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Dearest Anne 2

August 02, 2020 12:51AM
Chapter 2

Elizabeth gingerly lowered herself onto the tree stump to adjust the baby sling she had fashioned out of an old bit of bed linen. She lifted the baby out, kissed his brow and cradled him up against her shoulder.

“Jonathan Bennington, however did you manage to get yourself so twisted up in this sling?” she inquired of him. “You’ve pulled me completely off balance and I can’t hold onto you this way!”

Jonathan answered by blowing more bubbles and gurgling happily—an activity that always drew more smiles and kisses from this wonderful creature who cared for him.

“Now if you don’t stop kicking those chubby little legs of yours, I shall have to leave you at home the next time I go rambling!” she mockingly chided as she nuzzled his tummy, causing him to squeal with delight.

“I suppose you know an idle threat when you hear it, eh, my little man?” she said, joining him in his merriment. She had been taking him on her early morning walks ever since the weather had improved, and it was difficult to know which one of them enjoyed the outings more. Like clockwork, Jonathan would awaken at six, hungry, wet, and eager to start the day. Elizabeth would then change him, give him his breakfast and set him back in his crib with some playthings so that she could ready herself. The two of them would then set out together, deep into their first serious conversation of the day. It was a routine they both cherished, and one they would both miss when she returned home to Hertfordshire.

She had been Jonathan’s nanny for close to eight months now, she realized, and for all her urging, Sir Robert had not found a replacement for her. But then, it seemed as if that was precisely what Sir Robert wanted—his scheme being to keep her at Braemar as long as possible. As far as Elizabeth knew, he had not interviewed anyone for the position, and she sometimes doubted that he had ever put those advertisements in the London papers. Had she taken this responsibility on under normal circumstances, she could have simply given notice and left at the prescribed time. But the circumstances had by no means been normal and her attachment to the baby was such that she would never leave him until someone suitable was found. Besides, she had her Aunt Gardiner to consider.

***

Jane’s wedding day, which should have been one of the happiest of Elizabeth’s life, had been a torment. Darcy’s return to Hertfordshire to stand up with his friend became a test of endurance for her. To her mortification, he seemed to have smiles and pleasant words for everyone but herself! Upon his arrival, he had greeted her formally, barely looking up at her as he offered his congratulations. Then, bowing deeper still, he turned and walked away before she could return the civility. And as they stood facing one another at the altar while the vows were being read, he had kept his eyes fixed on the vicar, never once glancing up at her. What had she done to deserve such treatment after all they had shared at Pemberley?

Elizabeth could still not fully comprehend what had driven him from Hertfordshire after delivering Mr. Bingley back to Jane. He had seemed solemn and nervous throughout that visit, only casting furtive glances in her direction, but never attempting to speak to her directly. Of course, Mama had behaved abominably—gushing over Mr. Bingley while barely acknowledging him. But surely he was accustomed to that. Or perhaps it was the indignity of being criticized for the wording of the Lydia's marriage announcement? But neither did that make any sense, for Mama knew nothing of his involvement in the whole shameful affair.

No, the only thing that made any sense was the painful truth that, thanks to Lydia, she and her family were now even more objectionable than before. And surely, Lady Catherine must have made her feelings known. No doubt, he had received a stern lecture on the degradation such a match would bring upon the entire family. She had often imagined that ugly scene and acknowledged that it would now be insupportable for him to associate with her. But to treat her so coldly, so cruelly? She would not have believed it of him. Yet the love that she felt for him did not waver; neither could she remain angry with him for long. He was only being sensible, doing what was best for Georgiana and the rest of his family.

Having made his excuses, Darcy had left the wedding breakfast early, and Elizabeth was convinced that he had hastened away on her account. Emotionally spent and exhausted, it was all she could do to smile, as guest after guest now teased her about being the next Bennet sister to marry. Finally, when the newlyweds were off and most of the guests had departed, she begged to be excused, claiming a violent headache and escaped to the solitude of her room. There, she slipped out of her beautiful new gown and into her bed to weep silently into the bedclothes.

She had not heard the quiet knock on her door or the footsteps that followed, so she startled as her aunt suddenly seated herself beside her and smoothed her damp curls from her face.

“Elizabeth, my dearest. What a difficult day this must have been for you!”

Elizabeth raised herself onto her elbows, and wiping away tears with the back of her hand, tried to smile. “I miss Jane already, Aunt, “ she offered. “I didn’t realize how alone I would feel once she was gone.”

