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Lady Catherine Disposes - Part I

October 27, 2016 06:30PM
Blurb: Lady catherine makes an unexpected visit to Pemberley in the summer of '12

Part I

August 1, 1812 – Bromley, Kent

The hired chaise rumbled into the Bell Inn, its four horses in obvious distress from having been driven hard at a pace that would have exhausted even animals of more superior breeding. The stable master at the Bell frowned and readied himself for a confrontation. The users of the chaise would obviously wish to replace their animals but he’d be damned if he would allow it without some assurance as to their treatment. As it was, the four beasts he would receive in exchange would hardly be useful again until the morrow or perhaps longer.

A gentleman stepped out of the chaise and turned to assist a young lady to descend. She hardly set foot on the ground when someone exclaimed loudly, “Lydia Bennet! What do you here? And, Mr. Wickham, what is the meaning of this?”

Both parties thus referred to reacted quite differently. The gentleman’s surprise was quickly replaced by what the stable master could only describe as alarm as he turned to face the lady who had addressed him. She was a young woman, plain featured, about thirty years of age and accompanied by two much older women, one of whom was tall, finely dressed and possessed of features that once might have been handsome but now displayed little beyond haughty displeasure. The garb and manner of the other elderly woman marked her as a companion or maid. Wickham knew both of the ladies quite well and cursed the mischance that had delayed his removal from the area.

The young lady, Miss Lydia Bennet, was all giggles and boisterous enthusiasm. She was the first to respond and what she said pleased only herself.

“Oh La! Charlotte! What a surprise! You shall be the first to know. My dear Wickham and I are to be married! And I younger than any of my sisters!”

Mr. George Wickham, for that was the name of the gentleman involved, was not pleased at his companion’s frankness but could think of nothing to say that would not contradict her. He was saved from replying by another.

“Who are these….people, Mrs. Collins?” Inquired Lady Catherine de Bourgh, looking at the gentleman and Lydia Bennet with disapproval, not at all impressed by the latter's manners.

“Lady Catherine, may I introduce you to Miss Lydia Bennet and Mr. George Wickham. Miss Bennet is sister to my friend, Elizabeth Bennet who, you will remember, visited me several months past. Mr. Wickham holds a Lieutenant’s commission with the ____shire Militia.”

“Mr. Wickham?” Said Lady Catherine, looking at him more closely, “Are you related to the Mr. Wickham who held the post of steward at Pemberley some years past?”

Mr. Wickham bowed and acknowledged that he was, indeed, the son of the gentleman mentioned.

“I have heard little that speaks to your advantage, Mr. Wickham.” continued Lady Catherine. Her frown left no doubt of her displeasure. “By all reports you are a gamester, a wastrel and possessed of a low moral character. A rake, in fact. I am most attentive to such matters and would not wish to see you in the company of a gentlewoman. It shall not be! I…..”

“You cannot speak of my dear Wickham in such terms. I do not care if you are a Lady or not. I shall….”

“Be quiet, Lydia!” snapped Mrs. Collins. She turned to Mr. Wickham, “You are to be married? You are aware. . .I presume you know that Lydia requires Mr. Bennet’s approval as she is not of age.”

“I shall not need Papa’s approval in Scotland!” cried Lydia.

“SCOTLAND!” exclaimed Mrs. Collins and Lady Catherine in perfect unity. Mr. Wickham blanched at the disapproving glances turned his way. The confrontation was drawing an audience; however, the increasing scrutiny appeared to discompose only Mr. Wickham whose frantic glances appeared to suggest a desire to be elsewhere – and immediately so.

“Ah.” he said and looked around once again at the gathering assembly.

Mrs. Collins, who appeared to understand that the matter required privacy for further discussion, secured Lydia’s compliance by a firm grasp of her arm accompanied by a decidedly fierce expression that appeared to disconcert the younger girl. However, as Lydia was a rather tall, stout young woman, it was quickly apparent that Mrs. Collins would require assistance. Lady Catherine responded to the challenge in her usual fashion.

