A Pragmatic Friendship
To Mrs. Bennet, the late mistress of Longbourn House, practical wisdom had it that Mr. and Mrs. Collins, who were to inherit the estate, would someday turn her and her five unmarried daughters out to starve among the hedgerows. Fortunately for that dear gentlewoman, her husband outlived her for a full two summers. More fortunately still, she had lived to see four of her daughters quite advantageously married, the last, Miss Kitty, only a few weeks before Mrs. Bennet's poor nerves finally succumbed to the rigors of a successful motherhood, Her husband's heart and mind, unused to silence and peace, had lost momentum, and finally came to an end in a peaceful rest. Only his middle daughter, Mary, remained at home to oversee the dismantling of the house to turn over to her distant cousins.
They came in August. Mary had previously removed her private goods to her eldest sister Jane's home in ____shire, some 60 miles distant. She was to divide her days between the Bingley's manor- Islington Hall, Pemberley- the great house that Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy called home, and Linden Cottage- home to the clergyman on the Pemberley estate, where her younger sister, Mrs. Catherine Markham, resided. The youngest sister of all, Mrs. Lydia Wickham was the mother of two tiny girls and could have used the help of the spinster Aunt, but neither her husband's financial situation nor her own well-developed nerves, could stand for Miss Bennet's presence for long.
Miss Bennet had struck up a friendship with Mrs. Charlotte Collins in the years since the latter's marriage. Charlotte had seen the Bennet family several times a year when she visited her parents' house in the vicinity of Longbourn. The two ladies had known each other as children though Charlotte was formerly Lizzy Bennet's particular friend. Since Mrs. Darcy's marriage, Charlotte had written often but seen very little of the other woman. Charlotte had a young daughter, Mariah, and Lizzy a young son, Fitzwilliam, and both had obligations to visit their sisters before each other. But Charlotte had seen Mary on many occasions at Longbourn and was amazed to see the younger sister's transformation.
Mary had not changed much in look since Charlotte had married Mr. Collins four years before, though she had learned grace- as a lady ought to do between the ages of eighteen and two and twenty. More importantly, Mary was able to be of use to her parents in ways that brightened her mind and body. Mary, excluded by age from the company of her elder sisters, and by mind and temperament from her younger sisters, had, at the tender age of 12, retreated inward to books and music, but her nature had nothing to lend either accomplishment. But when her sisters left home and her mother fell ill, she found that the running of a household economy was something she had an especial talent for. And when her father's steps and mind started to slow, she found that running an estate was no less to her taste. In fact, Mary found, quite to her own astonishment, that she had some decidedly masculine attributes. She had a taste for figures and a business acumen that become the talk of the neighborhood. But despite these unorthodox characteristics, her neighbors much preferred the new Miss Bennet to the older awkward and moralizing girl. The moral penetration remained, but Mary used it to temper her shrewdness in business in a way that was pleasing to the staff and tenants. By the time of Mr. Bennet's death, he was convinced that Mary could do well as any son in continuing the run of the estate. However, it was not to be so, because Longbourn was entailed on a Mr. Collins, who had made one sensible decision in his life, and that was the taking of Charlotte Lucas as his wife.
Charlotte Collins knew through neighborhood gossip that neither the tenants nor Longbourn's staff were pleased with the arrangements of the entail. The two years since Mrs. Bennet had passed on were the most rewarding in memory and, though she did not know it, the credit of the profit was given to Miss Mary Bennet. Nonetheless Charlotte was a practical woman. She knew from seeing her husband and Miss Bennet together that his presence brought out a Mary better left in memory and that her friend would be better off in the superior company of her wealthy elder sisters. For Charlotte recognized that Miss Mary was only two and twenty and might be an appealing candidate for marriage if thrown in the path of enough rich men. Hertfordshire currently offered her little in that department.
Her decision not to ask Mary to stay in her ancestral home as her especial companion was confirmed by her husband's insensitivity upon their arrival at Longbourn. As the carriage pulled up the lane, they saw a number of people lined up to meet them. Miss Bennet stood directly in front of the house next to her Aunt Phillips, who had insisted on staying with Mary after her father's death. Mary had arranged for the household staff to also be outside to greet their new owners. Charlotte noted the unhappiness of everyone present and civilly but not pleasantly greeted her friend, giving Mary's hand a slight squeeze of support. Her husband made no such gallant effort.