“She will be home again in a month, and you will, no doubt, find Netherfield a wonderful refuge.”

“Indeed, I will in time, Aunt, but for now, I wish to leave the newlyweds to themselves. I know a couple requires privacy so early in their marriage, and it will be a test of my fortitude to limit my visits.”

With a great sigh, Elizabeth sank back down onto the bed. She squeezed her aunt’s hand reassuringly, hoping to make her believe that the loss of her sister was the only thing troubling her. She failed miserably.

“I can well imagine how difficult it was for you to see Mr. Darcy again, Lizzy. I am so very sorry for the way things have turned out there.”

Elizabeth turned her face to the wall and bit down on her lower lip. What was there to say?

“It is no consolation to you, I know, but your uncle and I are convinced that he loves you, Elizabeth. I suppose his family responsibilities have made it impossible to…”

“Yes, Aunt, I know it would now be impossible for him to associate with our family,” interrupted Elizabeth. She needed to change the subject, or she would break down and cry.

“Well, your uncle and I have come up with a scheme to distract you for a while, my dear,” replied Mrs. Gardiner. “As you know, since our tour of the lakes was cut short we have not had the opportunity to take another holiday. But now your uncle informs me that business has slowed and that he would like to take several weeks, perhaps a month, to get away and rest. Will you come with us, Lizzy? We would so much enjoy your company!”

“A holiday! Do you mean it? Oh, Aunt, I would give anything to get away from Longbourn just now. You are both so very good to me and I love you both so much!”

She sat up and threw her arms around her aunt’s neck, hugging her tightly with both appreciation and relief. Then, just as suddenly, she drew back and asked, “You do not intend to return to Lambton and the lakes, do you?”

“Of course not, Lizzy. We know the associations there are far too painful! And besides, we have come up with an even more adventurous destination. We will make a journey to Scotland. It is a long trip, to be sure, but I understand that the beauty of the countryside is a restorative to the mind, as well as the body. Your uncle has always wanted to travel there, and now I have an excellent reason to go, as well. My cousin Robert Bennington has just become a father, and I am very anxious to see him and the baby! Robert is a very distant cousin, related only through marriage, but his mother and mine were the best of friends. As they lived just twelve or thirteen miles from Lambton, we saw each other rather often. Robert was my only male cousin to ever pay me any mind, so he naturally won a substantial place in my heart,” she laughed.

Elizabeth embraced her once more. “Oh, Aunt! This is just what I need: A change of scene, new people to meet and your affectionate companionship!”


****

They began the journey with everyone in good spirits. Elizabeth managed to cast off her melancholy at times, and when she could not, she did her best to dissemble. There was lively conversation and much talk of what they might expect at their various destinations. Sir Robert’s home was their first stop, and Elizabeth had endless questions about the family, Sir Robert’s temperament, and her aunt’s childhood memories of him.

“But will not three people descending on the family at such a time be a burden to them, Aunt?” asked Elizabeth when they were some ten miles from Braemar Castle. “As new parents, they will have much to contend with.”

“Oh, we will not be residing in their home, Lizzy. I should have explained that earlier. Sir Robert and his family now live in what used to be a guesthouse on his father-in-law’s estate. Mrs. Bennington’s childhood home is very large indeed, I understand, and when all her brothers and sisters had married and moved away, it no longer suited her father to live there. I suppose it must have seemed rather empty and lonely. As Braemar Castle is situated in such an isolated little hamlet, Fiona’s eldest brother, and heir to the estate, did not wish to make it his primary residence and decided to convert it into an inn. He now draws his income from it ,but continues to spend the summer months there. One wing of the castle was left for the family’s convenience, and that is where we have been invited to stay. It is less than a quarter mile from Sir Robert’s, I am told, and a very easy walk through adjoining garden paths. All this, I know only from Robert’s letters, of course.”

“Then we shall be very comfortable indeed,” replied Elizabeth, now looking forward to the visit more than ever. The thought of living with a family that she did not actually know had made her uneasy.


***

They arrived with the highest expectation of spending a few pleasurable days with the family, only to be suddenly thrown into the turmoil and grief that now beset them. Fiona Bennington had suffered through a long and difficult birth, never regaining her strength and tragically succumbing to the complications of her travail. They had buried her five days earlier.

