking further.
The bell rang just after dinner, and as Mrs. Bennet had left orders that he was to get the door if he was about, he found himself opening the door to the Viscount Ashbourne.
There was a long, uncomfortable pause, but Bingley's mouth soon turned up slightly as he realized that of the two of them, Ashbourne was suffering the greater mortification.
"Yes, my lord?" Bingley asked, trying not to laugh as Ashbourne shifted from foot to foot.
"I am here to see Mr. Bennet," Ashbourne said. He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand and offered his card with the other. Bingley beckoned him into the foyer.
Ashbourne was a tall, slim man of two and thirty. Whatever little beauty nature might have gifted him had been lost at the age of three when he had been struck with smallpox. He had a reputation as an eccentric, having little to do with the ton of London and spending most of his time in the country. He was reserved around most, and often stricken nearly dumb in the company of ladies. Among the scant few he admitted as personal friends he could be outgoing, talkative, even lively, but by most he was thought of as excessively reserved at best and priggish at worst.
Bingley carried his card to Mr. Bennet, and then was sent back to lead Ashbourne to the study where Mr. Bennet would receive him.
Bingley led him inside and with a brief glance at Ashbourne, cleared his throat and announced in his most formal voice, "The Right Honorable, Lord Andrew Fitzwilliam, Viscount Ashbourne."
Mr. Bennet glanced at him in surprise, and Ashbourne muttered something under his breath. Bingley knew he had earned himself a lecture from Mrs. Hill about the proper way to announce a lord, but he was quite prepared to accept it in exchange for Ashbourne's wince at the overblown introduction. He managed to make it to the hall and close the door behind him before he laughed.
The next morning dawned fair and clear and found him in a mood that might have been called good. It was at the very least a great improvement over the black mood that had dominated him for the last week. Bingley was not accustomed to such dark feelings, and a return to his usual cheerfulness was as inevitable as his circumstances would make it seem unlikely. He rose easily, shaved and dressed with care, and was not the last person to sit down to breakfast. The last several days had found him with a terrible headache that came and went, but today his head seemed clear and though he would have preferred his normal breakfast of coffee, poached eggs, roast beef, and toast, he was able to accept gruel and ale and cold vegetables with equanimity if not enthusiasm.
He had adapted more quickly than expected to the earlier hours when he heard Miss Bennet tell Jeb that she was going to go for an early morning ride; he thought that it was nearly ten, and that what he considered as early morning had certainly changed, and in a very short period of time.
He was standing by the stables with Tilly, who seemed ever more talkative with him, and he supposed she was simply one of those girls who needed to accustom herself to a new person before speaking to him. Certainly he had been introduced to Ashbourne on three occasions before the man even condescended to remember his name, and had spent two full days shooting with him before they ever had what could properly be called a conversation, so he was not about to hold timidity against a young girl of seventeen with no great knowledge of the world.
"Begging' your pardon, miss, but my ankle has been acting up something terrible today," he heard Jeb say. "But here is Charles, the new man, who I hear tell can handle a horse, and might be able to accompany you on your ride."
Bingley turned, surprised and more than a little pleased at the thought of both a ride and genteel company.
Miss Bennet turned to him, the question in her eyes, and Bingley bowed politely. "Of course."
Jeb narrowed his eyes, but Bingley had no time to concern himself with it as he saddled a horse for himself and assisted Miss Bennet to her own horse, glad that he had in the past taken care to learn the proper way to saddle and mount a horse, and not been content to rely on the grooms all his life.
They set off at an easy pace, and Bingley had to force himself to keep behind her rather than riding beside her as he might otherwise have done. The weather had remained clement, and the ride was as pleasant as any he could remember, perhaps more so for being both unexpected and coming after so much drudgery. He took the time to look around the countryside, and found it picturesque and pleasing. Once or twice as they first set out, he thought he saw Miss Bennet glance back at him, but as he tried to meet her eyes, she would look away, and he began to think he was imagining it.
He could think of nothing to say that would not be impertinent in his situation, but she broke the silence by saying, "You handle your horse very well."
Bingley thanked her and allowed himself the liberty of pulling up closer to her.
"Did you ride often in your last position?"
"Yes, often," was all Bingley could think to say, hoping she would not ask for more details that he was ill-prepared to give, but she only nodded and looked away. Bingley pulled the horse back and fell into riding behind her.
With nothing else to occupy him, he let his mind wander, thinking, as he often did at such times, of favorite plays, and chuckling aloud as a line both apropos and humorous came to his mind. Miss Bennet looked at him in some surprise and he blushed and said, "Beg pardon, ma'am, I was only thinking of a line from a play."
"Oh, I do so love the theater. Pray tell me, what is the line and I shall try to guess the play."
Bingley smiled. "Ask me no questions, and I'll tell you no fibs."
Miss Bennet laughed. "Far too easy. 'tis Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer."
Bingley pulled his horse nearer to hers. "Very well, your turn."
Miss Bennet looked at him with sparkling eyes. "'Silence is the perfectest herald of joy: I were but little happy, if I could say how much.'"
Bingley tsked. "Much Ado About Nothing. No, no, you must go again, for you were being too easy on me, I know you were, and were only trying to flatter me with the ease of the question."
Miss Bennet laughed. "Upon my word, I was not, but if you insist I will try you again. 'What is very extraordinary in all our disputes she is always in the wrong!'"
"Sheridan's School for Scandal. I was wrong, you do not flatter, you condescend. You think my knowledge lacking."
She laughed again. "Indeed, I have never met a servant with such knowledge of the theater!"
The statement brought them both back to their senses. Miss Bennet fell silent abruptly and Bingley pulled his horse back so that he was no longer riding beside her. Their ride was over both too quickly and not soon enough for Bingley's sentiments. He helped her down from the horse, saw her lift her chin slightly at his touch, and could not help but be hurt when she all but fled from him. He watched her for longer than he ought to have done, and closed his eyes briefly when she was gone. He could not disapprove of her behavior; no young lady in her position would dare have acted differently towards her father's manservant.
"Ah, Charles, there you are! Do come in here," Mr. Bennet cried the next morning before any of the family save himself and Miss Elizabeth were awake and about. Bingley entered the study to find Mr. Bennet taking a cup of tea with his second eldest daughter. She nodded to him when he came in, a courtesy he could only remember herself and the eldest Miss Bennet extending to him.
"Lord Ashbourne has asked to borrow two of my books and I would have you take them to him."
He turned from Bingley and addressed his daughter. "A very odd man, Lord Ashbourne. I have not yet found anything ridiculous in him. I confess it rather vexes me."
"Indeed, father," Miss Elizabeth said, "I believe you ask too much. You cannot expect all of your neighbors to provide sport for you." She rose and kissed him on the cheek and was gone.
He turned back to Bingley. "Now, there is a copy of The Aeneid there," he said, pointing to one of the higher shelves in the room. "Do get it down for me."
Bingley had to rise to the balls of his feet to get it, but he managed. He realized his mistake only after he had brought the book down and handed it to Mr. Bennet. The book was in Latin, and though explaining away his literacy had been a small thing, explaining away his knowledge of Latin would not be so easy. But Mr. Bennet appeared not to have noticed Bingley's error, only looked the book over and nodded to himself. "And, there, that collection of sermons by Massillon."
Fortunately the sermons were translated, and Bingley was not forced to choose between making the same mistake twice, and bringing his first error to light by claiming to be unable to recognize French.
"Very good, very good," Mr. Bennet said. He bound the two books together with a leather strap and handed them to Bingley. "Be so good as to take these to Netherfield."
The weather had turned cold overnight, but Bingley still found the walk enjoyable. He had always preferred being out of doors, moving, going places. He found being indoors most of the day, without the freedom to come and go as he chose, terribly constraining. So, looping the leather strap over his arm, and tucking his hands up by his sides, he walked slowly, and enjoyed the chilled but fresh air.
He was immensely pleased with Netherfield the moment he saw it, and thought that he would have liked to have taken it himself, though that seemed impossible now. He had no plans to ever show himself in Meryton again after all was said and done, and was glad indeed that there seemed none among the Bennets' acquaintance who moved in the circles in London that he preferred.
The footman that opened the door to him had a certain hauteur that Bingley had never encountered before.
"Mr. Bennet has sent these for Lord Ashbourne," Bingley said. When the footman attempted to take them from him, he added, "My orders are to deliver them into the hands of Lord Ashbourne."
The footman gave him an unkind look that Bingley could not quite decipher, but led him to a small breakfast room where Ashbourne was reading The London Chronicle over his coffee.
"Mr. Bennet's man for you, my lord. He says he was instructed to deliver the books to you himself."
Ashbourne looked from the footman to Bingley and back. "Yes. Very good. I, ah, I will need to give M--the man here something to take back to Mr. Bennet. You may leave us."
"Very good sir," the footman said with one last uncharitable glance at Bingley, and closed the door behind him.
There was an uncomfortable silence which Ashbourne finally broke by asking, "Would you care for coffee?"
"You are a prince among men," Bingley said, and Ashbourne chuckled, walking to the sideboard to retrieve a cup. He gestured for Bingley to sit and he did so, settling into one of the comfortable dining chairs and barely restraining a sigh. Ashbourne placed the cup in front of him and sat down, looking him over.
"Where are your gloves, man?" Ashbourne asked.
"Edgeworth neglected to provide me with any," Bingley said, adding a spoonful of sugar to his coffee and wrapping his chilled fingers around the warm cup.
Ashbourne frowned but said nothing and they sat in silence over their coffee. "Well, how goes it?"
"I am perpetually exhausted," Bingley said. "The food is dreadful, the ale is watery, the housekeeper is not fond of me, nor is the groom, and I believe at least one of the maids has designs of matrimony upon me. My bed is uncomfortable and has bedbugs,"--he punctuated this statement by scratching behind one ear--"and I live in perpetual fear of being found out. I am no great performer, you know." He lifted his cup to take a sip, savoring the warm, bitter liquid.
"Oh, come now. Where is the man who is pleased with everything and everyone?"
Bingley only looked at him over the rip of his cup.
Ashbourne cleared his throat. "Yes. Well. And how goes..." He cleared his throat again.
"It has been five days, Ashbourne. Give me some time, at least."
"You will forgive me if I am somewhat...impatient."
"It might go faster if I had sought employment--"
"No!" Ashbourne cried. "Far too risky. Where you are is close enough."
"Then you will have to give it time, unless you would have me present myself at the front door and ask politely, but if it were as simple as that I would not be in this predicament." Bingley sighed. "You speak of risk, and yet you must see how the risk of discovery has increased by your decision to follow me here."
"Yes, I see it, but no one knows of my interest in this matter, and I thank heaven for that. The thought of you here alone...should things take a dangerous turn, you now have a friend near." Ashbourne refilled Bingley's empty cup and stood, walked to the window, then across the room to the far wall and back to his chair. Bingley checked his own restless tendencies and simply waited until Ashbourne had calmed himself and sat down again at the head of the table.
"Do you now expect danger? More than before?" Bingley asked. He had always known there was risk involved in this, but Ashbourne had not been so skittish before.
"Yes. No. I do not know. Ah, I am not suited to this. It has always been my goal to live my life as quietly as possible, not to get involved in--" He broke off and looked away. "Well, I imagine that I have at least given the local population something to talk about. That may prove helpful to you."
"Yes," Bingley said with a chuckle, "you and your 25,000 a year have become quite the talk of the town."
"25,000 a year! Do tell me that the local gentry are not so foolish as to confuse my family's income with my own."
"The local gentry likely are not, but you must remember that I get my news through the servants now."
"My father has threatened to cut my allowance again, you know. I will live like a pauper before he has done with me."
Bingley privately thought that even if Lord Buxton was so cruel as to cut Ashbourne's 3,000 a year allowance in half, he would be in no danger of living like a pauper, but he held his peace on that matter and changed the subject. "Have you any news of her?"
"Nothing since you and I last spoke, but I fear...for myself it is nothing, but I suffer for the sake of what she..." He pressed his fist to his mouth. "Bingley, you must know how much I appreciate this. I do not discount the hardship and...you are the best man I could have called upon."
Bingley grinned. "A praise certainly gratifying, yet somewhat lessened by my knowledge that I am the only man you could have called upon," he said and drained the last of his coffee.
Ashbourne's mouth quirked up. He could not deny it.
"I must go, or there will be suspicion. What am I to take with me?"
"For Mr. Bennet, what am I to take with me?"
"Oh," Ashbourne said, glancing around the room. He picked up a volume of Voltaire. "With my complements."
Bingley rose and bowed. He made for the door, but Ashbourne stopped him.
He turned back.
"About that absurd introduction yesterday--"
Bingley laughed. "I must have my fun somewhere, Ashbourne," he said, and left him.
The rest of his day and the next after it passed less pleasantly than his morning visit to Ashbourne. He was surprised by how much of his work was repetitive. It was one thing to spend an hour hauling coal throughout the house, another to be faced with the knowledge that he would have to do it the next day and the next and the next. In the afternoon, exhausted, he settled on one of the chairs near the kitchen, tucked into a back corner, and put his feet up on a stool, wondering if he could nap for five minutes without being noticed. He had barely closed his eyes when he heard the heavy step of Mrs. Hill, but though he heard her approach he was not quick enough to avoid being caught off his feet.
"So, you have nothing to do then?" she snapped. "Fine, the field hands are digging a new privy and filling in the old one. I am sure they would appreciate the assistance."
Bingley stared at her in indignant shock. "I sat down for barely a minute, I hardly think that justifies sending me to dig a privy."