"My dearest cousin," he cried as he stepped down from the carriage that Mary had sent to bring them. "How wonderful you are here to greet my dearest Charlotte and I to our new home. I was telling dearest Charlotte, and my former patroness, Lady Catherine, that you were feeling quite lonely and overwhelmed since the death of your father, and that you would be so happy upon our arrival." Here Mrs. Phillips nodded in sympathy at her dear niece. "What a relief it must be for you that we have finally arrived so that you may travel to your new home and rid yourself of such responsibilities that such a young girl could not handle. I am sure Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy with your sisters will care for you as much as your dear parents would have done. Why I was telling Lady Catherine just the other day that I hope in event of her passing that her dearest sister's husband would do as much for Miss de Bourgh." Here Mr. Collins stopped to catch a breath and Mary took the chance to greet Charlotte.
"Charlotte, you will find everything to your liking, I believe. Mrs. Phillips has kindly offered to tour you the house and introduce you to the staff." She then nodded at Mr. Collins. "Mr. Ramsey will be here tomorrow to go over the standard accounts with you, Mr. Collins I have left the ledgers and books in order in the library." Mr. Collins started to nod, but before he could continue, Mary went on, her voice straining with emotion.
"I have removed the family things to my sisters' homes. If you find anything amiss, do not hesitate to write me or my father's solicitor." She then added abruptly. "I am afraid this whole experience has given me quite a headache." Mary had never learned the lady's art of making excuses and it was obvious to everyone except Mr. Collins that she could not spend another minute entertaining such a man. "I will withdraw to my Aunt's home to rest." Mr. Collins started to speak again, but Mary took a deep breathe and added quickly. "The Bingleys were delayed in London but will be at my Aunt's in the morning to collect me. Please do join us all for breakfast there." With this most improper and breathless invitation, Mary half ran to the waiting carriage.Chapter 02
"I appreciate your leaving a letter for me after breakfast this morning. It was a relief to know that you understand me and that you understand how much leaving Longbourn will change my life. You must think it silly dear Charlotte, as a wife and mother, that merely being mistress of an estate fulfilled my needs in such a way. But here I am now with no house and no husband and no children, off to stay with my sisters. I do love my sisters truly Charlotte, but they have never seen any use for me- and now I am to live on their charity with nothing to fill my time but such ladies' activities at which I have repeatedly found myself inept. Oh you must think me horribly improper. Get thee a husband, I hear you say. But truthfully Charlotte, I have not Jane's goodness, nor Lizzy's liveliness, nor Kitty's complacency, nor even Lydia's recklessness. And I have none of their beauty. I have my marriage portion, but I do not pretend that any man worth having will be induced by such a sum. Thus I will remain a spinster Aunt to Charles and Eliza Jane and Lizzy's Fitzwilliam and whoever else might come along. But as an Aunt I will have none of the recommendations of their mothers for I am not as pretty or animated or warm, and I cannot dance well nor show them how to play as well as their Aunts, that is, Miss Bingley and Miss Darcy. I am afraid I will have to return to dear Fordyce and bore the minister when he comes to call as I used to do before they were all married. Except that as Kitty is married to the minister I don't think that shall serve at all. "Oh, but I am feeling quite sorry for myself, when I know I should be happy for you dear Charlotte. Do enjoy putting your new home together, and do give my regards to your father and brother. And give my love to little Maria. I am sorry I did not get to see to her before I left. Please do not let Mr. Collins order about Mr. Ramsey. I looked quite hard to find him when Davies left and I assure you there is no better in the county... "...Yours sincerely, Mary Bennet."
"My dearest Charlotte,
"I appreciate your leaving a letter for me after breakfast this morning. It was a relief to know that you understand me and that you understand how much leaving Longbourn will change my life. You must think it silly dear Charlotte, as a wife and mother, that merely being mistress of an estate fulfilled my needs in such a way. But here I am now with no house and no husband and no children, off to stay with my sisters. I do love my sisters truly Charlotte, but they have never seen any use for me- and now I am to live on their charity with nothing to fill my time but such ladies' activities at which I have repeatedly found myself inept. Oh you must think me horribly improper. Get thee a husband, I hear you say. But truthfully Charlotte, I have not Jane's goodness, nor Lizzy's liveliness, nor Kitty's complacency, nor even Lydia's recklessness. And I have none of their beauty. I have my marriage portion, but I do not pretend that any man worth having will be induced by such a sum. Thus I will remain a spinster Aunt to Charles and Eliza Jane and Lizzy's Fitzwilliam and whoever else might come along. But as an Aunt I will have none of the recommendations of their mothers for I am not as pretty or animated or warm, and I cannot dance well nor show them how to play as well as their Aunts, that is, Miss Bingley and Miss Darcy. I am afraid I will have to return to dear Fordyce and bore the minister when he comes to call as I used to do before they were all married. Except that as Kitty is married to the minister I don't think that shall serve at all.