Sir Robert was in a frenzied state as his son howled for his mother’s milk and the sustenance he so desperately needed. He was a good-sized infant with a healthy appetite and the wet nurse that had been hired to feed him did not have enough milk to satisfy his needs. Her own infant son got much of her milk, and Jonathan was always left hungry. Yet there was no one else to be had in this lonely part of the country. Goat’s milk, cow’s milk, concoctions of all sorts were being painstakingly spooned into the infant’s mouth to try and subdue his hunger, but his immature digestive system could not tolerate them, often causing him much pain. The poor little creature could not be comforted and his father, desperate to the point of madness, was losing his ability to function.

Seeing that her cousin was unable to act, Mrs. Gardiner immediately proposed to travel to the next town, and if need be, the one after that, to find another wet nurse. Perhaps even two ladies ought be engaged to assure the child’s survival. She and Mr. Gardiner left immediately in the company of a trusted servant who knew the countryside and its roads, while Elizabeth was left in the awkward position of making herself useful to both father and son.

Not knowing what to do first, she instinctively picked up the wailing infant and began to pace the floor with him. His pathetic cries were unrelenting despite her rocking and soothing, and she was soon weeping in frustration herself. How could Aunt Gardiner have left her in a situation like this? What did she know about babies? What could she possibly do to calm him?

She began to sing the melodies she remembered from her childhood, as she lovingly massaged his little tummy. He continued to cry, but with somewhat less intensity. Mesmerized by her voice and smiling face, the vigor and volume of his wails subsided to intermittent sobs and whimpers. Elizabeth rocked and sang and affectionately nuzzled his face as he stared into hers, his large brown pupils darting from her mouth to her sparkling eyes.

Sir Robert, anxious to see by what miracle his son was being pacified, came rushing up to see them, but Elizabeth waved him away lest he break the spell. For the next few hours she walked and sang until the wet nurse finally returned to feed him once more. Elizabeth continued to sing as he suckled, hoping that the milk and the music would finally lull him to sleep. And sleep he did, for seven full hours, by which time, the wet nurse returned again.

For the next three days, Elizabeth cared for the babe with the help of the household servants and Sir Robert, who having had his first few hours of uninterrupted sleep, proved to be a very nurturing and capable father. Jonathan was always hungry and continued to cry a great deal, but the sense of desperation was now gone from his voice, and the little army of people that cared for him were often able to distract him until his next meager meal. But it was Elizabeth who was most successful in soothing him when he was at his crankiest, and Sir Robert came to genuinely depend on her.

“Heaven has sent you as a blessing, Elizabeth. I don’t think Jonathan or I would have survived without you!” he declared, as they shared a simple meal while the baby slept. Elizabeth recognized that these were the words of a desperate and grateful man, worn down by fatigue, grief and fear. Yet she was moved by his generous acknowledgement of her efforts. Later that afternoon, her aunt and uncle returned with a young mother and her baby girl. She was no more than a girl herself, perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old. She carried one very small satchel, with all the possessions she had in the world, and it was not difficult to guess her situation. She was unwed and alone, and she saw this position in a fine house as a Godsend.

“Well,” said Sir Robert, after the introductions were made, “I believe the first order of business is for you to have a nice hot bath.” He tried to hide his repulsion at the state of her clothes and her person. Was this street urchin truly the best woman they could find to nurture his child?

“Indeed, you are correct, Sir Robert” said Mrs. Gardiner, smiling, “but only after we get Betsy a warm glass of milk and a bite to eat.” She winked at her cousin as she led the grateful girl towards the kitchen and into the capable hands of Mrs. McKane, the cook.

“She has had a very difficult time of it since her parents cast her out,” said Aunt Gardiner upon her return, “but I believe that she is healthy and willing, and for now, that is all that matters. Besides, we could find no other woman who could quit her family to reside here.”

“Thank you for finding her, Madeline,” said Sir Robert, opening his arms to her for the first time. “I don’t mean to appear ungrateful. I could not have done it on my own, and your coming here at this time has saved us.”

It was only then that the cousins had a chance to embrace and to talk of all that had transpired. While the Gardiners and Sir Robert talked in quiet tones by the fire, Elizabeth took it upon herself to see to the needs of the new wet nurse and to smooth the way for Jonathan’s first feeding. And as days went by, everyone seemed to relinquish his or her responsibilities concerning Jonathan to her. The servants no longer went to Sir Robert with their questions pertaining to the baby, and it was left to Elizabeth to schedule his feedings with both nurses, to change and swaddle him, and sing him to sleep. She didn’t quite understand how it had all turned out that way, but with each passing day she became more and more entrenched in her role, with no tactful way of begging out of it.