She sniffed. "I will not put up with your attitude much longer. Your speech and conduct has done you no credit. You are slow to respond when you are called, you are lax in your work, and your vain attempt to speak as what is so vulgarly called 'quality' makes you ridiculous."
"You have been here not a week and I would have dismissed you already if not--well, the master likes you, though I cannot say why. But his approbation will do nothing for you if you do not begin taking your position seriously. Do not forget that you could be replaced within the day. Now, will you do as I have said, or will you be finding other employ?"
Bingley had never in his life been so desirous of using an oath with a woman. The temptation to turn on his heel and leave the hateful place behind forever was for a moment overwhelming. But loyalty and some small stubborn streak that he had never known existed stirred within him. He took a breath, unclenched his jaw, and said, "I apologize that my work has not been to your standard, ma'am and I would be happy to assist the field hands, if you would direct me to where I can find them."
Mrs. Hill sniffed again and directed him out of doors.
Sunday came and he had never appreciated a day of rest more, though as he learned the particulars, it came to seem less restful than he had hoped. He found that he was allowed an extra hour of sleep in the morning, but he was still required to be up to help with the various duties about the house while the family prepared for church. As the servants were largely unable to attend church, Mrs. Hill held a Bible reading in the kitchen for them after the noon hour and all were strongly encouraged to attend. He soon learned that the strong encouragement was nothing less than a requirement, at least for the indoor servants. As he was the only one, beside Mrs. Hill herself, capable of reading, he was enlisted to the duty and given a very long Psalm to read to the assembled maids and a few of the field hands who had chosen to come. He noticed that Mary was missing, but as no one else commented, neither did he.
He did the duty with no great enthusiasm, but when he looked up from his reading, he found nearly all of the maids enraptured with him, and Mrs. Hill herself nodding approvingly.
"A fine reading," she said, and he was sure it was the first time she had ever praised him.
His natural skill at reading aloud was passable, he knew, and had been much improved by the services of an actor whom his uncle had enlisted to improve his diction before he went to Oxford, yet he was much surprised when he was pressed for a second. It seemed that the offices of someone with even scant training in the arts of voice and modulation and enunciation were novel to his audience. He chose a selection from Kings as his next, as it was more dramatic than the Psalms, and allowed for different character voices, and undertook the office with a real attempt at pleasing.
The maids were duly impressed and one or two even burst into applause at the end, but he could see Mrs. Hill was rather put out. He set the Bible aside.
"Perhaps a performance more suited to the works of Shakespeare," she said stiffly.
Bingley could not stop himself from saying, "I do a tolerable Hamlet, and a capital Romeo."
Rose perked up at this and scurried away before anything else could be said, returning with several bettered books. "Mr. Bennet got the thought to establish a servants' library afore he realized most of us couldn't read but there's still a few old books down here. I know for sure there's a book of Shakespeare here."
There was no Shakespeare in the books she had brought, only collections of sermons and books of conduct and a few general readers. His collected audience seemed so disappointed that he returned to his room, and came back with Much Ado About Nothing and chose a monologue of Benedick as his performance, his favorite monologue, from act II, scene 3.
Everyone burst into applause at the end, except Mrs. Hill, but even she could not look entirely disapproving, and Bingley who had never thought his readings anything but tolerable--certainly they paled next to the abilities of a man like Henry Crawford and others he knew in town--was more gratified than he would have cared to admit.
He heard a soft applause behind him and turned to see Miss Bennet standing at the doorway, smiling. Her smile was a mix of sweetness and gentility that sent a thrill through him every time he saw it. He bowed gallantly and, despite knowing his behavior entirely inappropriate to his station, said, "The lady's applause is the sweetest music."
She favored him with a broader smile. "'tis one of my favorite plays."
"Mine as well," Bingley said, "for all that I have been told my taste is abysmal for not preferring Hamlet and King Lear."
"For myself, I would always rather laugh than weep."
"As would I."
For a moment he had forgotten where he was, but Mrs. Hill's voice broke in sharply telling them all that they could go. Miss Bennet flinched, though no one who had not been watching her as closely as he had been would have seen it, and quit the room with no leave taking. He watched her go with unaccountable sadness. Mrs. Hill was scrutinizing him closely, he saw, but he paid her little mind.
Though he would have preferred to spend the rest of his Sunday asleep in his bed, there were other things to be cared for. He walked to Meryton to examine the place. The shops were all closed, of course, so he could not buy himself gloves, but he could look around and see what was there. He nodded politely to most that he passed, and spoke to many. The militia was coming to Meryton, and that was the subject most on the lips of the people. It had displaced much of the talk of Lord Ashbourne, though his arrival and tales of his eccentricities were still counted worthy of being mentioned. There was to be an Assembly also, but those he spoke to had little to say about that, and he managed to keep the wistfulness out of his voice as he asked where it would be held, and how many would attend.
Matty found him as he continued on his ramble, full of news.
"So, first you must know that Mary has gone, and you must know we knew she was going to do it, Tilly and me, and sure as we tried to talk her out of it, but she went and did it anyway, so I don't care one fig what happens to her now, for all that she's gone to London, and who knows where she'll end up now, except that she'll likely end up in the work house, or worse, though silly girl that she is, she thinks London will make her fortunes. She left this morning and went with Henry Peel who she knew was going to London, and who knows what he asked for in exchange for such a ride, if you catch my meaning. And if that's not bad enough, traveling on a Sunday. Well, see if I care one fig what happens to her now, except for I do hope she'll alright, and I do hope she don't end up in the work house, or worse. And now Longbourn will need a new scullery maid, and sure as Mrs. Hill will put her in with me and Tilly, and I hope she don't snore."
Bingley asked if Mary had any family, and Matty said, "Oh bless me yes, a mother and a father and brothers and sisters running all over the place. They never would let her keep her wages none and she couldn't save hardly anything at all for her dowry. I daresay she won't be missed at home, and her father will be glad to get rid of one of his daughters. There's seven girls in that family, if there's one, and you know too many girls about is never a good thing, if working at Longbourn teach you nothing else, it'll teach you that. The women in my family, we always take to bed with more boys than girls, as far back as I can remember, even my aunts too and I'm the only girl my mother was ever brought to bed with, excepting my sister, but she didn't live long on any account." She looked at him knowingly, but when Bingley didn't make a reply she continued, "Well. Sure as Mary is gone, Tilly is none so happy with Jeb, for all that he's sweet on her, and she knows it too, and she won't tell me why she's not sweet on him anymore, though I'm sure she was starting to like him, but she says I would just tell the whole world if she told me, which is not true because I can keep a secret, sure I can, just as sure as I kept Bess Finch's secret, about her and a certain man, more a boy really, for he ain't no more than seventeen, and I won't tell who it was or what they did, on account of I really can keep a secret.
"But, now, you don't need to know any of that, but you must know what I heard about you."
"Me?" Bingley asked.
"Yes, you, indeed, you. I heard Mrs. Hill talking to the missus about you, and about how you try to speak like quality, and try to act like quality and they was talking and I heard Mrs. Hill say that she thinks you might be--" She looked around and pulled him off the main road and into a narrow alley between two buildings. "--an actor."
Bingley's eyebrows rose. "An actor!"
"Yes, sure she said it plain as day, and she told the missus about your performance in the kitchen. And Mrs. Hill said that you just know these actors in London are always getting themselves into all sorts of scrapes and troubles, and like as you was trying to hide at Longbourn on account of you'd seduced some lord's wife and now he wanted to make you fight a duel. Mrs. Hill said actors are very debauched and shouldn't never be let into the house, especially not a house with five unmarried ladies."
Bingley bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing, though he knew he should be taking the news more seriously. "And what did Mrs. Bennet say to that?"
"Well, only that she had never heard nothing so ridiculous in her life, and that Mrs. Hill should spend more time at her duties and less thinking up silly stories about actors and duels. And then she called the master and made Mrs. Hill tell him the whole story, and the master said, 'Yes, young Charles does have a way about him, doesn't he? What little I have seen of him leads me to believe he doesn't know how intelligent and learned he is. Come now, Mrs. Hill, no more thinking up such takes as to frighten the ladies. I see a great deal of promise in the lad, and if he continues to impress me, I may speak to Mr. Ridgeway about him. That boy could be a steward someday, I believe, if we can find a way to round out his education.' Just imagine, you! A steward! Wouldn't that be something? With a desk and papers all piled up around you and telling the field hands what to do and directing the gardeners and all."
She was looking at him expectantly.
"Mr. Bennet is far too kind," Bingley said with a shake of his head.
"No, he ain't that's the thing of it. You could be a steward or maybe, oh, I don't know, but I know you could be something on account of how well you speak and how you can read and how you carry yourself and all. Sometimes, when I see you walking out of the corner of my eye, I mistake you for a gentleman."
Bingley leaned against one of the buildings and smiled politely, unable to think of anything but how completely he had botched things up already.
Matty seemed disappointed that he had nothing more to say and her conversation--if something so one-sided could be called such--soon returned to the dealings of others, most of whom he knew nothing about. They parted company on the edge of town, Matty to take a meal with her family before returning to Longbourn, and Bingley to continue rambling through Meryton. The tavern was one of the few things open, and he went in for a meal of soup and ale. He had to wait several minutes before he could get a table by the window. He sat eating and looking out of the window for some time, before returning to Longbourn.
A finely dressed woman bumped into him on the edge of Meryton.
"Do watch where you are going!" she said, catching his eye and nodding almost imperceptibly.
His heart raced in his chest and he didn't dare even nod back, but he held her eye for a long moment before bowing low and apologizing.
He could see Netherfield on the walk back to Longbourn. As he was alone on the road, he stopped and looked at it and said aloud, "Ashbourne, you could not have chosen a worse spy."
Posted on: 2010-02-25
His goal was to stay as unobtrusive as possible. It had been his goal all along, of course, but he attacked it with renewed vigor. Mrs. Hill watched him closely, but though she was among the few individuals in his life for whom he would admit, if only to himself, a marked dislike, she was not unfair to him. He was forced to admit, again to himself alone for he had no one else to talk to, that his tasks were not excessively arduous, nor Mrs. Hill particularly unkind.
Mr. Bennet too seemed overly interested in him, and engaged him in conversation often. Bingley avoided him when he could and said nothing of interest when he could not. He began to fear that no matter what Mr. Bennet had said to Mrs. Hill and his wife, his curiosity had been further peaked by Mrs. Hill's clever, if incorrect, accusations.
Fortunately, beyond Mr. Bennet no one in the family paid him much mind. The two younger girls were much as Matty had warned him, and seemed to enjoy ordering him about. Miss Lydia especially seemed to always have something for him to do, usually something that seemed pointless such as straightening a curtain that appeared to be hanging perfectly well, and watched him with a small smile that he found disturbing. Miss Kitty was less blatant in her admiration, but the giggles when he left a room were mortifying. He knew Mrs. Bennet was aware of her daughters' behavior, had seen Mr. Bennet roll his eyes at it, and wondered at their neither of them checking the girls.
Miss Mary said almost nothing to him which suited him perfectly well. She seemed to move about the house unnoticed by all until she forced her presence upon the room with her didactic pronouncements. These were most often met by almost contemptuous silence and occasionally outright scorn from Miss Lydia. He pitied her, to a point, but mostly wondered that she had not yet figured out that her behavior was earning her no friends, and neither was it doing anything to influence the morals of her family, which seemed her ultimate goal.
The eldest two he could not help watching with admiration. He admired their manners as much as their persons and wondered at their being so different from their sisters.
After a few days it seemed that Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Hill had begun to tire of watching him. The weight of their eyes upon him was lifted and he began to feel as though he could breathe again. He soon felt comfortable enough to begin asking questions.
"Does the family entertain much? Are there many families of their acquaintance?" he asked as they prepared the table for a dinner party that evening.
"Oh bless me, yes," Matty said. "There's the Longs and the Sir William and Lady Lucas and Charlotte Lucas. Poor Miss Lucas is a plain thing, and I hear tell her dowry is only 500 pounds. She's near seven and twenty if she's a day, and I daresay she'll never get married now. Her poor sister ain't been allowed out yet, on account of Miss Lucas ain't married, but they'll have to let her out soon enough. It ain't fair to keep the poor girl waiting on account of her sister is too plain to catch a husband. All the Miss Bennets are out, you know, which I hear tell is not usual, but the youngest just wouldn't let their poor Papa alone after Miss Lydia turned fifteen, and after a week he couldn't take it anymore, and let them attend an assembly, which was tellin' the world that they was out. Miss Mary never did come out formal-like, only Miss Lydia and Miss Kitty was out, so the missus said that Miss Mary had to be out as well, on account of the younger girls couldn't be out before the older, so she made her start attending dinners and all, and then they was all out.
"But what was I talking about? Oh! Well, and there's Mr. and Mrs. Phillips. Mrs. Phillips is the sister of the missus. You've seen her I'm sure, she's always over here gossiping all the live long day. She's a terrible gossip, for all that I of all people shouldn't say nothing about that." She rattled off several more families that Bingley had no interest in before saying, "Oh, and Mr. Gallagher comes over sometimes. He's about five and forty, and has, oh, maybe eight or nine hundred a year. Mrs. Bennet was hoping to get him for Miss Elizabeth, on account of one time they sat in the corner and had a very long conversation about something or other, but he never showed no interest after that, and I daresay Miss Elizabeth wouldn't have him on any account. He is very old, and nine hundred a year isn't enough for her to take a man who's near the grave. He has a niece, but not many has seen her on account of she's very sickly."
"Is she?" Bingley asked with forced nonchalance.