"Oh, but I am feeling quite sorry for myself, when I know I should be happy for you dear Charlotte. Do enjoy putting your new home together, and do give my regards to your father and brother. And give my love to little Maria. I am sorry I did not get to see to her before I left. Please do not let Mr. Collins order about Mr. Ramsey. I looked quite hard to find him when Davies left and I assure you there is no better in the county...
"...Yours sincerely, Mary Bennet."
"I wonder at your being able to write to me at all given your wretched spirits. And I do understand them, as I stated in my previous letter. But we shall put all that behind us, for you will do just fine, I think. You are far younger and have far more to offer than I did when I married Mr. Collins and acquired my own household. And I hear that Bingley's estate has much to recommend it. Lady Catherine knew the house many years ago and talked much of it when she heard that the Bingleys had acquired it. She especially commented on the drawing rooms which she found almost to her taste, though I understand from Lizzy that your sister has now remodeled those rooms extensively... "...I have heard that you have decided to go to Pemberley when Jane goes to London for the season. I urge you to rethink your options. Lizzy will have her babe then and the Darcys will be quite preoccupied. Better that you go and see the social scene in London. You will have far more options there. I am a mother, as you say, and I shall scold for a minute. Remember Mary that the society of Meryton knows you well and would excuse your lack of sociability under a guise of familiarity. In London you can practice recommending yourself to strangers. Then you may return to Pemberley in May or June and use such talents as you will have learned at balls and among the family circle in Derbyshire. And I don't see why you feel like you should stay with Kitty a third of the year. While you know that I was quite comfortable in a parsonage, it would make far more sense to remain at the large house for the entire summer and fall. Then the following winter you may tell all that your home is Pemberley in Derbyshire. You certainly will not be a bother to anyone, you know. I, myself, wish you could be back here at Longbourn, the tenants speak so highly of you. But I have a duty to my husband... "...As to my getting on here, it is quite nice to be settled near my parents again. I see my brother nearly every day. He feels quite alone, I think, since our youngest sister went to stay with Maria and her husband. Mr. Collins and Ramsey have already misunderstood each other once or twice but I hope that they will get along soon enough. Little Maria has already impressed Mrs. Hill with her quiet ways though, so you see we are not all having trouble with the servants... "... Give my regards to Mr. and Mrs. Bingley. "Yours, Charlotte Collins"
"I wonder at your being able to write to me at all given your wretched spirits. And I do understand them, as I stated in my previous letter. But we shall put all that behind us, for you will do just fine, I think. You are far younger and have far more to offer than I did when I married Mr. Collins and acquired my own household. And I hear that Bingley's estate has much to recommend it. Lady Catherine knew the house many years ago and talked much of it when she heard that the Bingleys had acquired it. She especially commented on the drawing rooms which she found almost to her taste, though I understand from Lizzy that your sister has now remodeled those rooms extensively...
"...I have heard that you have decided to go to Pemberley when Jane goes to London for the season. I urge you to rethink your options. Lizzy will have her babe then and the Darcys will be quite preoccupied. Better that you go and see the social scene in London. You will have far more options there. I am a mother, as you say, and I shall scold for a minute. Remember Mary that the society of Meryton knows you well and would excuse your lack of sociability under a guise of familiarity. In London you can practice recommending yourself to strangers. Then you may return to Pemberley in May or June and use such talents as you will have learned at balls and among the family circle in Derbyshire. And I don't see why you feel like you should stay with Kitty a third of the year. While you know that I was quite comfortable in a parsonage, it would make far more sense to remain at the large house for the entire summer and fall. Then the following winter you may tell all that your home is Pemberley in Derbyshire. You certainly will not be a bother to anyone, you know. I, myself, wish you could be back here at Longbourn, the tenants speak so highly of you. But I have a duty to my husband...