“Dawson!” said she, “Assist Mrs. Collins immediately. Ensure that this. . .Miss Bennet” and Lady Catherine gave an audible sniff, “is escorted into the Bell – at once!”

Dawson moved to secure Lydia Bennet’s other arm.

“We shall continue this conversation inside.” Lady Catherine continued and then, satisfied that Lydia was securely being escorted into the inn, turned her attention to the need to give minute instructions to her coach driver and the stable master as to the proper manner in which her horses were to be treated - for she was excessively attentive to such details. These gentlemen were very familiar with her ladyship’s manner and were properly deferential in listening to her copious advice, nodding their agreement where appropriate and giving every evidence of receiving her directions in the manner most pleasing to her. It was thus some five minutes later before she could join Dawson, Mrs. Collins and Miss Lydia and allowed her servants and the inn’s stable hands to undertake the necessary task in their customary manner.

“This is a very small room,” she said before seating herself in the largest chair available which Mrs. Collins had thoughtfully ensured was unoccupied, “and the window is full west which makes it uncomfortably warm at this time of year. I am surprised they did not have something more fitting. They are always extremely attentive to me when I stop here. I must speak to the innkeeper before we depart. It would not do for us to be forced to stop at the Red Fox Inn next time. I…..”

“Where is George?” cried Lydia.

“Mr. Wickham is, I understand, seeing to the horses for your chaise.” replied Mrs. Collins.

Lady Catherine’s imperious gaze now fixed itself on Lydia Bennet. “Am I to understand that you propose to marry George Wickham? For if such is your intention, you are an extremely foolish girl. You are the daughter of a gentleman and he is naught but the son of a steward. What can you be thinking to degrade yourself so? And your family? The disgrace would ruin them.”

Lydia was about to vehemently defend Mr. Wickham and her intentions, and had opened her lips to express her thoughts on the matter when Charlotte interrupted.

“Of more pressing concern is your intention to elope, for that is your intention, is it not? Why travel to Scotland otherwise? As Mr. Wickham would assuredly fail to gain your father’s approval, I suspect that is the only place you could marry.”

“Elope!” barked Lady Catherine, “To the disgrace of marrying the son of a steward, you would add an elopement? It is not to be endured! It must not be allowed!”

Her walking cane pounded the floor to emphasize her point and startled the other three ladies.

Lydia pouted, “We are to stop in London for a few days while George takes care of some business matters and then we will be off to Gretna Green.”

Mrs. Collins snorted in disgust.

Lady Catherine began to express her disapproval of such an action and spent the best part of five minutes explaining why a proper young lady should not consider such an imprudent action, not forgetting to lament that the Bennet sisters had not had a governess and stating her conviction that such lamentable behaviour was the obvious result. It was only Dawson’s basilisk glare and Charlotte’s firm grip on Lydia’s arm that prevented the latter from trying to escape the lecture and the frequent painful squeeze on said arm every time Lydia opened her mouth that allowed Lady Catherine to finish her exhortation uninterrupted. When she had done, Charlotte, who had become inured to such exhibitions, addressed Lydia calmly.

“Lady Catherine is carrying me home. You shall accompany us, if Lady Catherine will permit it, and we shall ensure you are returned to Longbourn.”

Lady Catherine nodded reluctantly after considering the matter for some moments. Lydia was not prepared to submit to such direction and insisted she would travel with her “dear George”; however, it soon proved impossible to acquiesce to this demand. Mr. Wickham had yet to attend them and a maid, sent to request his presence, shortly returned to impart the information that Mr. Wickham had left a short while before and was last seen heading for London in his rented chaise.

Lydia’s wails of dismay were loud, unpleasant, seemingly inexhaustible and impervious even to the forceful pounding of Lady Catherine’s cane on the floor. That lady, her patience exhausted, finally leaned forward and slapped Lydia firmly leaving a handprint on her cheek.