"Aye. She came to live with him, oh, about five months back, I suppose. Very strange business. She came down by coach and four. Jeb, he saw the carriage, and said it looked like someone had covered over the livery, and didn't want anyone to know who had sent it. And it was late too, after dark certainly. I think it was after midnight. Jeb, he only seen it on account of he couldn't sleep that night and was out taking a walk. She was taken up into the house real late and all and hardly anyone even saw her, but they knew someone was in there, because she has a maid, I mean a real lady's maid, who is about sometimes, and goes into Meryton on occasion. Mr. Gallagher said she, his niece, I mean, was sickly and couldn't be out in the air. So, we all assumed that she had sprained her ankle and soon enough the servants would hear screamin' and yellin' and then a babe wailin', which is how it often happens in those cases, but a few of the servants has seen her once or twice, though not often, on account of she's never out of her room, and they said she don't look like she's carrying a babe, and after five months it's likely you'd know it to look at her. So I suppose she really is sickly, and hasn't sprained her ankle at all."
"Have you ever seen her?"
"No, never. Miss Cunningham is her name, Miss Isabella Cunningham. I hear tell she's pale, and thin, poor thing, but pretty despite it all. Mary Collins, that's the upstairs maid at Mr. Gallagher's house, she saw her once when the door to her room was open, and said she's near as pretty as our Miss Bennet, but I don't believe that. Mr. Gallagher don't speak of her much, except when people ask after her, which they usually do, because it's polite, but he has nothing to say except that she's still as sickly as ever."
They were interrupted here by Miss Kitty who came to say, blushingly, and with several backwards glances at Miss Lydia which made it clear who was instigating her, that 'her fan had somehow ended up behind the cabinet and since his arms were so much longer than hers, did he think that he could reach behind there and get it.' He heard Matty choke on a laugh and had resigned himself to the task and all the mortification contained therein before he was saved by Miss Elizabeth who said that 'Charles had work to do and was not being paid to be their personal attendant and moreover that the cabinet was all of twelve inches deep and if Kitty could not reach her fan then she must have very short arms indeed.'
The two younger girls scurried away. Bingley gave Miss Elizabeth a look by which he hoped to convey his gratitude, but she had turned away.
That night, he found he was on watch duty.
"It was the missus who did it," Jeb said, his animosity toward Bingley temporarily forgotten in the camaraderie that came of complaining about one's employers. "There was a theft at Lucas Lodge. Two little ones, couldn't have been more than ten or eleven, stole some silver. Didn't get far, and they was caught within the day, and nearly got themselves hung for their trouble, but for their sentence was commuted, and they were transported instead. The whole matter sent the missus into a fright about burglars and thieves, and the master finally said that one of us men would have to stay up at night, and watch the house. Truth is, none of us do much watching, and the master knows it, but it looks good for the missus that we're by the door at night. You can sleep if you're able, so long as you do it with your arse right there," Jeb said, pointing to a wooden chair by the main entrance to the house. "It's not so bad. When you get watch, you can go to bed at six, and you get the whole rest of the day off to sleep, or do whatever you like." He wished him a good night before heading out.
He was not able to sleep no matter how many ways he shifted and how many positions he tried. He decided he might as well actually walk the house as he was supposed to be doing. The house was shut up for the night, entirely silent, eerie and calm at once. It was very dark, but he did not bother to light a taper and made his way by feel and an already surprisingly good knowledge of the house. Outside there was a sliver of a moon hanging in the clear sky. He stood at one of the windows and looked at it for a while before continuing on through the house. A little past midnight he thought he heard a noise in the kitchen. Walking in, he heard it again, a loud knock at the door, and he opened the door to a young boy, perhaps twelve or thirteen.
"I'm here for Matilda," the boy said without preamble.
"Matty or Tilly?" Bingley asked.
"Matilda," the boy said with more emphasis.
"Matty or Tilly?" Bingley repeated.
Bingley closed his eyes and thought he would have liked to restart the conversation, but if such things were possible he would have liked to restart his month so that when Ashbourne had approached him and said with quiet intensity, "Bingley, I must speak with you," Bingley would have responded, "Terribly sorry my friend, but I've plans for the theater tonight, and then I am for Weymouth these next few months, but perhaps we can converse when I return."
Sadly, such things were not possible.
"We've two maids," Bingley said, "and both are named Matilda. One goes by Matty and the other by Tilly."
"Look, all I knows is I was sent to fetch Matilda who works as a maid for Mr. Bennet on account of her father took a fall and busted up his insides and won't last the night according to the surgeon."
"Sent from where?"
"Westbridge Estate," the boy said. "He works the fields there."
Matty's father worked as a day laborer and their house was owned by the Netherfield estate, Bingley knew, so it must have been Tilly he needed.
He found a taper, lit it, and took the servant's staircase to the attic. He knocked softly on the first door he came to. Rose came to the door and stared at him. She said, jarringly loud in the silence of the night, "What are you doing up here?"
"Looking for Tilly," Bingley said.
"What? Eh, now, it ain't like that here. Mrs. Hill will have your head she finds out about this."
"Her father is dying," Bingley said. "She needs to go home."
Rose said nothing to that, but her mouth formed a perfect 'o' and she pointed to the door across from hers. Matty came to the door when he knocked and he quickly stated his purpose of taking Tilly down to see an important visitor, to forestall any further misunderstandings. Tilly came out in only her chemise, with a shawl wrapped around her, but dressed quickly when he told her she would need to go home that night. They were half way down the stairs when he stopped her and told her the whole of the news, not trusting the boy at the door to deliver it with anything like tact or compassion.
Her eyes filled with tears, but she lifted her chin and followed him down to the boy who would take her to see her father, and he could only pray she would make it back in time to see him alive. The night was very cold and she had but her shawl to keep her warm. He went to his room to fetch the battered coat he had been wearing when he had come to Longbourn. It was a poor coat, and she looked if anything even more pitiable wearing it as she set off for home. He wanted to put her in something warmer, but he doubted very much that she would have been able to get warm that night, even if he had wrapped her in furs.
He used his day of freedom to go into Meryton and buy himself gloves. The militia came into Meryton with great fanfare, and he stood and watched them for a spell before a thought occurred to him and he returned to the shops for an additional item. As he made his way out of the village, the sea of red coats seemed to blend together into one shifting mass. He saw Miss Kitty and Miss Lydia watching with several other young ladies and giggling more loudly and uncontrolledly than any of the others.
It was after two when he returned to Longbourn. Though he was entitled to have the rest of the day off, when he saw Matty struggling to carry the load of two maids, he forwent his freedom and aided her as best he could. If he had not already earned her friendship, he suspected that that simple act of kindness would have secured it forever.
He found himself in a very odd mood that night. He met Matty's eyes over the supper table and saw a similar desire to be gone from the house. They slipped out of Longbourn after they were sure they were free for the night and sat in silence on the ground, far enough away from the house that it was unlikely anyone would notice them. It was cold, and they were just close enough to feel the heat from one another. She sat with her knees pulled up to her chest, he with his legs stretched out in front of him.
"We was going to take up a collection for Tilly," Matty said. "They'll have to leave their house now, and her sister will have to find work. She's near ten, so old enough, but ain't no one wants to hire a maid that young. Tilly wouldn't never let Phoebe go anywhere she couldn't keep an eye on her, and there ain't no work for a ten year old girl in Meryton but being a maid."
"Has she no one else? No other family?"
Matty shook her head. "Well, if she weren't sweet on Jeb before, sure and she'll look at him kindly now. He'd marry her, he would, if she would only look at him twice, for all that he's in no place to do such a thing, being only a groom. That's no income to support a family. How old are you?"
"Two and twenty," Bingley said.
"Wonder you ain't married yet."
Bingley didn't reply and Matty sighed. They sat in silence for a while longer, both of them locked in their own thoughts. Bingley had never handled solitude well, and he was glad of Matty's presence, even if they had little to say. The wind picked up and they could neither of them stand the chill anymore. Matty tripped on the uneven ground as they went back inside. He caught her by the elbow and helped her right herself. She flushed at his touch and touched his arm when she thanked him. Everything in him cried out to offer her his arm on the rest of the journey, but he resisted the urge. It seemed wiser to refrain.
"She's too young," Mrs. Hill said.
"She's near twelve, ma'am," Tilly said.
"She's no more than ten, don't lie to me child."
"Please, ma'am, she's big for her age and she's a hard worker. She knows her place and she'll do her work. She won't never talk back."
"The missus won't hire any girl under twelve and you know it."
"But if you could talk to her--" Mrs. Hill shook her head and Tilly pressed her hand to her mouth. "Please, ma'am, there ain't no other work for her excepting maybe Mrs. Turner, but she'd be the girl of all works there, and you know how she treats those poor souls who come into her house."
"I am very sorry," Mrs. Hill said softly, "but the missus would never agree and I'll not vex her by asking."
Bingley watched as Mrs. Hill left the kitchen and Tilly broke down crying in earnest. Matty wrapped her arms around her and said, "Oh, don't cry now. Sure and she'll find work somewhere and if it is with nasty old Mrs. Turner, well, it won't be so bad. She'll never stay more than a year there, no one ever does, and then sure she can find work in some other house."
Everyone jumped when Miss Bennet came into the kitchen, and Tilly wiped at her face and scurried away to her duties. Matty was quick on her heels after a polite curtsy to Miss Bennet. Miss Bennet had only a few words for the cook before she left and Bingley, without a thought, followed her out.
"Charles, do tell Tilly I was very sorry to hear of her father's passing."
"Miss Bennet, may I be so bold as to suggest that you might offer her more than condolences?" She stopped and looked at him earnestly which he took as permission to continue. "Tilly had hoped to have her sister hired as scullery maid here, but Mrs. Hill believes your mother would object because her sister is not yet ten."
"Nine is rather young. I should be sorry to see a girl of that age in the scullery."
"'tis less than ideal, but better than the alternative," Bingley said.
"Then I will talk to mama," Miss Bennet said, and left him.
He was later upstairs assisting Mr. Bennet into his coat as the family prepared to leave for a dinner. "I can do it perfectly well," the gentleman had protested, when Bingley had presented himself at his door after Mrs. Bennet had ordered him upstairs. "I am not so feeble-bodied as my wife seems to think." His attempt to prove it by casually tossing on his coat in one swift motion had caused him to grab his shoulder in pain and say with a wry smile, "Well, 'tis only a slight rheumatism."
As he left, he heard Miss Bennet talking to Mrs. Bennet. "Mama, do you not think Tilly's sister Phoebe would do well in the scullery?"
"Jane, what are you talking of? Do you not know that Lord Ashbourne will be at the Lucas Lodge? The blue ribbons, the blue indeed it must be, to bring out her eyes," she instructed whichever maid was doing Miss Bennet's hair, likely Matty since he did not think Miss Bennet so impolite as to discuss Tilly's concerns in front of her. "Now Jane, do remember to smile. You have such a lovely smile. Lady Lucas is far too artful for me to trust to your being able to gain a seat by his lordship. No doubt he will be seated by Charlotte Lucas. Well! So much the better, for you cannot but sparkle beside her, my lovely Jane."
"I shall be sure to do my best," Miss Bennet said. "I only thought perhaps you did not know that Tilly's sister was in need of a place, and we have yet to find a scullery maid."
"Yes, the last one did leave us high and dry, didn't she? Off to London! Well. I hope she is rotting in the work house."
"You did not mean that, I know, and it cannot be true in any case. The poor girl must have met with kindness somewhere. Should I speak to Mrs. Hill? I am sure she would be happy to give her a chance, if she knew you approved."
"Yes, fine, do whatever you like, only smile my dear Jane, smile. Show Lord Ashbourne those lovely straight teeth of yours."
"Yes, mama," she said and, hearing the step of Mrs. Bennet, Bingley darted downstairs before he could be caught eavesdropping at the door.
He saw Miss Bennet as the family was leaving for dinner. She was indeed breathtaking in her yellow evening gown with a dark blue ribbon at her waist and matching ribbons in her hair. She was standing at the door speaking to Miss Elizabeth, but when that young lady ran upstairs to fetch her forgotten fan, he took the opportunity of approaching her, and thanking her for speaking to her mother.
"It was nothing, I assure you. I have already spoken to Mrs. Hill. Do tell Tilly that her sister must take care, for I fear Mama will not be forgiving of poor work, especially if she were to learn her age."
Bingley assured her he would.
She said, "Charles, I--I think it very kind of you to have approached me on behalf of that girl, not even your own sister."
"It was nothing," he said.
"It was. I cannot think of any person, I should say, a servant in this house ever approaching me so readily." He nearly winced at the way she said 'servant', but he thought he caught something in her eyes then, and for a moment fancied that it might have been admiration. He put that thought away with all haste.
Instead, he bowed and thanked her and said, "We none of us make our way in the world alone."
"Indeed we do not. To give help, where help can be given, is a very fine thing."
"It is," he agreed. Matty had done a fine job on her hair. She was not dressed in the latest fashions of the beau monde and he feared Caroline would have been very severe indeed on the dress of her hair. Yet he thought her the loveliest woman he had ever set eyes on.
It was perhaps fortunate that Miss Elizabeth returned then, and soon after the rest of the family prepared to go. He went outside to help the family into the carriage, all six of the young ladies inside--a very tight fit indeed!--and Mr. Bennet on the box. His fingers brushed Miss Bennet's wrist as he helped her ascend into the carriage and he felt the phantom sensation on his fingers for many minutes after they had pulled away.
"I was vastly disappointed," Miss Lydia said. "His teeth are very crooked. And all those pockmarks."
"My dear you are too harsh. I think the marks of the smallpox lend his face a certain distinction," Mrs. Bennet said. "I found him very agreeable, and very astute."