"...As to my getting on here, it is quite nice to be settled near my parents again. I see my brother nearly every day. He feels quite alone, I think, since our youngest sister went to stay with Maria and her husband. Mr. Collins and Ramsey have already misunderstood each other once or twice but I hope that they will get along soon enough. Little Maria has already impressed Mrs. Hill with her quiet ways though, so you see we are not all having trouble with the servants...
"... Give my regards to Mr. and Mrs. Bingley.
"Yours, Charlotte Collins"
Mrs. Jane Bingley was amazed by the change that two years as mistress of Longbourn had had on her sister. Mary, somewhat plain, quiet, and overly serious had seen her father's decline, and had turned to his financial books as dutifully as she had formerly turned to Fordyce's sermons and her pianoforte, only this time, she found that her talent matched that usually masculine activity. Though still not particularly sensitive or delicate in company, Mary had at least become animated, interesting, and Jane was surprised to find out, somewhat self-sufficient.
"You see," said Mary to the astonished Jane as they played with 3-year-old Charles and 1- year-old Eliza Jane, "After Mama died, I convinced Father to invest my marriage portion in my name. I knew I had little chance of marrying, at least," she smiled, looking around the nursery, which was ornately decorated, "as advantageously as you and Elizabeth or even Kitty." Mrs. Bingley, still given to blushing after nearly four years of marriage, felt her cheeks turn red. "And I knew my 1000 pounds would not keep me from relying on you and Lizzy's good fortune if I did not marry. Thus it was of little consequence if my investments did not pay off. Luckily, my investment was wise. I have nearly doubled my marriage portion. And as it was mine, Charlotte, I mean the Collins, did not deprive me of the profit when they took the estate." Mary would have liked to have continued and told her sister about how, discouraged of sitting up with her Mother, day after day, had turned to helping her father manage the estate, and how she came across the particular information about the textile industry that had returned such a fine dividend. But the former Miss. Bennet's shock at the whole idea of gambling one's marriage portion was such that Mary knew she would have to turn her attention to less prosaic subjects, for instance, the exact color and size of small Eliza Jane's delicate ringlets.Chapter 03
It was nearing Christmas and the family party was eagerly awaiting a trip to Pemberley. Mary and the Bingleys were the only ones present at breakfast a few days before they were to leave, as Miss Bingley had already gone to spend Christmas in London with the Hursts. Pemberley no longer held much attraction to her.
Mr. Bingley had become quite fond of his sister-in-law and was amiss that she would not be with them for much longer. "Miss Mary, are you quite determined to stay at Pemberley and not go on to London in January?" he asked. "Your youngest sister is going to stay with us this winter, you know, and I don't believe that you have ever met her daughters."
"No thank you Charles. I will meet another niece as you know at Pemberley and though Anne is only two months old, I am sure that she has already learned better manners than Lydia's girls." Mary immediately regretted her words as she realized their rudeness.
"Mary, you say some of the most horrible things. I must protest," cried Jane. "The girls are a bit wild, but they are sweet things. You would not be so unforgiving if you met them."
"I apologize, Jane, though it is true that I never intend to spend much time with Lydia and her daughters if I can help it. It is more that I do not like London. I would be much happier in the country."
"Oh, Mary, do not inherit our father's dislike without giving it a fair chance. Caroline has offered to introduce you to many of her friends, and we shall see plays and go to balls. Bingley has many pleasing associates whom you might stand up with. And I did catch you dancing a few sets at the last ball at the assembly so dancing might not be out of the question either."
"Only with the two Mr. Sands. They are so familiar to me now. And then we only spoke of the elder's estate and the younger's business. I would not know what to say to say to a stranger in London."
"They both found you quite amusing, I daresay and quite agreeable," laughed Bingley. "Besides, we will introduce you round, and then there will be no strange young men."
"If Miss Darcy can stand a winter in Derbyshire than I can as well," said Mary, steering the subject away from young men.
"Actually," said Jane, "I received a letter from Lizzy yesterday. Miss Darcy is to spend the winter with her Aunt and Uncle in London. We are to take her with us after Christmas. You are not the only young lady whose siblings are steering her toward London society."
Mary was disappointed for she wanted to know Georgiana better. "Perhaps," she said struggling for words that would hide her distress, for she was trying quite hard to work on her manner, "I will be company for Kitty then, for I know that her and Miss Darcy are friends and I might take her place for the winter.
Jane was touched for she knew Mary to be in earnest in her wish to be of use as well as her deep desire to avoid London. Jane knew that Mary had developed a deep fear of mortification as she had learned of her past follies and that London seemed to her the spot where such future embarrassment might most likely occur.