“Behave like a willful child, and I shall treat you as one. Now be silent and allow me to consider what must be done.”

Charlotte smiled. Perhaps for the first time she found reason to appreciate her Patroness’ dictatorial manner. She had long wished to administer such a rebuke to Lydia Bennet and could take great satisfaction at seeing her shocked into silence. She wondered only how long they would be spared further effusions of anger and spite from their young charge.

Lady Catherine could see no better option than Charlotte’s initial proposal to carry Lydia with her into Hertfordshire, as that had been their initial object and to break their journey at Longbourn would add but a half hour to their trip. Lydia’s views on the matter were not consulted and her protestations that, as she was not to be married, she should be allowed to return to Brighton, were treated with contemptuous looks and silence by the other two ladies.

They had travelled for only a quarter hour when Mrs. Collins turned to Lady Catherine.

"We have not discussed how we might explain Miss Bennet’s presence with us. I have given the matter some thought and suggest we claim that we met by intention at the Inn, that Mr. Wickham was simply ensuring her safe transport to join us. We can suggest that she was eager to return home and such arrangements had been approved by her father.”

“Surely no one would believe such a preposterous story?”

“Perhaps not, but the truth will serve us poorly and as she has not actually eloped, her reputation is not irretrievably ruined. Who would dare suggest otherwise if you condescend to lend your countenance to the story. Your frankness and adherence to rules of propriety are such as to command the acceptance of anyone familiar with your character and would disarm the most discerning observer.”

Lady Catherine nodded her head in gracious approval and then directed a fierce scowl in Lydia’s direction who, already thoroughly chastened by her experiences with Lady Catherine, met her glare but briefly before returning her own gaze to the passing scenery.

“I believe your understanding of the matter is complete, Mrs. Collins. I must admit that Miss Lydia’s behaviour is disgraceful. I cannot comprehend how she could be sister to Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”

"It is the reputations of Elizabeth and her other sisters that concerns me now, your ladyship. I would not have them damaged by the actions of a foolish young girl when it is within our power to prevent it.”

It was some time later as the carriage was rumbling through the London streets that Lady Catherine stiffened and exclaimed, “It will not do! I will not impose so on my brother.”

Mrs. Collins looked at her quizzically, “I do not have the pleasure of understanding your ladyship.”

“It is enough that I impose on my brother, Lord Matlock, to accommodate you for the night. I will not ask him to allow Miss Lydia to stay as well. It would be a disgrace to do so given such behaviour as hers. She is not worthy of such condescension. Miss Elizabeth spoke of relatives in London. She must stay with them for the night.”

Mrs. Collins nodded slowly, “The Gardiners. I am sure they would be prepared to have Lydia stay with them. We will have to make them aware of the particulars of the matter.”

Lady Catherine waved her hand dismissively, “Where do they live?”

Upon being told that the Gardiners lived on Gracechurch Street, Lady Catherine gave every indication that an unpleasant odour had permeated the interior of the carriage. Her countenance did not change upon Lydia’s interruption.

“We cannot stay with the Gardiners! They have gone on a tour with Lizzy.”

This information was not received well by Lady Catherine who remained adamant that she would not allow her brother’s house to be polluted by the presence of Miss Lydia. After no small amount of discussion (none of which involved Lydia Bennet), it was finally resolved that, as there was sufficient time to travel into Hertfordshire if fresh horses could be obtained, they would do so and trust that Longbourn would accommodate the unexpected visitors. Mrs. Collins rather thought it amusing, though her features displayed no traces of such, that Lady Catherine would sooner suffer the indignity of lodging at Longbourn than request her brother accept Lydia Bennet into his house for a night.

Longbourn – much later that day

By the time the de Bourgh coach entered the drive to Longbourn the sun had set and the light was failing quickly. It was therefore a very tired and disgruntled Lydia Bennet who followed Lady Catherine and Charlotte out of the carriage at the entrance to the manor house there to be greeted by her parents and her eldest sister who were clearly confounded by their unexpected visitors.