"Astute, do you call it my dear? I thought him rather dull. He only stated what was plainly in front of his face," Mr. Bennet said.
"Yes, but he did state it," Mrs. Bennet said. "'The Bennet girls--'"
"--'are very pretty,'" Mr. Bennet finished. "We have heard you quote his words many times."
"At least six times in the carriage ride home," Miss Lydia said.
"It is a shame to be sure that he did not single one of them out particularly. That would have been very good indeed. However, I am satisfied."
"I am sure you are," Mr. Bennet said wryly.
"He said no such thing about any of the other young ladies present."
"I am glad you are satisfied, mama, but the rest of the neighborhood I fear did not come away with such good opinions," Miss Elizabeth said.
"Well, they may think what they like," Mrs. Bennet said. "I am pleased with him. Vastly pleased. I cannot see why the rest of the neighborhood should hold his praise of you girls against him. As your father says, he only spoke the truth."
"It is not his praise of us that the neighborhood will hold against him, but his censure of everything else. Coupled, of course, with his lack of polite manners. He spoke hardly at all, except when asked a direct question. He called Netherfield a 'tolerable little shooting box', said Meryton was 'quaint, but rather dull' and declared that the entire area seemed 'lacking in polite society' right in front of the polite society! Indeed, mama, you must own that the only reason he uttered his now-famous complement--and for my own part I cannot think it a complement since it was clearly given most reluctantly--was that Sir William asked him if there was anything that he did approve of and the entire table was staring at him for an answer. I trust, Papa, that he has now given you something to ridicule?"
Mr. Bennet only chuckled.
Bingley blushed for his friend. Ashbourne's manners declined as his discomfort rose, and to have found himself in so much company, in mixed company, with not a single person he knew by his side, he must have been very uncomfortable. It hardly excused such behavior, but Bingley at that moment felt more for Ashbourne than he did for those he had offended.
"I think that we ought not to think any more of the complement than is necessary. It smacks of vanity."
"Oh do be quiet, Mary! You only say such things because you know he was not including you in his comment, plain little thing that you are."
There was a slight pause, then he heard Miss Lydia mutter, "I am sorry Mary," with nothing of sincerity in her voice.
"For my part, I think perhaps he is...well, I do not know what I would call him exactly, but I do believe he did not mean to give quite so much offense," Miss Bennet said. "I spoke to him after dinner and he seemed vastly uncomfortable. I think he realized he had not presented himself very well."
Bingley smiled. She, of course, would understand him.
"Well, perhaps his brother will do a better job of pleasing his neighbors."
"Brother?" Mrs. Bennet asked.
"Yes, a certain Colonel Fitzwilliam will be joining him shortly and it seems it will be for some time too. He told me so himself last night."
"A colonel!" Kitty exclaimed. "Oh, how delightful!"
"Indeed, my dear, and you can be sure that the man has no thoughts on entering the neighborhood but to take for himself a very silly wife who is sure to faint at the first sight of his red coat."
Bingley bit his lip, wondering what Ashbourne planned to do about his brother and why Colonel Fitzwilliam would choose now to renew his relationship with his brother when, to the best of Bingley's knowledge, the two men had had a strained relationship for several years at least.
Bingley found Jeb in the stables, carefully brushing Ruby, his favorite of Mr. Bennet's horses. John, one of the stable boys, nodded to him in greeting and Bingley nodded back. He called Jeb's name and was greeted with a rude grunt. It seemed that his animosity towards Bingley had returned full-force, and Bingley was sure he could date it from last night, when Tilly, who had somehow found out about his advocacy for her sister, had hugged him in front of half the servants, including Jeb. She had at least been wise enough to keep it from Mrs. Hill, who was already upset about Phoebe's hiring but for now thought that Miss Bennet had caught wind of it from someone outside the Bennet household.
"I have something for you," Bingley said.
Jeb turned and brushed his hair out of his eyes. He fashioned it in a queue, but some of the shorter pieces in the front always fell into his eyes. "What's that?"
Bingley held out the package he had gotten in Meryton, a small bundle wrapped in brown paper.
Jeb opened it with no enthusiasm, as if he expected it to contain a three week old dead fish. He gave Bingley a very queer look when he finally saw what it contained.
"What's this then?"
"They're ribbons," Bingley said.
"Ribbons? The devil do I need ribbons for?"
"They are black ribbons," Bingley said. "For mourning."
"Ain't no one in my family died and I wouldn't wear ribbons if they had."
"They're for Tilly you ninny!" John said and tossed a fork-full horse manure into the pile by the door. Bingley stepped back just in time.
"Oh," Jeb said. "Well give them to her then."
Bingley managed to refrain from rolling his eyes, but only just. "I thought she might appreciate them more coming from you."
Jeb looked at the ribbons and then at Bingley. "She was sweet on me before you came. We used to talk sometimes, but now all she talks about is what nice manners you has and how good you talk and how fine you look when you eat and how nice your clothes are."
"Mr. Bennet gave me these clothes." And they were dreadful.
"That's what I told her! But she went on about how it wasn't the clothes, it was how you wear 'em and how much care you take to look so good. Did you really ask the cook if you could take an old bowl, and fill it every night with water, just so you can have a wash in the morning?" He looked at the ribbons, sighed, and handed them back to Bingley. "You give 'em to her. Just...be good to her. You and me will have a brush if you ain't."
"I do not want her," Bingley said.
Jeb narrowed his eyes. "Why not? She's a nice girl."
"She is a perfectly sweet girl, but I assure you I have no feelings beyond the most basic friendship for Tilly."
"You bought her them ribbons."
"That was nothing."
"Them's silk! Must be half a guinea there." Bingley bit back a sigh. He'd forgotten himself again. After a moment, Jeb said, "You really don't want her?"
Jeb shifted from one to the other. John rolled his eyes and muttered something about how muslin always made men stupid. "Could you maybe show me how to dress...I mean how to..."
"Oh," Bingley said, catching his meaning. "Well, I'm hardly...perhaps the queue. They're going out of fashion, you know, among the younger men. And if you shaved a bit closer. Have you ever heard of Brummel?"
Jeb frowned. "He the queer fellow that takes a bath every day?"
"Ah, they're both chicken breasted anyhow," George was saying, as Bingley left the stables after imparting as much of his knowledge of fashion and manners as he felt he could dare, under the circumstances. Bingley had already learned to avoid George, who was exceptionally vulgar, and a brawler. George was one of the men who worked the fields, but this late in the year he spent much of his day talking with his brother, who was the Bennet's coachman. "Rose has a figure to speak of, but she's a spotted thing. You can't see her face for the pimples. Now, the ladies of the house, there's nothing you can say against them. They say Miss Bennet is the handsomest but Miss Lydia is a prime article if ever I saw one. I wouldn't say no to a chance at her water mill," he said with a laugh. "They say she's like to be a bird of paradise."
Bingley stiffened. He knew he should have walked on, but he could not. "That is the daughter of your master."
"What? Like you ain't aching to occupy one of 'em."
"George, do lay off," Will said. Will, Bingley knew, was accustomed to attempting to restrain his brother, though not often with much success. Jeb, who had followed Bingley out of the stables, looked annoyed.
"Don't get your bawbles twisted, we're having fun is all. There now, there's Miss Elizabeth," he said, nodding to the young lady as she strolled in the garden. He laid a meaty hand on Bingley's shoulder. "You tell me you don't want to mount her."
Bingley removed the hand from his shoulder. "No."
"No!" He grinned. "I heard about your performance in the kitchen. Is it Miss Bennet's notch you've been thinking--"
Bingley punched him. George struck back with a blow to the gut, but Bingley jumped back. The punch connected, but not with full force. George was more massive, but shorter than Bingley. Bingley was faster, and moreover he had spent--misspent, according to his uncle--a good part of his youth in the boxing ring. Admittedly, fighting other gentlemen for sport was not quite the same as fighting a man who followed no rules of the ring and had fought to survive since childhood, but it did give him some small chance.
They traded a fast flurry of blows and then George kicked his legs out from under him, sending Bingley to the ground. He came up fast, shoved George into the side of the stables, one hand bunched up in his shirt, and landed a blow to the side of his face. George punched him in the ribs, knocking some of the wind out of Bingley's attack and kicked his legs out again, but this time Bingley managed to catch one of George's legs and pull him down with him.
Bingley was on him before George could recover from the fall and had both hands fisted in his shirt. George boxed his ears.
"Enough!" Mr. Ridgeway shouted.
Bingley, dazed from the final blow, managed to get off of George and sat on the ground, breathing heavily, red-faced, and shaking.
"What's this about, then?"
"Just a bit o' muslin is all," Will said calmly.
Mr. Ridgeway looked at the two of them. George had regained his feet and did not look fazed by what had occurred. Bingley struggled to his own, still trembling. His ears were ringing.
"Is that all it is?"
George nodded and Bingley reluctantly did the same.
"You want to knock each others brains out, you do it on your own time. Get back to work." He glanced at John who had rushed out to watch the fight. "You too, or I'll see you birched!" The boy scrambled back to his duties.
George and Will left without a word. Jeb put a hand on Bingley's shoulder, but Bingley shook him off. He pressed a hand to his face and felt that his jaw was hot. He licked his lips and tasted blood. His knuckles hurt.
"I will be," Bingley said. He managed a wry smile and Jeb, with a doubtful glance, returned to his own duties.
He found his way to a watering trough and plunged his hands in. The water was terribly cold, but he was over-heated and it felt good as he rubbed his face and the back of his neck.
For once, the pleasant voice was not music to his ears.
"Miss Bennet," he said, mortified by his behavior and unable to look at her.
"Nothing of consequence." He dared to raise his eyes and saw that her eyes were kind and there was no censure in them. Surely she could guess what he had been about.
She handed him her handkerchief, embroidered with her own initials woven with roses and leaves. "This is very well done," he said, hardly aware that he was speaking at all. "I should not be surprised that you are accomplished. All young ladies are accomplished." He fingered the embroidery. "I only meant...thank you." He shook his head. Clearly, George's punches had rattled his brains. He could hardly string together a coherent sentence.
Miss Bennet smiled. "It is for your face."
"You are bleeding."
"I am," Bingley said and pressed the handkerchief to his split lip. "You should not be here."
He could not read her expression, but he thought he caught a flinch in her eyes. "I should not."
"The mud will dirty your muslin, I mean," he said, pointing to the ground around the trough.
She glanced down and almost laughed. "Yes, it will," she said and stepped back to where the ground was drier. She looked terribly self-conscious and glanced around. There was no one paying them any mind. The trough was largely hidden from view. "Good day," she said and dipped into a curtsy seemingly without even thinking.
Bingley's eyes widened and Miss Bennet blushed terribly. She rushed away without another word.
"Mr. Bennet is sending a present of game to Mr. Gallagher. You're to carry the pheasants over to Gallagher Cottage, with Mr. Bennet's complements," Mrs. Hill said the next morning.
Bingley, who had spent the last week trying to think of a way to arrange things so that he could visit Gallagher Cottage without suspicion, nearly had to pinch himself to keep himself from getting too excited. He took the pheasants from the gamekeeper and set out at a brisk pace, but as he neared the cottage, nervousness, and fears of botching things beyond repair, set in. His palms were sweating when he knocked on the kitchen door. The kitchen maid, for there was only one in this house, answered and had him set the pheasants on the large work table.
Before he had time to contemplate how he was going to stay in the house for more than a few moments, the same woman who had bumped into him on the road entered the kitchen, and exclaimed, "Well, I'll be, Charles Bingley, that is you! As if I could ever forget that hair. I haven't seen you since you were a little thing tugging at your mother's apron."
He froze and the woman came up and hugged him tightly. It took him a moment to recover before it occurred to him to hug her back. "You don't remember me, I'm sure."
"Nell," Bingley said, finally recovering himself enough to speak.
"Oh, you do remember me! So, all grown you are and working at the Bennet place. Well, you're a long way from home, but then so am I and that is life sometimes. Come along then. Miss Cunningham is asleep and I've nothing to do but mending, and very little of that. I'll walk along with you, back to Longbourn."
No one seemed to give them a second look as they left, and by the time they'd walked away from the house, Bingley could breathe again.
"So," Nell said, "you are the one he sent. Well, you're easy enough to recognize, at least." She gave a pointed glance to his windblown red hair.
"How is she?" Bingley asked after glancing around to make sure they were alone in what he hoped was a not too-suspicious manner.
"Not well," Nell said, sadly. "Aye, and it makes me so angry to hear how he talks of his poor sickly niece, confined to her room with only her maid to attend her. As if I'm allowed in there for more than ten minutes at a time. She was well enough when he confined her, but she has been five months in there and oh but that is taking a toll on her. She has her books. I suppose he knows that she'd go mad as a hatter if he took those away, and he doesn't want that, at least not until the vows are said, then she could skip her way to Bedlam for all he'd care."
Bingley thought to himself that if he were locked up in a room for five months with no company, he'd go mad as a hatter regardless of how many books he had.
"Does he beat her?"
"Not that I've seen. Likely he knows it would not do him any good, and would only tire his arm. She has got a will of iron, that one. You tell Ashbourne he has nothing to worry about from her, she is holding firm, and will not give in, not even if she stays locked up for the rest of her life. Not that she will, mind. We'll get her out."
"We will," Bingley said, with confidence he didn't feel. "Can you give her a message?"
"Maybe," she said. "I'm never allowed to be alone with her, not since he caught her trying to escape his house. I nearly lost my place after it, but the marquess let me keep it in the end, because he did not know for certain that I had been party to the goings on, and I suppose he was not of a mind to take on someone else, being made so very cautious by the incident."