"Well, you are determined then. You are a grown woman and know your own way." Mr. Bingley then steered the conversation to safer waters.
Several weeks later, Mary found herself settled at Pemberley. Lizzy was recovering from her laying in- having had been ill for many months, and Pemberley was temporarily a subdued place. Little Fitzwilliam and baby Anne was quite lively though- as were Lizzy's spirits.
"For I will not have to lounge about much longer now," she said brightly to Mary one afternoon when she insisted on coming down to dine with the family. "Besides I had sit up to reply to this letter I had from Jane. My dear husband and sister, I have had some most interesting news. It is regarding Caroline Bingley."
Mary did not know Miss Bingley particularly well but Mr. Darcy seemed most eager to hear the news.
"It seems that she is to be married to a very wealthy man named Rushworth."
"That is very good news my dear, though I wonder at your excitement." Mr. Darcy smiled.
"Well, it seems that there is some scandal attached to the family. Mr. Rushworth was married before and his wife had eloped with another. It is no fault of his apparently, according to Jane. In fact Jane writes that she believes there might be a mistake in the whole matter. But I wonder at Caroline's willingness to attach herself to such a scandal."
"He must be quite rich indeed." Darcy dryly noted.
"Well, I will not speak of it so, for Jane writes that Bingley is thrilled with the match, for Rushworth and Caroline seem quite well matched to each other."
"Mr. Bingley is a generous man. Though I do wonder at his eagerness. They can't have known each other long."
Here Mary could add some comment. "Mr. Bingley must be quite proud marrying off his fifth and last sister. Not many families could succeed in such a great deed as five married sisters. My own mama would have been quite in awe."
"Miss Bennet, I do believe you are more like my wife than you make out. There is much depth to that seemingly lively comment."
"Nonsense," laughed Lizzy. "She is only pointing out that she is not to blame in her own maidenhood. For letters and comments from all her family and friends daily remind her of her not being married. It is only her misfortune, you see, of being one of five sisters. Even if she were to accept invitations to London and attend parties and balls and actually speak civilly to those to whom she is introduced, she could not be married, you see, for the odds are not in her favor. "
"That is quite unforgiving, my dear wife. "
Mary was truly not offended, she was quite happier with candid remarks than not. "I know that I deserve such censure so I do not mind. But Lizzy, I do have something to talk to you about, do remind me when I see you back upstairs."
"Of course, and if my teasing bother you, do tell me. I have been much confined with little to amuse me, and when you will not go out there is little news to return to me. So there is where I must make my excuse." A pause. "You do know Kitty would chaperone you wherever you might wish to go. She does not always wish to remain at home. You know her better than that."
"Poor Mary, that she must be chaperoned by the likes of Mrs. Markham. At least say the elder Mrs. Markham, she at least has an air of a woman fully grown most of the time. Miss Bennet, let ME be of service to you where you actually wish for service. Georgiana's parlor is in need of airing. You may use it as your personal study if you are tired of company. I will leave the latest trade journals and papers there for you to peruse if you wish- as I noticed that your hobbies have changed substantially. And if YOU are ever in need of airing, you may use the chestnut mare and make a tour of the farms. I shall make my steward aware of your interest in such matters. He is an understanding man.
Mary was thrilled and told her brother-in-law so. They then talked of Miss. Bingley's engagement for the rest of the meal, after which she saw her sister upstairs.
There she related to Lizzy what planned to do with some of her newfound wealth, which she knew, having much regular correspondence with her solicitor, having read the trade journals in Darcy's study, and having leaned on her brothers-in-law to make such connections as need be, continued to be paying off handsomely. "You see, Lizzy, I thought of sharing such a sum, and remembered my poor nieces Kitty and Fanny. Their father will never care for them, and their suitors should not rely on you and Jane for thought of a fortune. Thus, I am starting a sum for a dowry for them. I have removed 500 pounds from my risky enterprises and placed them in a conservative investment for them. I will try to add to it regularly. Hopefully, by the time they are of marrying age, they have something besides an infamous mother to recommend their charms."
"Oh my dearest girl! What an idea!" cried Lizzy with the warmth of emotion. "Do pardon my earlier comments. I had often thought of those dear babies, but it is all my dear Darcy can do to allow me to send my pocket allowance to keep their parents' debts scarce- not an insignificant amount," she added smiling. "I do not know where you can get of your ideas, but what a wonderful thing. But my dear Mary," she said momentarily remembering their earlier conversation, "do not sacrifice your own chance of marriage for such charity."