After the necessary introductions were made, Mr. Bennet looked at Lady Catherine and Charlotte and then at his daughter.

“I have no doubt,” he said, “that there is a story here that I shall be required to hear little though I expect to enjoy its telling. Perhaps we might attend the matter inside.”

Mr. Bennet guided her ladyship into the house. As they passed through the hall, Lady Catherine opened the doors into the dining parlour and drawing room, and pronouncing them, after a short survey, decent looking rooms, was eventually ushered into the summer parlour. By prior arrangement and with admirable brevity, Charlotte explained their encounter with Lydia and Wickham, her removal from his company and the decision to return her to her parents. The story fabricated to cover Lydia’s action was revealed.

That gentleman was shocked into silence for he could well remember Elizabeth’s warnings in regards of Lydia’s disregard for propriety and his own casual dismissive attitude toward those concerns. Unfortunately, Mrs. Bennet, who had been initially awed into silence by the presence of Lady Catherine in her parlour, found her voice and her concerns were quite different from those of her husband.

“Oh Lydia! To be married! I do not understand why you would interfere, Charlotte. To have a daughter married.”

Lydia smiled and bounced as she listened to her mother’s effusions.

“It was most cruel, Mama. Why. . .”

“Be silent, you foolish child!” snapped Lady Catherine. She glared at Lydia who, after spending over six hours in a carriage with her ladyship, was greatly disinclined to oppose her and thus was silenced. Mr. Bennet observed this result with evident appreciation. Lady Catherine then turned her glare upon Mrs. Bennet and – to Mr. Bennet’s further admiration – silenced her as well.

“Are you as insensible as your words suggest, Mrs. Bennet? Have you lost what few wits you appear to possess?”

Mrs. Bennet began to bristle at being spoken to in such a manner and her irritation overcame her respect for her guest. She remembered that Lady Catherine was Mr. Darcy’s aunt and she had always found him to be most disagreeable. His resemblance to his aunt was now obvious.

“I will not be spoken to in such a manner and in my own house too. You may be Mr. Collins’ patroness. . .” Her sniff was, in every way, comparable to that of Lady Catherine’s, “but that counts for nothing here.” She glared at Charlotte. “You are not yet Mistress of Longbourn, Mrs. Collins!”

“BE SILENT, Mrs. Bennet!” growled her husband. “Did you not hear what Mrs. Collins said? Mr. Wickham ran off as soon as he was discovered. He had no intention of marrying our foolish daughter.”

Having silenced his wife, who could only gape at him, he fixed his daughter with his sternest look.

“I remember Lizzy advising me against allowing you to travel to Brighton. She feared this very thing – that you would embarrass your family by your behaviour. She was more discerning than I; however, I do remember saying that your behaviour could hardly grow many degrees worse without requiring that you be locked up for the rest of your life. It appears that I was, in this respect at least and to my regret, correct. Go to your room, Lydia, and remain there until such time as I allow you out.”

Such was the disapprobation she faced by all in the room (excepting only Mrs. Bennet, who had been rendered silent by her husband’s admonishment) that Lydia complied with her father’s order with only half the usual amount of complaint and protestations.

When silence was once more restored, Mr. Bennet turned to Mrs. Collins, bowed his head slightly and said, “We are greatly indebted to you and Lady Catherine. It is late and I must assume you wish to see your parents as soon as may be?”

Charlotte nodded. “Lady Catherine is travelling to visit her nephew in Derbyshire. Her plan was to break her trip in London and stay with her brother. We ventured on to Longbourn instead.”

Mr. Bennet turned to Lady Catherine, “I hope that you will allow us to express our appreciation for the service you have rendered and stay with us, before continuing on in the morning. It is much too late to even contemplate a return to London.”