"Does he know her lover?"
"She never has given him up. All his letters, burned as soon as she read them, and now she cannot receive any letters at all." She shook her head. "Mr. Gallagher suspects every gentleman who comes within ten miles of her, in any case. He's spent the last week talking about Lord Ashbourne. What's he thinking, coming here like that?"
"He is in love," Bingley said.
Nell laughed. "Aye, and that will make fools of us all, won't it? What happened to your face, by the by?"
Love will make fools of us all.
"Nothing that affects Miss Cunningham," Bingley said quickly. They were near to Longbourn and their conversation could not last. "If you can, give her the message that she is not forgotten."
Nell said she would, and they parted company.
Ashbourne came to call the next day, much to Mrs. Bennet's delight. She was happy to allude to his earlier comment several times, and presented him with all five of her daughters at once. Ashbourne appeared as unnerved as Bingley had ever seen him. His expression appeared to Bingley's knowing eyes to plea for mercy, though to someone who did not know the man, he would have looked only vaguely disapproving. Bingley wondered anew that Ashbourne had managed to not only fall in love with a woman, but had inspired her devotion in return.
Though Mrs. Hill had declared he ought not to be seen by guests until his face healed, he managed to contrive to take over the duties of serving, and thus to stay in the room for the duration of Ashbourne's fifteen minute visit. He had to keep his tongue firmly between his teeth to avoid falling into his usual habit of covering over all of Ashbourne's social deficiencies with his own conversation.
"I understand you are not entirely pleased with Netherfield," Miss Elizabeth said.
Bingley tried not to cringe and hoped that Miss Elizabeth would not be too hard on him. She was wonderfully quick, and Ashbourne would never be able to match wits with her.
"It is nothing to Kentridge is all," Ashbourne said.
"Kentridge is your father's estate," Mrs. Bennet said and Ashbourne remained silent until she prompted him further. "Is it not?"
"One of them, yes. It is his seat. There is also Combe Park and Yardley Hall. We have also Evesham Manor, but that is a tiny estate and hardly worth thinking of." Ashbourne spoke without once looking at any of the people in the room.
Bingley shifted from foot to foot, wishing he could sit. He had been tired of late. He wondered how anyone was expected to go day after day on no more than six hours of sleep. The brawl seemed to have sapped his last reserves of energy. He fought back a yawn.
"So many?" Miss Lydia said. "Why do you need them all?"
"Oh, Lydia, what a silly question!"
Ashbourne smiled at the picture on the far wall. "I have wondered the same thing myself, more than once."
"And you also have Fitzwilliam House, in London. It is on St. James Square, I understand," Mrs. Bennet said.
Ashbourne only nodded.
"And with all that, you still took Netherfield. One does wonder why," Miss Elizabeth said.
"I wished to be out of London and I had never been to Hertfordshire," Ashbourne said quietly. "That was all."
The rest of the visit passed in much the same manner and Bingley thought Ashbourne did rather well for being in a room with six women, and without his usual support of a friend who understood his eccentricities. (The man never did make social calls alone.) He managed to contrive to be the one to assist Ashbourne as he returned to his horse and they stole a few minutes conversation.
"That was dreadful. They all hate me."
"Have you heard about the dinner party? I offended everyone. I hate when people ask me what I think. I always tell them the truth and I always get into trouble for it. I need a drink."
Bingley shook his head, but didn't dare put his hand on Ashbourne's shoulder in case anyone was watching. "Did you bring your collections with you?" Ashbourne preferred his collections to most people, and spent much of his time adding to them, labeling them, and coming up with new ways to sort them.
"Only the beetles."
"Go home, take a stiff drink, and sort your beetles. That will calm you."
Ashbourne ran his hands through his hair. "Yes. You are right. My brother will come tomorrow."
"I wondered when I heard that."
"Did you hear it then? I told Mr. Bennet hoping the news would make its way to you. I've no idea what he wants. His letter was short and very vague. We've not spoken in months, not since we were forced together at Pemberley."
"It will be fine."
"It may be fine. It may ruin everything."
"Do not think on that overmuch. Go home and calm yourself."
Ashbourne took a breath and appeared to relax slightly. "Thank you, my friend." He glanced at the house. "We need to find time to talk. Can you come to Netherfield under cover of darkness?. Tonight?"
"Not tonight, George has watch of the house and I fear we are not friends at the moment." He touched his sore jaw. "Jeb has watch tomorrow night, and he will say nothing if I leave."
"Tomorrow then, at midnight. My brother takes to bed early when he can. I will meet you at the front entrance. I walk the house frequently at night, and sometimes the grounds. No one will think anything of it if they see me up late at night," Ashbourne said. He made for his horse.
Bingley cleared his throat and held out his hand. Ashbourne looked at it quizzically.
"Vails are standard for services."
Ashbourne looked exasperated and dropped several coins into Bingley's hand before Bingley helped him onto his horse. He went into the house with the coins in his pocket and dropped them into the collection for Tilly before supper that night.
Bingley had no trouble stealing from the house the next night. Jeb, who was under the impression that Bingley was meeting a friend of the fairer sex, only made a show of saluting him as he left the house. He walked quickly through the cold night air, nervousness and a desire to be out of the chill driving his step. He scaled the steps to Netherfield and waited outside the door. When the door opened slightly, he slipped inside.
The next thing he knew, he was shoved roughly, face-first, against the wall. Something cold and metal was pressed into his skull just behind his left ear and a voice hissed in his ear, "Qui êtes-vous? Est-ce que vous êtes un espion français?"
Posted on: 2010-03-02
"Je ne parle pas français."
He was spun roughly around and pushed into the door, an arm pressed against his throat. The muzzle of the gun was against his chest.
"Colonel Fitzwilliam," Bingley said. He paused and then, because manners were the only thing he could think to fall back on in this situation, he added. "How do you do, sir?"
"Richard, what are you doing to my friend?"
Fitzwilliam reluctantly lowered the pistol and un-cocked the hammer. "Would you care to tell me--"
"Into the sitting room," Ashbourne said. "Quickly, before a servant sees us."
They seated themselves into a small downstairs sitting room, and for some minutes sat in silence. There was still a fire burning and, along with the moon outside, they could see with little difficulty. Ashbourne rose and poured each of them a drink before serving himself.
"Now," Fitzwilliam said. "Why is Mr. Bingley scurrying about outside of your house in the middle of the night dressed like that?" He turned to Bingley. "It was my understanding that you were for Scarborough."
Bingley only shook his head and took a long drink of brandy to calm his shaken nerves.
"This does not concern you, brother," Ashbourne said. An edge that Bingley could not recall ever hearing before had slipped into his voice.
"I disagree," Fitzwilliam said. His voice was calmer than Ashbourne's but somehow more unnerving.
Bingley cleared his throat. "Ashbourne, surely it cannot hurt to tell Colonel Fitzwilliam. He of all people would not betray you. In any case, if he is to be staying with you, he must know."
Ashbourne narrowed his eyes at his brother, but nodded in reluctant agreement.
Fitzwilliam drummed his fingers on the arm of his wing chair. They'd all pulled close to the fire. Bingley had almost forgotten how comforting a warm fire and a glass of brandy could be. There was no fire in his room at Longbourn and he closed his eyes as this fire chased away some of the chill that had invaded his entire body of late.
At length, Ashbourne said, "It is a very long story. I confess I've no idea where to start." He tossed back his brandy in three large gulps and rubbed the back of his neck. He cast another glance at his brother and seemed very reluctant to begin. Finally, though, he commenced. "I suppose I should begin with Orville."
"The pug?" Fitzwilliam asked.
"Yes, the pug. Have you never wondered why I took in one of those little beasts when as a rule I cannot stand them?" He did not wait for an answer. "Two years ago I was in London during the summer. 'tis a situation which sane men avoid as best they can, but my father would send me to care of his business. I had only just exited the chair and was preparing to enter Fitzwilliam House when a little pug came up and began barking at my feet. I was of half a mind to kick the thing away and go inside, but I could not bring myself to. It was clearly well cared for, and wore a very fine collar, which was monogrammed with a large 'C'. I knew of only one family by the name of 'C' on the block, the Cartwrights, but when I inquired at their door, the butler informed me that they had gone for the summer, and kept no dogs in any case. He also told me that he knew of a young lady by the name of Cunningham who lived right across the way and that he believed he had seen one of the footmen from the house walking a pug in the mornings.
"The house that I was sent to was in fact the house of the Marquess of Dorset."
Fitzwilliam started at the name, but when Bingley and Ashbourne looked to him for an explanation, he merely motioned for Ashbourne to continue.
"I presented myself at the door. The footman appeared at first reluctant to allow me entrance, but then he relented and took me to see a young lady...a young lady..." He pressed his lips together and appeared to force away whatever melancholy thoughts had clouded his mind. "A young lady of about seventeen seated upon a chair, sobbing. When she saw her dog, she leapt from her seat and took the dog into her arms joyfully. Then she hugged me."
Fitzwilliam attempted to disguise a laugh behind a cough. Ashbourne smiled ruefully. "Yes, brother, my reaction was much as you are likely picturing. I am afraid I was unable to speak or move until she had released me." Sadness clouded his eyes, but he shook his head and continued. "'Oh my dear little Orville,' said she, 'I thought I should never see you again.' She paled then, and thrust the dog into my arms. 'No!' she cried. 'He cannot be here. You must take him, but I beg you, sir, that you will take care of him.' I was, as you may guess, somewhat confused by this turn of events. I attempted to impress upon her that I had no desire to take in a dog. 'Then,' said she, 'I beg only that you will find someone who will. Dear sir, you have shown such kindness to me already. Will you not show me just a little bit more?' As she spoke, she seemed to become more agitated, and appeared almost fearful. I took my leave of her, promising to find someone to care for the animal."
He paused and refilled his glass. Bingley leaned forward slightly with interest. He had never before heard the history of the account in detail. It seemed that when Ashbourne was not frightened of his audience, his narration could be quite compelling.
"I had only just returned home, when a letter was delivered to me. The footman who gave it to me informed me that it had been delivered by a woman he had never seen before, who had left no name, nor anything else, besides the letter. The letter itself bore no markings on the outside. When I opened it, I found that it was a letter from the same young lady whom I had just met. She explained in her letter that she was not at liberty to keep the dog because her uncle, the Marquess of Dorset, had forbidden her. She had offended him, in what way she did not then say, and he had tossed the dog from the house as her punishment. She begged me once again to care for the animal and closed her letter, 'Miss Audley.'"
Ashbourne smiled without humor. "The same. You know Miss Audley's fortune, and that it is immense. The Duke of Leicester left her his entire fortune, when it was found that the title would die with him. Lord Dorset feels that he should have been the one to benefit."
"What claim has Lord Dorset on the Duke of Leicester's fortune?"
"Lord Dorset is the Duke's nephew as well as Miss Audley's uncle. You did not know this?"
"You will forgive me if I have not yet found time to memorize the genealogy of every noble-born family in England."
"The Duke's sister, Lady Elizabeth Burby, was married to the Lord Dorset's father, the 1st Marquess of Dorset. Lord Dorset's brother, Lord George Audley, married the Duke's daughter, Lady Anne Burbey. Their child is Miss Audley. All of that is generally known. What is not known is that Lord Dorset wants the fortune to stay within the family, and is insisting that Miss Audley marry his son, Lord Walden. Miss Audley will not. Lord Dorset has been trying to force her to his will since she was sixteen. He began by taking away her companion, and later isolated her from all her friends. At the time I met her, he had only that morning cast her dog from the house, declaring that he did not care if it starved." Ashbourne looked at his brother. "You do not seem surprised."
"I know what Dorset is capable of. No, I am not shocked by this."
"Miss Audley and I began corresponding with the help of Nell, Miss Audley's lady's maid. After a year, we decided that we would elope. Miss Audley's spirits were by then very low and she feared she would not be able to resist her uncle for very much longer. She planned an escape, with Nell's help. We were to go to Scotland. At the last minute the plan was foiled, I know not how. Dorset found out what we had planned and she was unable to escape. This was about six months ago." Ashbourne paused here and stared into the fire. "In the spring, at Pemberley, you accused me of being morose, and even more uncivil than is normal for me. Is this not sufficient excuse for my behavior?"
"It might have been, if you had seen fit to tell me," Fitzwilliam said sharply. He glanced at Bingley, and the brothers seemed to become aware that there was a third in the room. Bingley for his part was lost in his thoughts. He had long wondered how Ashbourne had managed to find himself in love, and that it had happened entirely by letter seemed to fit so perfectly with the man's character that Bingley wondered that he had never thought of it before.
Ashbourne continued, "Lord Dorset was livid, of course. I know little of what passed at this time, of what she suffered. We dared not attempt to communicate in any way. When I heard it said that Miss Audley had gone abroad, I knew it was not true. Or, I hoped it was not true. The thought of her in some foreign country, entirely out of my reach, was almost too much to bear. It was only two months ago that I learned of her true fate, through Mr. Edgeworth, a good friend of mine who is privy to Lord Dorset's doings, though secretly he despises the man almost as much as I do. I learned that Dorset had sent Miss Audley, rather Miss Cunningham, to Hertfordshire, under the guise of a very sickly young lady who had gone to live with an uncle in the country. Miss Audley is called Miss Cunningham and has been for several years, whenever Lord Dorset wishes it not to be known that she is present lest she raise curiosity in her neighbors. She is locked up as a prisoner in the house of Mr. Gallagher. I intend to get her out."