"If a man should love me for 2000 pounds, when he would not love me for 1500 pounds, I should not wish to have him." Mary smiled. "Besides, I believe, with a move I am making in Scotland, that I will more than regain a half of that sum within a year."Chapter 04
The following day Mary was walking the hall and heard her brother-in-law and sister speaking in the parlor. Not one to normally eavesdrop she did pause as she heard her name.
"Can you believe it Darcy? She always spoke of generosity and morality, but to show it in this way? My sister has grown into a wonderful woman, has she not?"
Her husband smiled. "Indeed, I find her quite singular. Though she need not take this burden upon her small shoulders. We would never let your nieces and nephews suffer due to their parents' misconduct."
"True enough, but she says she must do her share. She says with our support she has scarcely had to spend a schilling since August and does not expect her money to go to much use in the coming years. If she would marry, though, her plan might go awry."
"She has little control over the capital sum of the marriage portion for a number of years anyhow. The other money she can do with what she wishes up until the time she would sign the settlement. She is an independent woman now."
"I am wondering about that. How was she able to get control of the funds in the first place to make the profit that she has now reinvested? Jane wrote me something of it, but I did not understand at the time. The entail was quite strict."
"Mrs. Darcy, you may have received the lion's share of wit in the family, but do not think that your sister is not unusually clever."
"Fitzwilliam, do you know the story?"
"Yes, I have had three letters informing me of her singular situation last summer, from Mr. Gardiner, from Bingley, and ... from Lady Catherine."
"You must excuse me Mr. Darcy. I believe my illness has robbed me of my wit and I do not understand. Do explain this extraordinary situation to me."
"Perhaps you should ask her yourself. She has been listening outside this door for five minutes at least."
Blushing, Mary entered the room and begged pardon. Her sister, eager to know the story, dismissed her eavesdropping and asked to hear it. Darcy smiled and took up a book, all the time taking great delight in his wife's astonishment at Mary's intelligence and daring. For many years now he had wondered at the Bennet family's treatment of the middle daughter. She had proved to be dull and less than acute in company, but no one ever took the time to correct her in such a way that she would understand. Now she was much improved and his wife did not chuse to recognize the change. Last night's events had started to awaken in her the knowledge that she still had prejudice from opinions made long before. Elizabeth was so often right about his faults that he could not help taking delight in her realization of her own.
"Well, legally speaking, the money was a gift from Mr. Collins," started Mary.
Lizzy arched her eyebrows. "But Mary, you have far richer relations..."
"Legally speaking," finished Mary. "Mr. Collins probably thinks- as Mrs. Collins has told him- that I deserve the money given my current dependence on the charity of others. Here I had a strong ally in your Aunt, Mr. Darcy." Mr. Darcy choked back a laugh, looking from his book to his wife's astonished face.
"I am all astonishment." Elizabeth was more than confused. "But why would she think that the sister of her nephew needed a clergyman's charity. That seems unlike her."
"Well, Charlotte told Lady Catherine the details of the story, which you do not yet know." A pause. "Are you aware, Lizzy, of the small group of gentlemen in town who have politicked against the entail?" asked Mary in a seeming non-sequitor.
"Well the entail will be abolished, I think, in the next generation or two, for their reasoning is quite sound. Can you think of what that reasoning might be?"
"We grew up in the same household Mary. Did we not hear how unfair an entail can be everyday from our mother?"
Mr. Darcy, I must inform my gentle reader, was taking great delight in his wife's ignorance. He was reading very little of the book in his hands.
"Well, yes, there is the moral reason of course. But it mostly has to do with improvement. The entail made sense for a time, as it kept a large estate from being broken up between daughters, thus diminishing the value of the whole property. But in these modern times, an estate must be improved or it will lose value. But why should our father have spent money to improve an estate that shall pass from his family entirely?"
"I see the point. But what does that have to do with you?"
"Charlotte and I, as you know, have met many times since your marriage, and written regularly."
"Yes, you seem to have a great friendship. I envy you on that account. We have grown apart."