It was not an easy matter to resolve, for Mrs. Collins was well aware that her parents, Sir William and Lady Lucas, would be greatly disappointed at not being allowed the honour of hosting Lady Catherine and their displeasure at being usurped by the Bennets would be directed at her. To lose the right to bask in the reflected glory of such condescension on the part of her ladyship would be trial enough, but to have such largesse bestowed on Mrs. Bennet would be doubly wounding for that lady would be sure to inform all her neighbours of the great honour bestowed upon her. Nonetheless, so it was eventually resolved and the arbiter in the matter was Lady Catherine herself. She would overnight at Longbourn and the Lucases were to be allowed only the privilege of informing everyone of the great honour shown their daughter in being carried home by the noble lady personally.

Lady Catherine’s object in the matter was unknown but Mrs. Collins rather suspected, as she pondering during her short ride to Lucas Lodge, that her ladyship saw an opportunity to dispense advice and guidance upon a household that was clearly in want of her personal attention.

Mrs. Collins had no sooner left Longbourn House than Lady Catherine turned her focus once more to Mrs. Bennet. Her voice was at its dictatorial best, “You can be at no loss, Mrs. Bennet, to understand my reasons for stopping here for the night.”

Mrs. Bennet looked at her with unaffected astonishment.

“Indeed you are mistaken, your Ladyship. I can only account for the honour of your presence due to our kinship with Mr. Collins. And, of course, Longbourn is quite superior in comfort to Lucas Lodge and I am sure. . .”

“Mrs. Bennet,” replied Lady Catherine in an angry tone, “We are strangers but you must know that I am not to be trifled with. However insincere you choose to be, you shall not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness, and in a cause of such importance as this, I shall certainly not depart from it. The reports that I had from your daughter, Miss Elizabeth Bennet – who I must own I found to be a pretty, genteel sort of girl although possessed of a degree of impertinence quite inappropriate for one of her station – led me to believe there is a great deficiency in the manner in which you have raised her sisters. I need hardly say that to encounter one of them attempting to elope with a purse-poor scoundrel of a militia officer - a rake, to be frank - only confirmed the poor opinion I had formed upon conversing with Miss Elizabeth.”

Mrs. Bennet hardly knew how to respond. The compliment paid to one daughter was not sufficient to outweigh the disparagement of herself. Worse was yet to come.

“She informed me that she and her sisters had never had a governess. I could not believe that you would allow such a situation to occur. Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! I had never heard such a thing. And then when she imparted that you have played no role in instructing your children, I could not comprehend such neglect.”

Mr. Bennet thought to intervene.

“Compared with some families, I believe our children were neglected in this respect; but those as wished to learn never wanted the means. I always encouraged them to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle certainly might.”

“Aye, no doubt; but education is too important to be left to chance and most children will choose idleness and frivolity over learning if left to their own devices. That is what a governess will prevent. I should have advised you most strenuously to engage one. I always say that nothing is to be done in education without steady and regular instruction, and nobody but a governess can give it. It is wonderful how many families I have been the means of supplying in the way of a governess. I am always glad to get a young person well placed out. Four nieces of Mrs. Jenkinson are most delightfully situated through my means. And. . .”

Mrs. Bennet huffed, “My daughters require little beyond what I have instructed them. They are all beautiful – well excepting Mary, perhaps – and will have no difficulty in finding husbands.”

“They have yet to do so, however. Is that not so? From what you and Miss Elizabeth have said they have no accomplishments whatsoever!” Lady Catherine shook herself in disgust. “And then to allow all five out into society before the first is married. I suppose you had no choice but to do so in the country; however, the result is hardly fortuitous. You should have taken them to town every spring for the benefit of masters.”

"Mrs. Bennet would have had no objection,” replied Mr. Bennet speaking rapidly before his wife could form a response. “But I dislike London intensely and would not allow it.”

Mrs. Bennet had by this time collected her thoughts sufficiently to understand that her guest had found fault with the manner in which her daughters had been raised, although the most painful slight was the reference to none of them being married. This she believed she might address.