Fitzwilliam leaned back in his chair, his hands laced across his belly. "I presume then that Mr. Bingley is disguised as a servant then to make it easier for him to gain access to Mr. Gallagher's house, and thereby aid the escape of your Miss...Audley."
"Miss Cunningham," corrected Ashbourne. "I dare not refer to her, even think of her, by any other name, not in the present, lest I give myself away. But, yes, you are correct."
Ashbourne shrugged his shoulders. "I am not like you. I have few friends on which to call when I am in need. The only man I trust more than Bingley is Darcy. Can you picture Darcy taking a position as a manservant in the house of a country gentleman?"
Fitzwilliam choked on his brandy and needed a powerful wallop on the back to get his breathing going again. "Quite," he said when he had recovered himself.
"I did offer," Bingley said quietly. Ashbourne had considered taking on the role himself, but Bingley had managed to talk him out of that with little difficulty--they both of them knew that Ashbourne could never handle such a task--and offered himself instead. He had thought it might be fun, a bit of sport. That thought had lasted only until Edgeworth had presented him with a new set of clothes.
"Why not bribe the servants?" This suggestion was met with silence, and Fitzwilliam continued, "If you bribed only one servant in Mr. Gallagher's house, you would be in the same position you are in now. If you bribed two or three, you could easily effect her escape. Why do you not simply pay them to help you?"
Bingley and Ashbourne sat in silence for some time before Ashbourne finally turned to Bingley and asked, "Why did not we think of that?"
"Because we are terrible spies," Bingley said, flushed hot with embarrassment.
Fitzwilliam rubbed his face in a way that made it clear he was concealing a smile. "You have been a servant in Mr. Gallagher's house for how long?"
Bingley shook his head. "Not in Mr. Gallagher's house, in Mr. Bennet's. We feared getting too close too soon."
Fitzwilliam sat up. "You are passing yourself as a servant in Mr. Bennet's house."
He chuckled softly to himself and Bingley bristled. He got up from his chair and said, "Well, at least I can leave off this absurd disguise. I look forward to sleeping in a comfortable bed tonight."
"No!" Fitzwilliam said. "No, I have need of you. More than that, your king has need of you. Do, sit down. Please, you may..." He bit his lip. "Your initial decision to take up your current employment may have been...somewhat ill-judged, but it has worked out far better than I could ever have imagined."
The men talked long into the night.
Bingley returned to Longbourn in the very early hours of the morning, his mind spinning, his body exhausted, and his belly full of too much brandy--Ashbourne had excellent taste, and Bingley had been deprived of the finer things of late. He emptied his stomach behind a tree by the side of the road and slipped into the house just as Jeb was preparing to leave to enjoy his day. Jeb chuckled at him as he came in and asked him if he had enjoyed himself. Bingley could only smile weakly which caused Jeb to laugh uproariously.
He forced himself to take some food at breakfast, though his stomach rebelled against it, and he could only eat half a bowl of gruel. He could not bring himself to touch the ale. He would have given almost anything for a cup of coffee, or strong tea, but that was only served at dinner and seemed tortuously far away. He went through his work that morning feeling as if he were in a dream, only half-aware of all that was going on around him. Matty talked at him once or twice, Mrs. Hill scolded him, and Bingley daydreamed about curling up on one of the couches and going to sleep.
He slipped outside, hoping the cold air would revive him, but it seemed the chill seemed only to settle close to his bones. When Mrs. Hill found him idle, she scolded him and sent him to help Tilly get water for mopping.
Dinner came and went, and there was only so much the tea could do, but it fortified him against the rest of the day. His stomach settled and though his head ached, he managed to carry out most of his tasks.
He left the house again late in the afternoon and sat on a low stone wall watching the last of the light fade from the sky. He closed his eyes, hung his head, and pulled his coat tighter around himself, knowing he should return to the warmth of the house, yet unable to face it just then.
His head came up so quickly that it made him dizzy.
He started to struggle to his feet, but Miss Bennet shook her head and sat next to him.
"Mrs. Hill is looking for you. I told her I had sent you on an errand."
He wasn't sure what to say to that, so he only thanked her. She was behaving oddly, casting him fleeting glances out of the corner of her eye and looking away when he attempted to meet her gaze. Her gloved fingers were tangled in her skirts. He had left his own gloves inside. His fingers were stiff and painfully cold.
"You ought to be at your work," Miss Bennet said. She sounded as if she was trying to scold him, and failing rather miserably.
"Yes," he agreed and closed his eyes.
"What are you thinking of?"
He looked at her. "I do not even know. Life, I suppose. I never planned--" He broke off, unsure how to finish.
Jane smiled sadly.
"Do you miss your family?" she asked.
He laughed. "I suppose so. No one has asked me such a thing before, not since I have been here."
She blushed. "I only...it occurred to me that perhaps you are missing your family, and that is why you seem so sad. They are not near here, I know."
"My sisters are in London. I have some more distant family in the north."
"I heard my father say that he thought perhaps you could be a steward someday. He said you are quite well educated."
Bingley laughed. "I confess I have no plans in that direction."
"Well, perhaps you could be a clerk. Or a...there are many good professions that a man can enter into when he can read, and write, and speak well, as you can. My uncle is in trade in London. I am sure that he would be happy to give you a position, if he were to meet you and know you and..."
"Do you want me gone, Miss Bennet?" Bingley asked, genuinely confused as to what she meant by the conversation. He rubbed his hands together, desperate for warmth.
"No!" She looked away. "Oh, I never planned!" She stood up. "You really must return to your duties, Charles. Mrs. Hill will scold you if you are gone too long."
She went into the house, and Bingley followed a few minutes later. The kitchen was terribly warm, but it took him some time to stop shivering.
He slept fitfully that night, his mind tormented with strange dreams. Men shouted at him in French, Edgeworth sent him letters he could not read, and Miss Bennet put a pistol in his hand and demanded that he turn back the army of William the Conqueror all on his own.
He woke if anything less rested than he had gone to sleep, and resigned himself to another miserable day.
Just before the one o'clock hour, when he would have had half an hour to sit down and, even better, a cup of tea to look forward to, he tripped on the edge of the carpet and bumped against a small end table, sending a porcelain figurine to the ground. It was Meissen, a man with a fiddle, and Bingley watched in horror as it struck the floor at just the right angle to break the handle of the fiddle clean off.
Exhausted, suffering the brutal after-effects of too much liquor on an empty stomach, suffering an anxiety he had never known from what he had been told the night before, and utterly horrified by what had just happened, he stared at the broken figurine and began to laugh. He felt quite mad, but he could not help himself.
Miss Bennet came in then, a frown on her perfect face, and he was struck by the insane urge to kiss her soundly on the lips, renounce this farce of an employment, and flee back to London to sleep for an age.
Fortunately, he managed to refrain.
Miss Bennet looked at the figurine. "It is," she said.
"I can replace it."
"Oh, Charles, I am afraid this is Meissen, I very much doubt..."
"I know what it is. My sister has one just like it in her room. I could give you hers, though hers is a bit larger and I think there is a dog in it. Also, she might object. Caroline does not like people taking her things. I could simply buy you another one. Or two. Three. I could fill that cabinet with Meissen," he said, nodding to the large cabinet on the far wall. "Well, perhaps not fill it."
She bent down and set the broken pieces on the table, then walked to the door and closed it.
"Are you unwell?"
Bingley sat down on the couch. "Yes, actually, though I am not mad. I know how I must sound, but I am not." He looked at her, looked at her clear blue eyes which were clearly concerned, and perhaps even a bit frightened, but never angry, always still caring. "Can I tell you the truth? All of it? No, not all of it. Can I tell you some of it?"
"Truth?" Miss Bennet said, seating herself across from him. "Charles, of what truth do you speak?"
"I have one hundred thousand pounds, Miss Bennet, or near enough to it. My income last year was close to five thousand pounds, and if my investments continue on course, I can look forward to being presented with a similar number by my solicitor this year."
Miss Bennet was quiet for nearly a minute. She shook her head. "No. No, you are joking. Or you are feverish."
"I am a wealthy man. I am nothing to Ashbourne, of course, but I am of independent fortune and means."
"Are here, yes." He told her then, not all of it, but enough. He told her of Ashbourne and Miss Cunningham who was in fact Miss Audley, of their plan, of his coming here. He managed to restrain his tongue before he further humiliated himself by telling her how desperately lonely he felt, in this house surrounded by people, not one of whom he could speak to without guarding his tongue, or how weak he felt to find that a girl half his size was able to work from the rise of the sun to the setting of it and beyond without complaint while he was forever getting behind on his work despite his best efforts.
He told her of Colonel Fitzwilliam and what he had been told and why he was still in their house despite learning that he and Ashbourne were the biggest fools in the kingdom.
Miss Bennet stared at him when he finished speaking. "If this is true...if this is true, you most certainly ought not to have told me!"
"I know," Bingley said. "But I am a terrible spy and as an agent of the crown I am truly abysmal. And perhaps I am a bit feverish." He touched his cheek and found it hot.
"I cannot keep this from my father. You cannot ask me to!"
She was right. He rose from his chair, ready to--to--he knew not what he was to do, perhaps throw himself at her feet and apologize, but then the world went grey at the edges, and every color he had ever known sparkled in front of him. The sound of her voice calling his name was very far away, and then there was nothing at all.
He opened his eyes and saw that it was still day. The taper by the bed remained unlit, though the window was so small that room was quite dim even at the height of the afternoon. He turned his head and for a moment the room swam before his eyes, but when everything had righted itself, he saw that Matty was kneeling by the side of his bed, and a man he did not know was seated on the chair.
"Just a bleeding is all," Matty said when she saw he was awake. "Mr. Jones is very good, he is, and he'll have you on your feet soon enough."
He flinched when the lancet cut his skin and watched as the blood flowed freely into the basin Matty was holding.
"You gave us such a fright. You was fainted like the dead on the floor, in the sitting room, and we couldn't hardly rouse you to get you to walk, even with vinegar, and we was afraid we'd have to get some of the men to carry you, but then you came 'round, and you managed to come down here on your own feet. You remember that?"
Bingley licked his lips. His mouth felt dry and gummy. "No."
"Well, you was very unsteady on your feet, but you walked down here and all but fell into bed. And the missus, she was in a fright crying about fevers and infections and the like, and started crying even more when she saw Miss Bennet, who looked very pale, but she, Miss Bennet I mean, said it was only from the fright of seeing you fall, though the missus made her go lay down in any case. So, and Mr. Bennet, he called for Mr. Jones--" She nodded to the man seated by the bed, who in turn nodded to Bingley. Bingley attempted to nod back, but moving his head made the room spin and his head ache even more. "Mr. Jones came, and examined you, and he told the missus it ain't an infectious fever, as far as he can tell, but only you'd been brought low, and he'd give you a bleeding and a drought, and you'll be well and all soon enough."
Matty continued talking, but Bingley drifted into the space between sleep and waking and when he became aware of the world again she was silent and Mr. Jones had two fingers pressed to his wrist and was frowning at his watch. He gave Bingley a small smile when he saw he was awake and said, "Your pulse is good, and I believe a few days rest will handle the rest. Take the drought when I've gone and try to sleep."
Bingley thanked him and said, "Your payment..."
Mr. Jones shook his head and Matty jumped in with, "Oh, don't you worry about none of that. Mr. Bennet always pays for bleedings and the like, if they're needed. You just get well and rested. Me and Tilly, we can handle the work, seems we're always going without a manservant around here, so we're used to it. And don't let Mrs. Hill put you back to work too soon. The missus is very particular about not having it said that the Bennets work their servants when they're sick, and she won't never put up with it. But if she sees you on your feet, she'll to scold you afore she'll scold Mrs. Hill."
During Matty's speech, Mr. Jones had left, and Matty went about straightening things through the room, chattering nervously the whole time.
"Jeb, he was particular worried about you, when he heard, and Tilly too. She wanted to come down here and hold the basin, even though she faints dead away at the sight of blood. She told me whenever she has to be bled, she faints just as soon as the lancet comes out." She took the basin out of the room and came back a few minutes later. She gave him the drought and though sitting upright seemed out of the question, he was determined to take it without Matty's help. He managed by rolling slightly and raising himself up on one arm. It was bitter and must have had laudanum, for it made him sleepy almost as soon as he had taken it. He settled back onto the bed, shivering slightly and wishing the room was warmer or the blankets thicker, but the chill was not enough to keep him from sleep.
He slept for a long time. When he woke again it was day, but he felt certain it was not the same day it had been. A soft knock at the door made him start and before he could speak, Matty stuck her head in.
"Are you awake then? Good. I have to tell you the best of news." She placed a bowl of watery gruel and some warm spiced ale on the table and Bingley managed to sit up and take the ale. It tasted nothing like the mulled ale he had at home when he was unwell. In that moment he wanted desperately to be at home. He wanted his own house, his own ale, and his own bed. He wanted a fire in his room. He wanted Frederick, his valet, who would have undressed him and put him in his nightshirt instead of leaving him to sleep in his clothing. He wanted Caroline, who read to him in a soft voice when he was ill, even if she did insist upon reading only things she was interested in.
He managed to turn his thoughts back to Matty who had pulled the chair up to the side of the bed.
"You've been asleep for near a day. I stuck my head in earlier and you was dead to the world, your face all mushed into the pillow. Well, I have to tell you the best thing that happened earlier. Lord Ashbourne called again today, and brought his brother with him. I was in the room, and Miss Bennet, she happened to mention that you had fallen ill, which I thought a very odd thing for her to say, since when does the family care that one of us has gotten unwell? Though Miss Bennet would care, she cares for everyone, and has been asking after you, but I thought it odd she'd speak of it in company is all. But so it was, and it sent Mrs. Bennet off about her precious Meisner--"
"Meissen," Bingley corrected. "I broke it."