Two weeks passed in this way, and while the ladies were overburdened with their tasks, it was becoming increasingly clear that Mr. Gardiner was feeling neglected and growing impatient. He had come to get a restful holiday, after all, and although he understood his wife’s desire to help her stricken cousin, he felt it was now time for them to depart. Sir Robert was a gentleman of leisure and had the means to hire anyone he pleased, after all. He, on the other hand, would not get the opportunity of another holiday for an entire year.

The final outcome to all the Gardiners’ meetings behind closed doors was that they would continue on to their next destination, and Lizzy would remain while Sir Robert searched for a proper nanny. It had been Elizabeth’s suggestion, but from the first, her uncle was extremely uneasy about leaving her in the house of a bereaved widower who had become all too familiar with his beautiful niece. Sir Robert called Elizabeth by her Christian name, thought nothing of putting his arm around her when he came to take his son out of her arms, and insisted on teaching her chess, so that they could play together in the evenings. He complimented her on everything she did, kissed her hand at every opportunity and generally acted like a besotted schoolboy in her presence. Now that his son was thriving, he seemed nothing like the grieving widower! Edward Gardiner saw trouble in all of this, but his wife had an altogether different view on the subject.

“Edward, really, would it be so terrible if Lizzy developed an attachment to Sir Robert? He is only thirty-five years old and a very kind and handsome man. I can certainly vouch for the honor of his character, and his wife has left him a small fortune along with this fine house and the attached grounds. With Mr. Darcy gone, I cannot imagine her finding a finer gentleman than Robert—or a more comfortable situation. And if you are concerned about his misleading her, I promise you that he will not. He knows how fond we are of Elizabeth and would not be able to face us if he did.”

“Aren’t you rushing things a bit, my dear?” replied Mr. Gardiner. “The man only buried his wife less than three weeks ago!”

“All the more reason to trust him. He is not blind to the impropriety of showing an interest in any young woman before the year is up. These few weeks will merely give them a chance to get to know one another better. Elizabeth will be doing a fine act of charity by staying here, and if anything comes of it, I will be only too happy for both of them.”

“Is that the message I am to convey when next I write to my sister and brother at Longbourn?. That I left their daughter with a handsome, grieving widower in the hope that they would form an attachment? Really Madeline, it is truly irresponsible!”

But all their arguing was for naught, for Elizabeth insisted that she would not leave Jonathan in the care of the servants, and that Sir Robert, for all his nurturing ways, was not capable of caring for his son on his own. She would stay until a nanny was found and then Sir Robert would accompany her home himself.

Mr. Gardiner was not at all convinced, but Elizabeth assured him that she wanted to stay—as much for herself as for the child. Living at Longbourn and seeing Jane as mistress of her own home would not be easy for her, she admitted. “It seems that as much as I love my sister, I am a jealous creature, after all,” she said, humbly. “Another few weeks here will help me to adjust to these new realities without burdening Jane during the first months of her marriage. Please, Uncle Gardiner, I beg you to let me stay. Here, my own foolish problems are put in perspective. I will be stronger for it when I return to Hertfordshire, I assure you.”

With this reasoning before him, Edward Gardiner could have no argument. And so they left with the promise to check in on her on their return, two weeks hence, and with her uncle’s strict warning for her to guard her heart, as well as her reputation.

____________________________________________________________________________________


Elizabeth rose slowly from the tree stump, centering Jonathan on her chest. “There, now we can be off again, and we must hurry, for your papa is surely waiting on me for breakfast.” This was yet another part of her morning routine -– sharing breakfast with Sir Robert and planning out the day together.

Since Jonathan had weaned himself some six weeks earlier, Mrs. Graham had been dismissed, but Betsy had been retained to help look after him, taking over more and more of Elizabeth’s responsibilities. This left her more time to herself and many more hours to spend with Sir Robert. Elizabeth knew that that was exactly how he had engineered it, and was, of course, pleased and flattered to be thought of as a lady again, rather than a nursemaid.

She had also come to admire and respect Betsy’s skills as a mother, and had encouraged Sir Robert to rely on her completely for Jonathan’s care. But Sir Robert insisted on finding an English-speaking nanny, for he had every intention of returning to England one day and wanted his son to be able to switch off his brogue and sound like a proper English gentleman. This was of utmost importance to him, and he would not be rushed or swayed by any arguments she put forth.