“If you had allowed Lydia her way, she might well be married in a day or two. They were planning to wed and. . .”

Mr. Bennet gaped at her in amazement. Lady Catherine’s visage expressed only outrage.

“Believe that if you wish, Mrs. Bennet,” said she, “but not only did Mr. Wickham scurry away as soon as they were discovered, he had no means of supporting a wife. He’s a gamester, Madam. A scoundrel and a wastrel.”

Mr. Bennet and his wife were confounded at such a declaration.

“He would have had a valuable living had he not been treated unfairly by another gentleman.” said Mrs. Bennet. “He told us of this himself. It was scandalous and cruel. Had Mr. Darcy honoured. . .”

“Be silent!” barked Lady Catherine, “Lest you further expose your ignorance. My nephew – Yes, Darcy is my nephew, his mother and I were sisters – my nephew has never treated anyone dishonourably in his life. The truth of the matter, Mrs. Bennet, is that scoundrel is not fit to don a clergyman’s collar, chose to give up the living and take three thousand pounds in compensation. When I learned of it, I spoke harshly to my nephew for Wickham deserved not a farthing. Yet Darcy would give him the money to respect his father’s wishes.”

“So Mr. Wickham has no means of support beyond his income as a militia officer.” mused Mr. Bennet. “I believe we must accept that Mr. Wickham was unlikely to have married Lydia. I certainly would not have given my permission for him to do so, had it been sought.”

“I doubt he even has that now, if he planned to elope with your daughter.”

Mrs. Bennet was reluctant to release the idea of Mr. Wickham’s eligibility as a suitor.

“You must go London and make him marry Lydia, Mr. Bennet! For he is so very handsome and so amiable. Surely. . .”

“No, Mrs. Bennet,” replied her husband, “I shall do no such thing. Search for man who wishes not to be found? In the stews of London, most likely? I am not such a fool!”

“But. . .But. . .”

“Exactly, Mrs. Bennet. He did not have marriage in mind. It is clear that your favourite daughter’s wanton behaviour has senselessly risked her reputation and that of her family. We must be extremely grateful to Lady Catherine for not only saving Lydia from ruin, but preserving the reputations of our other daughters as well."

Lady Catherine was pleased to see Mrs. Bennet collapse back into her chair, her lips working but no sound issuing forth. Pleased, that is, until she was treated to the hysterics that ensued. Mrs. Bennet’s intelligence was far from superior, but it was sufficient to understand that Mr. Wickham’s intentions would have spelled the ruin of one daughter, destroyed the reputations of the remainder, and thus rendering it virtually impossible for them to marry. Her reaction to such insights was unpleasant for others in the room; fortunately, Mr. Bennet had sufficient experience to anticipate the onset of his wife’s nerves and had called the housekeeper to escort her to her chambers.

Lady Catherine sniffed in disdain at such conduct which confirmed, if such confirmation was necessary, the inferiority of the Bennet family’s behaviour and consequence. She was, nonetheless, quite content to remain in Mr. Bennet’s company for another full hour, inquiring into the particulars of his estate and dispensing advice as to how he might manage it more appropriately. She, more than once, detected in his manner traces of that impertinence which she had also discerned in his second eldest daughter; however, as he appeared to afford every evidence of consideration to her counsel, she had no cause to question its being received appropriately.

Late that night, after everyone had gone to bed, an express arrived at Longbourn from Colonel Forster informing her family of Lydia’s elopement, that he was attempting to trace the couple’s path and would follow upon his letter as quickly as possible. They could expect him the next day and, with that in mind, Mr. Bennet could see no purpose in replying to the express since the Colonel was likely to be apprised sooner of Lydia’s recovery in person rather than by post.

Lady Catherine Disposes - Part I

PeterOctober 27, 2016 06:30PM

Re: Lady Catherine Disposes - Part I

Kim W.October 28, 2016 10:59PM

Excellent! And I love the title (nfm) (nfm)

SabineC.October 28, 2016 10:00PM

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