"Yes, right. And she was complaining about her precious statue and how she was so vexed it had been broken, but that her servant had gotten ill and fainted and knocked it down as he fell--" Bingley assumed that Miss Bennet was responsible for that story. "--and you'll never believe it, but Lord Ashbourne, the great Lord Ashbourne, with his 25,000 a year, said, 'Madam, I would be more concerned with your servant than your statue. How is Charles? He is well, I hope.' Can you believe it? Asked after you by name, and everything.
"Well, and, Miss Bennet, she said, 'He is very well, though he was rather feverish earlier. He claimed even to be your friend.' And they all laughed at that, except Lord Ashbourne, who didn't say nothing at all."
Bingley sipped his ale and tried to make sense of it all. He remembered now having told Miss Bennet all, though he was fairly certain he had managed to keep secret his growing regard for her, and for that he was very grateful. Clearly, she had not told her father, or perhaps she had, and they had laughed it off, as they had laughed at it earlier.
His head hurt again, and he decided he should not be anxious about things he could not yet know. He finished his ale and managed to eat most of the gruel, which satisfied Matty, then fell back into slumber.
He had no trouble complying with Mr. Jones' direction, and slept much of the next two days, leaving his bed only for necessary business, and occasionally sitting up for a few minutes to attempt to read, but reading gave him a terrible headache in the dim light, and as he was only permitted one candle a month, he wished not to light it during the day. Matty came often, and told him the news. The Assembly in Meryton had come and gone, and Mrs. Bennet was in raptures because Lord Ashbourne had danced with Miss Bennet, though he had not danced with a single other lady at the assembly, and had spent the rest of the time standing around looking disagreeable.
"And Colonel Fitzwilliam danced twice with Miss Bennet. I hear tell that he danced every other dance too, but Miss Bennet was the only one he danced with twice. The missus has spent the whole of the morning chattering about it, and will not let anyone forget that the brothers singled out her daughter above everyone. She is sure Miss Bennet is going to be a countess soon enough. Well, if anyone deserves such a thing, it is her, though from what I hear tell of Lord Ashbourne, I don't think he'd make a very agreeable husband."
By the end of the second day, he was well enough to be almost restless in his bed and when Mr. Jones came to check on his patient--he had been called not out of concern, but to insure that Bingley was not affecting his malady--he declared him fit to go back to work. Bingley would have preferred another day to recover, perhaps not in bed but without his normal duties, but he dared not argue.
That night he woke in the early hours, far before he even had to think of rising. He stared into the darkness and wondered at his ever having found himself in such a situation. A soft knock pulled him from such thoughts. Thinking it Matty, though uncertain why she would have come at such an hour, he called out for her to enter. The figure that appeared at the door, however, was not Matty, but Miss Bennet.
She stood at the door, lit like a heavenly vision by the single candle in her hand, wearing her dressing gown and slippers, her hair around her shoulders. For a moment, Bingley was certain he was dreaming, but his head still ached slightly and the wool blanket was still scratching his skin and he supposed that a dream would not have been so uncomfortable.
He pushed the blanket off of himself, mindless of the fact that he wore only his night shirt and stood.
She looked away and then seemed to come to a decision and stepped inside. "Mr. Bingley, sir."
She held out a piece of paper, hastily folded. "This is from Lord Ashbourne."
He took the letter in his hands and lit the candle by the bed, but even the light of their two candles did not provide enough light for him to read comfortably, especially as the letter was written in quick, jagged lettering, and in pencil. He forced his eyes to focus anyway and read.
Knowing your temper as well as I do, I suspect I will have no trouble gaining your forgiveness for the mess I have brought you into. I think perhaps your lack of anger when you ought to be livid with rage will give legs to my guilt, and thus be its own form of punishment.
When I heard you were ill, it was my desire to rush to your room and take you back to Netherfield, but my brother has convinced me that his duty supersedes all, and it seems that we now are enlisted to satisfy his duty, with little choice to ourselves, and only scarce concern for her, though I am determined that she will not be left to suffer much longer, my brother and his precious duty be consigned to nothing.
To the point. I send this letter through Miss Bennet, with whom I was able to speak at the assembly tonight. My brother is less than pleased with you for telling her all you have, but she seems sensible, and my brother and I have managed between us (I suspect my brother was far more instrumental in this than I) to convince her of the need for secrecy and discretion. For myself, I am relieved for you that you now have another friend, and one even closer to you than I.
I must conclude, as I have stolen away a moment to write this letter so that I may find a way to put it in Miss Bennet's hands before the assembly is at an end. I hope you are well.
Yours most devoted and humble friend,
He folded the letter carefully and put it in the drawer.
"Thank you, Miss Bennet."
She was staring down at her feet. "Sir, I...I have never kept a secret of this magnitude before, and I keep so very little from my sister. I do not know how--"
"I have never kept anything of such import myself, and we see that I was able to botch things within hours of being told," Bingley said.
"You were ill, you can hardly be held accountable for that."
He shook his head. "Why did you tell no one? Why did you protect me?"
She finally raised her eyes, but she seemed unable to speak.
He wanted to wrap his hand around hers, but he was aware by then that he was only in his shirt and she only in her dressing gown. It would have been terribly inappropriate, though this whole situation was far from proper.
"I must go," Miss Bennet said. "If I were to be discovered..."
Bingley bowed and she managed a proper curtsy despite her attire. When she had gone, he closed the door and pressed his forehead against it. It was some time before he could rouse himself and return to bed.
The next few days passed quietly and quickly. Matty and Tilly took extra work on themselves to spare him when they could. On one such occasion, he watched as Matty's strong, small hands wiped down the furniture. He recalled a ball, one of so many he had attended in London that he could not single it out by name or any other distinguishing characteristic, where he had participated in a long, detailed conversation about the 'thick wrists' and 'masculine hands' of the women of the lower orders, and it had been decided, in that dogmatic, ridiculous voice that declared meaningless things in a crowded ball room, that no woman of the lower orders could pass herself off as a lady, because one would always know her by her hands.
Matty's hands would indeed have given her away in a ball room, but he thought now that she had as much reason to be proud of them as any young lady with a dainty wrist and delicate hand had to be proud of hers.
He said none of this, of course, only thanked Matty for her kindnesses to him and smiled to himself when he saw Jeb offer his arm to Tilly in such a ridiculous way that it would have made him blush for the man had not Tilly looked pleased and Jeb been completely unconscious that he would have been quizzed terrifically had any young man of the ton seen him.
The next day he was in the kitchen helping Rose move a heavy table when Matty rushed in and said, "Oh bless me! We're to have a guest, he's to come in a few hours, and the master only saw fit to tell the missus this morning. Mrs. Hill is in a fright, for now we're to prepare a room with almost no notice. Upstairs with you, then. If she sees you down here, she'll scold you for sure."
Bingley was taken upstairs then to the guest room, and put to work preparing the room, which meant airing it, taking out the carpets to be beaten, changing the sheets, dusting all of the furniture, wiping down the walls, and a thousand other little tasks that seemed rather excessive, especially as he knew that the maids cleaned the guest rooms as a matter of course, even when they laid empty for months.
"Aye, the missus would have the room cleaned all over again, for all that me and Tilly did it just yesterday. It's Mr. Collins what is the visitor, and he is the man who will inherit Longbourn when the master dies. The missus is always talking about what a horrible man he is, and how he'll toss them into the hedgerows or some such when he, the master I mean, dies. They'll have five thousand pounds when the master dies, and I hear tell from my cousin, who works as a clerk, that that means they'll have two hundred and fifty pounds a year. As if anyone ever lived in the hedgerows with two hundred and fifty pounds a year. My mother raised six of us when my father was brining in, oh, bless me, I don't never knew how much he was brining in, but it weren't never two hundred and fifty pounds a year, and we lived well enough, and always had victuals on the table, and beds to sleep on."
Bingley was too distracted to respond to any of this, though he abhorred the thought of Miss Bennet being forced to make due with two hundred and fifty pounds a year for herself, her mother, and all her sisters.
Mr. Collins arrived that afternoon, and Bingley was the one to carry his trunks to his room. They were heavy, and Bingley wondered why he had packed so much for a visit that was not supposed to last more than two weeks.
It turned out the trunks were loaded with books, which Bingley knew only because Mr. Collins directed him to remove them all and place them on the writing table. Bingley, out of idle curiosity, looked over them as he did so and found them the sort of books that had taught him to despise most reading, namely, long dry sermons which spoke at length on the evils of every earthly pleasure, and books of dense Latin which seemed to exist only as a way to flatter those who spoke the language and aid them in looking down upon those who did not.
When he had done, Mr. Collins made a show of stopping him at the door, which was open.
"My noble patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, makes it a point to be exceedingly generous in her vails, and though I am unable to match her boundless kindness, I hope that I can imitate the spirit of it." Here he pressed into Bingley's hand a few pennies.
Bingley managed, with only some trouble, to express his gratitude. He passed Miss Bennet in the hall, who had heard all of it--he did not doubt that that had been Mr. Collin's intention--and met her eyes. She seemed mortified, though on behalf of himself or her cousin, Bingley could not know. As Mr. Collins had closed his door and no one else was around, he whispered as he passed, "I have been thinking of buying a yacht, Miss Bennet. Do you think I shall manage it with Mr. Collin's generosity?"
That made her laugh softly. Bingley thought that he would have endured any mortification in the world, if only he could hear the sound of her laugh every day.
Posted on: 2010-03-07
Bingley could not quite make out Mrs. Phillips words, muffled as they were through the door, but Mrs. Bennet's words were easily heard as clear as the day.
"That is quite brilliant, sister. Indeed, I wonder that I did not think of it. Oh, men do like a bit of challenge, don't they? I shall tell Mr. Collins that he may face, oh how will I put it? He may face a rival in the form of Lord Ashbourne. It will only increase his interest, you know, to think that Jane may be so highly prized. Should Lord Ashbourne happen to get wind of the fact that Jane has another eligible offer, it may spur him to take the matter seriously. But, if it does not, there will be Mr. Collins for Jane. And if Lord Ashbourne does pursue Jane, I am sure Mr. Collins will be obliging enough to transfer his affections to another. He cannot possibly be affronted by Jane's accepting so much more eligible an offer."
Bingley wondered how, if at all, her daughters' happiness factored into any of her plans.
The step of Mrs. Hill--a sound to which he had become very well attuned--spurred him to move from his place near the door.
Mr. Collins had been in the house one day, and Bingley had yet to find a single thing to either admire or like about him. As Mr. Jones had once bet Mr. Dunstan ten pounds that Bingley would not find anything to admire in the notoriously rude and unpopular Mr. Foss and lost--the account of the bet was still recorded in the book at White's; Bingley had declared that Mr. Foss had excellent teeth when asked what he thought of the man after meeting him and Mr. Jones had paid--Bingley's inability to find anything to think well of said rather a lot about Mr. Collins.
Mrs. Bennet must have conversed with Mr. Collins at some point in the course of the day, for the next morning it became apparent that Mr. Collins had embarked on a campaign to woo his cousin, to Miss Bennet's mortification and Bingley's horror.
It began with a clumsy recital of Shakespeare's sonnet 130, in which he misquoted the first line, and though Bingley was called away before he could witness any more of Mr. Collin's attempts to make love to his cousin, he did not expect that the matter had improved as the day went on.
He met Miss Bennet by the stables, when she contrived that he should be the one to take her for a mid-day ride. Mr. Collins, fortunately, did not ride.
"I know he means well," Miss Bennet said. "I appreciate what he wishes to do. It is only..."
It was only that the man was a fool and for him to possess a woman such as Miss Bennet would be to give gold to a goat, but he dared not say that to her.
"For myself, I have always preferred, 'When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes'..."
She had stopped her horse and was staring at him. Bingley blushed.
"I am not a great scholar, I confess, and much of what the Bard wrote has flown right past me utterly unappreciated. Yet, I have always liked that one. It seems more honest and less satirical than--"
"'My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun'," Miss Bennet said.
"Or, as Mr. Collins would have it, 'My mistress eyes are like the sun', which rather defeats the entire point of the poem, I believe."
Miss Bennet pressed her lips together and shook with silent laughter.
"But I had to bribe my way through some of my classes at Oxford, so I really am not fit to be making such statements."
She sighed. "He is a good man, and he wants to do what is right. When it comes to it, I do not know what I will do." She shook her head. "Forgive me, I ought not to be speaking to you of such things."
The thought that she might actually accept the man sent a chill through him, but before he could speak, she turned them back toward the house, and something in her manner gave him pause, and made him think that she might not wish to hear his thoughts just then.
He went into Meryton for sugar that afternoon, and though he saw Colonel Fitzwilliam, and once passed close by him, the man did not speak or acknowledge him in any way. It was not until he arrived home that he found the note in his pocket.
It was a scrap of paper containing only a few words: "Netherfield tonight." Then, underneath, in smaller, less neatly written letters, added seemingly as an afterthought. "Burn this."
At first opportunity, he went to his room and got Ashbourne's letter as well, and tossed them both into the first unattended fire he came to, biting down upon his thumbnail as he watched them burn to nothing.
He slipped from the house again that night. Jeb was somewhat less enthusiastic about his leaving.
"You sure about this? It didn't exactly turn out well for you last time?"
Bingley shook his head. "I will not be gone long tonight."
"It's only that Tilly likes you, that's all. She'd be sad if you were to die."