“I shall have to have another one of those serious talks with your papa today, Jonathan,” said Elizabeth, as she strode towards what she now considered home. She had never stayed in any one place so long, and Longbourn seemed so very far away. She missed Jane desperately, and Papa, of course, and there were even times when she longed to hear Kitty and Lydia’s bickering echo through the house. She would then be struck by the realization that Lydia no longer lived at home.

After two months had passed and Sir Robert’s delaying tactics had become obvious, her father had threatened to come and fetch her himself. Then a week later, much to Elizabeth’s surprise, he wrote to say that Aunt Gardiner had persuaded him to give the situation a bit more time. But as one week followed another, an exceptionally harsh winter invaded the highlands, making the roads impassable and halting travel for many months. Jane and Charles had planned on coming for her in March, but a difficult early pregnancy had prevented it. Now Elizabeth was resolved to leave in any way possible. She would not be away from her sister any longer!

“He is going to give me an argument, I know; and several excuses, as well, but I must go home. It is time – way past time! If I cannot cast my lot with him, then I have no business staying here.”

She swallowed hard as thoughts of her wavering resolve plagued her. Why could she not bring herself to accept Sir Robert? It would be by far a more eligible match than she could ever hope to make in England. True, Braemar Castle was far from Longbourn, but was the possibility of being content, even happy, greater here with him than with anyone she could imagine meeting in the future? Would she leave Scotland and this exceptional offer of marriage only to find herself settling for someone else a few years later out of desperation? She had come to realize that making a permanent home with her sister at Netherfield would not be advisable and remaining at home with her mother utterly impossible. Had she really come round to Charlotte’s way of thinking? Where was her naïve resolve only to marry for the very deepest love? She was thoroughly ashamed of herself.

At least, she and Sir Robert knew each other very well now. He had long ago convinced her that his love for her was genuine, and she, in turn, liked and respected him. They were so easy together; it would all be so comfortable. In essence, she had been the mistress of the house for some time now, organizing Jonathan’s routines, planning meals and supervising the servants. Their relationship only lacked the physical intimacy that came with marriage. Sir Robert certainly did not repulse her! In fact, there were times when they were laughing together or walking quietly down a lane that she yearned to lean on him or press his hand. She was truly fond of him. He was a good, kind, and honorable man. What more could she ask for, short of the passionate love that would always be reserved for Fitzwilliam? Was she being a fool to refuse him? She didn’t know.

“And you will forget me soon enough, my sweet boy;” she said to her precious little charge, as she put her nose to his feathery fine hair and breathed in his lovely, baby scent.

They were now descending the slope with the magnificent view of the old Braemar Castle to the left and the beautifully restored guesthouse to the right of it. The intricate patterns of the gardens meshed the two together, so that in her mind, the entirety of the estate was home. Indeed, Sir Robert spent as much time at the inn as he did at home, and of late, she had been accompanying him. In this lonely part of the world, Sir Robert had found the male companionship he craved in the guests that visited regularly. There were those men with whom he hunted, those with whom he played chess and those with whom he discussed books and politics. He was a fixture at the inn, often dining there and always attending the musical performances. The inn had gained a most favorable reputation among the elite of London, and Sir Robert often found himself in the most distinguished company.

Elizabeth now smiled as four large carriages made their way around the circular drive to stop by the main entrance of the inn. “Your papa will be very happy to hear that new guests have arrived, Jonathan. Hopefully there are some chess players among them.”

She watched as four ladies and three gentlemen descended from the first two carriages and turned to wait for the passengers of the third to join them. As they proceeded towards the inn's entrance, something in the gait of the tallest gentleman struck a chord and caused her to gasp aloud.

Don’t be ridiculous! Now you are hallucinating! What would he be doing in Scotland, and at Braemar Castle of all places! It is time you went home, Elizabeth! It is definitely time you went home!
SubjectAuthorPosted

Dearest Anne 2

Gaby A.August 02, 2020 12:51AM

Re: Dearest Anne 2

Shannon KAugust 18, 2020 03:31AM

Re: Dearest Anne 2

AntonellaMTCAugust 04, 2020 06:18AM

Re: Dearest Anne 2

Gaby A.August 05, 2020 01:35AM



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