"Well, in this case it turned out to be a pragmatic friendship. In my letters, I wrote to her of those improvements our father would make on the estate if he thought it worth his while. I also wrote her of the investments our father would make, if he thought it worth his while, for the risk of the investment was high given that all profit would again settle on Mr. Collins and not his own daughters. Eventually we came to the conclusion that any improvements made on the farm would benefit Mr. Collins if he were to inherit, and thus if he were to inherit, he would reward me with any earnings that our father had had from recent, high-risk, investments. Do you understand?"
"Mary, that is simply extraordinary." Lizzy wondered at the nerve of Mary, and her ability to convey such a proposition to Charlotte without worrying about the impropriety of the matter. She also wondered at Mary knowing enough about any of these subjects to make such a conveyance, for she knew Mary was lying when she gave their father the credit of the new ideas. In short, Mary had carried out both the investments and the improvements so that she might benefit from the former. Then she remembered one detail. "But what of Lady Catherine?"
"Mr. Collins wanted to know her opinion on the gift Charlotte has convinced him to settle on me. Charlotte risked telling her the complete truth and Lady Catherine agreed that the deal we had brokered was mutually beneficial and that Collins had better take it."
Mr. Darcy and Mary exchanged a glance. Both knew of the details of that conversation, which despite ending in Mary's favor, had been quite unbearable for Charlotte. He gave her a weak smile and said to his wife. "There you see, Mrs. Darcy. Lady Catherine has been of use to the Bennet family once more. But I will add that this "deal", as Miss Mary calls it, is a secret, known only to Mary, myself, Bingley, Mr. Gardiner, Lady Catherine, and Mrs. Collins. It would risk great impropriety to share the details with others. If you must discuss Mary's situation, tell the story that Miss Mary told Mrs. Bingley and that Mrs. Bingley told you. It is far simpler that way.
"I understand my dear husband."
"I don't," said Mary like a small child. "I am so proud of my bargain but I can't talk of it. It is most unfair."
"Miss Mary, have you a need to discuss business?" asked Mr. Darcy amused. "Because I can speak to you if you wish on that topic when we are with the family party."
"Oh I thank you Mr. Darcy. Tell me, what do you think of the banking situation in the States right now? They have a limited liability law there and I see great possibilities..."
Mrs. Darcy excused herself to discuss menus with Mrs. Reynolds.Chapter 05
"The Darcys are going to host a ball to celebrate the coming of spring. Lizzy says that it is early for a ball but that she is so happy to be up and healthy for the first time since summer that she is yearning to celebrate. She still regrets that she was too ill to travel in August and she says she hopes to make it up to me now.
"Miss Darcy is coming home in time for the ball. She claims to be quite bored of the season. But Lizzy says that she has a touch of heartache and that this ball will keep her from dwelling on a certain Mr. Easton.
"Do you remember the summer you spent at Lucas Lodge because Lady Catherine told Mr. Collins that Maria ought to know her grandparents? Well, apparently Mr. Wickham has told Lydia that the girls ought to know Jane for he has left them there these three months without a sign of making other arrangements for them. Jane shows great patience with them in her letters, though it must be quite an interesting party- Lydia apparently says the most inappropriate things in front of the Rushworths when they come to call. Jane has managed to avoid Mr. Wickham meeting Mr. Rushworth at least. Excuse me for saying- but you know that a rake must never meet a cuckold.
"No, I do not think Mr. Collins' plan for the south field is a good idea. Tell him that Lady Catherine would never have dreamt of it. His tenants could tell him the truth as well as I..."
"Well I have written long enough. Miss Darcy has been asking me to play duets with her for an half an hour. She does have taste so I may play concertos at least."
It was now several weeks later and Mary knew that she must write another letter to Charlotte but could not find the paper that Georgiana had brought her from London. She neared the small parlor where she had most lately done her correspondence and stopped abruptly in the doorway as she saw the Darcys sharing a tender moment. Lizzy was sitting on the side chair with baby Anne and Darcy was kneeling behind her, his head on her shoulder, one hand on the baby's back, the other around his wife. His head was on her shoulder and hers resting against him. They seemed entranced with the child and with each other. Mary had never seen any of her family sharing such a moment before and stood for some seconds taking in the tableau. Abruptly, realizing her situation, she turned and hurried away. She turned a corridor and stood for a minute, tears streaming from her eyes.
When Collins had first called on the Bennets, she had thought that she could be the daughter that could marry for obligation even if her older sisters would not. Now that there was no obligation she did not think she would marry at all. Witnessing the private moment had confirmed her suspicions. She had never before seen nor felt the emotion that she had just witnessed.
She determined that she would write her letter the following morning instead.