"I am entirely better," Bingley assured him. "And good company tonight will do me a world of good."
Jeb shrugged, letting him go with no more objections. Bingley made it to Netherfield in good time. He slipped in the front where Fitzwilliam was waiting for him, and was soon again in front of the fire, though determined to watch his brandy consumption.
His evening began with Colonel Fitzwilliam being very severe with him on the subject of Miss Bennet, to such an extent that, when he had finished, Bingley had concluded, 'my brother is less than pleased with you for telling her all you have' actually meant, 'my brother wishes very much that you were a private under his command so that he could have you flogged'.
"I beg your pardon for confiding in her, but as I was feverish at the time, I think perhaps I can be excused," Bingley said.
Fitzwilliam's expression seemed to say that he could not be excused. He said nothing, however, only handed Bingley a packet of papers, stamped and sealed, and Bingley tucked it into his pocket.
"This is all, then?"
"That is all," Fitzwilliam said. "Do you think you will have any trouble?"
Bingley shook his head.
"Do you have any questions?"
Bingley shook his head again.
"Very good," Fitzwilliam said.
There was little else to be discussed, and though the comfortable chair and the warm fire kept him in his place a moment longer, he wished to be out of the room.
He shifted, uncomfortable, and was about to excuse himself from the room when Fitzwilliam abruptly stood and wished them a curt good night. Bingley glanced at Ashbourne, who was staring into the fire wearing his most miserable expression.
"You must excuse my brother," Ashbourne said absently. "His mood was foul before you even arrived."
"Do you want to talk about it?" Bingley asked quietly, mindful that he was not supposed to be in the house at all and that it would be very bad for all of them--and apparently for England as a whole, though Bingley had yet to allow his mind to dwell for very long on the thought of such responsibility resting upon his shoulders--if he was to be caught by a servant.
"He accused me of being like my father," Ashbourne said.
That was a heavy accusation.
"We had a terrible argument, and he--I have never told you how my brother and I became estranged. You know--that is, you must know--surely you know that our parents are..."
"Divorced," Bingley offered. "Yes, I know it." Ashbourne had never spoken of it to him before, but the matter was well known in London society.
"I was fourteen when it happened, my brother was twelve, my sister was no more than six. It was hard, it was very hard, on all of us. The day my mother left, my father insisted we stay upstairs. We were not permitted to say goodbye, and we were permitted no contact with her after she had gone. Everything we knew of her was from the scandal pages. My father never spoke of her. My aunts, Lady Catherine, Lady Anne, they spoke of her at times, and they were kind enough to never denigrate her too severely, not in front of us, but it was clear they bore her a great deal of ill will."
He had not taken his eyes from the fire and they shone brightly.
"You must understand that we children were always closer to my mother than to my father. She was, is, a very affectionate person. She cared for us. She loved us. I do not know if my father is even capable of love. If he is, he cannot show it. That she found affection in the arms of another man was very wrong, but I cannot entirely...that is...she sinned grievously, but my father drove her to it. Why is she condemned and he is not?"
Bingley stared at him in shock. Ashbourne was one of the most religious men he knew, to hear him say such a thing, to even slightly mitigate the sin of adultery...
Ashbourne shook his head. "I have always had a great deal of trouble speaking to my father." He laughed. "He terrifies me, in fact, I do not deny it. It is easier for Richard; he does not...fear the man like I do. When my brother came of age, the very day, he went to see my mother. He may have done so earlier, but he was not open about it. Mary, of course, chastised him for it. Mary will never see her, declares that our mother will go to her grave without speaking to her daughter. My father was severe with him, but my father has long known that Richard will not bend to his will."
He fell silent. Bingley waited, then finally prompted him, "And you?"
"I admired him for it, but I could not imitate him, as much as I wished to. I was too afraid of my father. I heard the argument they had following his visit, I heard the things my father said about Richard, and I...I am such a coward. I could not face the same." He drew a shuddering breath. "Our mother then fell very ill, and it was considered a certain thing that she would not survive. She asked for me. She asked for all of her children, but Richard tells me her cries for me were the most desperate, the most intense. He came to our house and begged me to see her. I would not go." He fell forward and buried his face in his hands. When he had recovered himself, he continued, "I am a wretched coward, but I would not go to her. She survived, to the great shock of all of her doctors, but that matters not. What matters is that I had every reason to believe her dying and I would not go to her. I am told that since then, she has not asked about me once."
He fell silent again, but shifted in his chair, agitated.
"Can you not go to her now? You have been given this second chance."
"How can I face her now?" Ashbourne sighed. "And in truth, my father still controls my purse. Richard has his own income. How shall I live if my father cuts my allowance to nothing? He is in very good health, you know. He may live a decade more. Should I get a small cottage and sit around waiting for him to die?"
Bingley shrugged. "My guest rooms are comfortable enough."
Ashbourne laughed. "A kind offer, but I do not think even your temper could endure such a thing."
They sat watching the fire. Bingley very carefully failed to notice when Ashbourne took his handkerchief from his pocket and swiped at his eyes.
"What if he is right?"
Bingley started. "Who? About what?"
"Richard accused me of being like our father. He said that Miss Audley, that is Miss Cunningham...Sophia. He said that Sophia would be better off without me, that I would treat her as our father did our mother."
"No," Bingley said. "You are a difficult man to know, I will not deny that, but you are not without affection. Do you love her?"
"Yes. But I have not been in the same room with her in years. It has all been letters, and letters are so much easier. One cannot have a marriage carried on by letter."
"It would make the production of children somewhat more difficult," Bingley agreed.
Instead of laughing, as Bingley had intended for him to do, Ashbourne looked at him in horror. "How am I ever going to consummate the marriage?"
Bingley stared at him. "If that is a question of mechanics, I am leaving."
Ashbourne rested his forehead on his hand and Bingley indulged himself in a huge sigh before pulling his chair closer to the fire and casting a longing glance at the brandy. He was willing to give up the rest of his night talking Ashbourne down from his anxieties, he only wished that it was not necessary to do it sober.
He returned to Longbourn in time to return to his room and sleep for nearly four hours, which he had learned to be grateful for.
In the morning, he rose and tucked the packet of papers under his mattress. His limbs had the dull ache of too little sleep, and his mind was not entirely clear. He and Ashbourne had talked long into the night, and though Ashbourne had seemed easier at the end of it, Bingley found that his own anxieties had been pulled closer to the surface by their conversation. He would not risk attempting anything of importance today.
Matty cast him worried glances at breakfast. Bingley did his best to seem himself, eating a hearty breakfast and chatting amiably with everyone. Mrs. Hill gave him particularly unkind looks and Bingley ran through the last few days, trying to think when and how he had offended her, but he could recall nothing amiss in his conduct.
That afternoon, he was abruptly called into a sitting room where Miss Bennet, Mr. Collins, and Miss Mary sat talking.
Mr. Collins cleared his throat. "Charles, my cousin Mary tells me that you are able to read."
He stood in front of them. Mr. Collins and Miss Mary regarded him almost like a curiosity. Miss Bennet was bent over her work, and did not raise her eyes.
"I am, sir," Bingley said.
Mr. Collins turned to Miss Mary. "Lady Catherine is very concerned with the increase in literacy among the lower orders. I have had a great many conversations with her on the matter. She has spoken many times of setting up a charitable school, for instance, yet she says, and I wholeheartedly agree, that the emphasis of such a place must be on teaching the children to say their prayers, and to do things which are useful, practical."
Miss Mary frowned, a perfect little crease appearing between her eyes. "But surely it is better that they be able to read their Bible. There are works of great moral value, Fordyce, for example, which could be of great value to the lower orders."
Mr. Collins smiled. "You show yourself to be a generous and kind young lady, cousin, yet because you yourself are so very innocent in the ways of the world, you think only the best. You must understand that to read is to be exposed to a great many ideas, and those without the proper breeding and education to make sense of those ideas can very easily be led astray. What do you read, Charles?"
"Plays, mostly," Bingley said.
"The theater. I see. Do you read novels?"
"At times. I am not a great reader."
"Dare I hope that when you do read you choose things that are of a good quality? Have you read Pamela?"
"Parts of it," Bingley said. Largely because Shamela was more diverting if one knew something of the original it was parodying.
"What have you read?"
"Tristram Shandy. And I am very fond of Mr. Fielding."
Miss Mary gasped.
"You have not read Tom Jones, I hope," Mr. Collins said.
"Only twice," Bingley said, and Miss Mary shook her head sadly. Bingley just barely refrained from shrugging his shoulders. He was sure his chastity owed more to Tom Jones than any sermon he had ever heard.
"Do you ever read your Bible?"
Bingley frowned. Though he had no objection to general discussions of theology, he had always considered his personal faith to be a private matter and he was not about to have it bandied about in a sitting room by a pompous parson as a teaching example for a moralizing young lady.
"Yes, sir," Bingley said, trying and perhaps failing to keep his annoyance from his voice.
"And books of sermons, have you any appreciation of them?"
"Rarely," Bingley said. Ashbourne had put several collections into his hands, but he had read little of them.
Mr. Collins turned back to Miss Mary. "You see, cousin, what results. Though he has the ability to read, he has not been taught to use it wisely. Moreover, as Lady Catherine de Bourgh has often pointed out, the ability may, in some, lead to a certain dissatisfaction with their position. Thoughts above one's station are very dangerous. We see what happened in France."
Bingley had to bite down hard on his cheek to stop himself from asking how many people in the crowd cheering the beheading of the French queen had been able to read.
"Cousin Jane, surely you can agree that the lower orders are done a disservice in this way."
Miss Bennet looked up and met his eyes. Bingley shook his head, almost imperceptibly. She opened her mouth to speak, but was saved from having to actually say anything by Mr. Collins, who proclaimed, "Well, of course you do, dear cousin. Lady Catherine would be vastly pleased with you. Vastly pleased."
Bingley managed to excuse himself then, before he lost control of his tongue.
Miss Bennet met him later out of doors.
"Please forgive my cousin, sir, he is..."
"Do not trouble yourself, Miss Bennet," Bingley said quickly, to save her from having to think of some way to excuse her cousin's behavior. Surely she was not still thinking of accepting him? She could not intend to spend her life following behind him, making excuses for his behavior and blushing every time he opened his mouth.
"My father is very fond of Tom Jones, though I dared not say anything in front of Mr. Collins. For myself, I have not read it. I have heard such scandalous things about it and I would not like to be thought indelicate."
Bingley wanted to tell her to read it anyway, but that was selfishness. She did risk being thought indelicate if she read such a book, and he only wanted her to read it because he wanted to share it with her. He wanted her to enjoy it as much as he did. It was a silly thought.
"I have been meaning to read Amelia, but have yet to find the time. I think most of Mr. Fielding's works worth reading, and Amelia, I understand, is not so scandalous."
"Did you enjoy what you read of Pamela? 'tis my favorite book."
"Indeed! You did not find it--" Hypocritical? Trite? Overwrought? Dull as the grave? "--difficult to read?"
"No, not at all. I enjoyed it very much, and Clarissa as well."
"I confess I have never cared for Mr. Richardson. Have you read Tristram Shandy?"
"A few pages of it."
"It is my favorite of books."
"You did not find it...exceptionally strange?"
"I thought it refreshingly different."
"Indeed." She laughed softly. "Much Ado About Nothing is the best of plays."
She smiled, but her smile faded too quickly.
"Good day, M--Charles."
"Good day, Miss Bennet."
After she'd gone he caught himself thinking that perhaps he should attempt again to read Pamela. It was then that he realized he was a lost man.
The next morning Mr. Ridgeway was away surveying the estate, and Mrs. Hill was busy reviewing the accounts with Mrs. Bennet. Most of the young ladies were away. Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth had gone for a walk, Miss Kitty and Miss Lydia had gone to Meryton, and Miss Mary was at her books. Bingley seized his chance. He slipped into Mr. Ridgeway's office, leaving the door open a crack so that he could hear into the hall.
His heart beat wildly in his chest and his stomach ached from anxiety. If he were to be caught...
He forced that thought away and his mind to the task at hand.
Fitzwilliam had been unable to tell him where to look. All he had been able to do was give him advice. He had told him ways in which desks and chairs and cabinets had been modified to contain secret compartments. He told him to think creatively, He told him not to overlook the obvious. He told him that above all he must do his very thorough, very complete search quickly, quietly, and without leaving any trace of his presence.
Oh, and he mustn't allow himself to become anxious lest he make a mistake.
He tried the desk first, sorting through papers, and in drawers. The office was very neat, and the drawers were mostly empty. He ran his hand along the bottom of them, under the desk, over chair spindles, looking for concealed latches.
He looked through the papers on the desk, in between the books on the shelves. He looked under chairs and behind pictures and on top of the cabinet.
There was a wing chair in the corner. He lifted up the cushion and saw a red cord peeking out from the back of the chair. He pulled it and a packet, stamped and sealed slid out from a hidden space between the very back of the chair and the padding.
He removed from his pocket the packet Fitzwilliam had given him and looked at them. It was perfectly identical, but for a small crease in the original. Bingley carefully bent the one Fitzwilliam had given him until they looked perfectly the same. Then, being very careful not to mix them up, he removed the string from the original and tucked it into his pocket, replacing it with the packet from Colonel Fitzwilliam, tucked it back into that hidden space, and replaced the cushion to the chair. He glanced around the room, checking that nothing seemed amiss, then slipped out of the office, and closed the door softly.
As he walked away, his hands trembling and his mouth dry, he thought he saw a shadow move out of the corner of his eye. When he looked, there was no one.
Bingley shook his head. He would be skipping to Bedlam before this was all over.