"Dear Charlotte,Chapter 06
"Apparently you and Mr. Darcy had the same idea regarding dresses. A week before the ball I went with Miss Darcy to Lambton and found that he had sent word to the shops that we both were to have new gowns. And Lizzy had apparently added details about the style and color that mine must be. And Miss Darcy sided with Lizzy! How I detest white! And the lace, oh I will not tell you how many coins were spent on lace. No more lace, I beg of you!
"Despite my horror of the Darcys' constant generosity, it was nice to be a well dressed woman standing up at the ball. As long as I was silent there was no need for me to feel ill at ease. I was asked to dance a few times, once at Miss Darcy's urging by a young man who was able to attend at the last minute. It seems he had been the reason for Miss Darcy's heartache. He is a distant neighbor of the Darcys and was in London for the season. But he was called away to attend an ill relative in a neighboring county. Rather than return to London, he came home to Derbyshire just in time for the ball. Mr. Easton is a fine young man. It is said that Miss Darcy might do better with her fortune, but could not do better for a person, for he is both good and sensible. Miss Darcy and Lizzy seem to think him quite handsome but you and I care little for such things. Mr. Darcy glowers whenever we speak of him, but he will give his permission in time, I believe.
"It was not the largest gathering by design and there were not so many single young men. Nonetheless I had the hardest time speaking to the few I did dance with, so I spent most of the evening standing up with Mr. Markham. Mr. Markham is slightly lame since childhood and does not dance. Kitty of course danced the whole night, only returning to her husband as duty called. For her credit he did wish to see his wife dance. Nonetheless it does seem a bit uncouth, don't you think? It was most convenient for me, for it meant I did not have to dance unless specially sought out, and those outside the family party mostly did not. Lizzy told me that I need to smile more. I suppose you would agree, but really Charlotte, you know I cannot always be smiling.
"I have passed on Mr. Collins' good wishes for Lizzy's health. You may assure him that she is now completely recovered and that the children are well. I am glad that he at least thinks that my plans to live at the parsonage this summer are good and proper, and I agree with him that I am better suited to a quiet and modest life. It is true that I am not used to the trappings of luxury, not having been born to it. Do assure him that when Lady Catherine last wrote to the Darcys that she made clear that she prefers him to the curate. I might say to you Charlotte that she is not at all pleased with the new curate's wife either.
"Now that I have complemented your husband I might urge you to remind him that the east bank will flood if he does not improve it every year. Within the month, if he does not listen to Ramsey. Why don't you tell your brother to speak of it to your father in Mr. Collins' earshot? Mr. Collins will defer to Sir William I am sure, even if he will not listen to a common farmer.
"Anne has been crying this last quarter hour and I must see to the nurse- for the Darcys are out for the day. You will be pleased to know that Lizzy's children prefer me to the servants. I do like to be of use to them. I am even above Miss Darcy in their eyes. Miss Darcy will hold Anne but she seems always afraid of dropping her. And she is overwhelmed by Will's spirit. Though Miss Darcy is far beyond me in every other feminine talent and she has accomplished what I have not, for I believe you will hear of an impending wedding in my next letter.
"In your next letter, please let me know of the improvements to the coops. I am most eager to know how Ramsey carried them out.
"Give my love to little Maria,
"Mary, you are too serious today. What story can I tell you to make you laugh?" Mary and the two Mrs. Markhams were in the parlor. Mary had been staying at the parsonage since a few weeks after the ball. Georgiana and Lizzy were so preoccupied with Georgianaís imminent engagement that Mary was both bored and uncomfortable. Besides, Lydia had written hinting for an invitation for the summer and Mary could not be too soon out of the larger house. But the middle sister soon saw her mistake, for she was more easily able to avoid people at Pemberley than the smaller parsonage. This day, Mary was feeling especially restless. She had little to do, and the rain prevented her from walking to the larger house to use the library or pianoforte. The married women had been talking of an embroidery pattern, and Mary, who had little talent for delicate work, had been glancing out the window and finally awakened the othersí attention with an audible sigh. So Kitty had asked her the question.
"Kitty, you know I am not someone who finds delight in laughing," said Mary slowly as she turned back towards the others.
"Nevertheless, I am sure we can entertain you a little," said the elder Mrs. Markham. "We do want you to enjoy your visit here." Mrs. Markham was a plump, lovely woman with a lively temper and pleasant disposition. The other Bennet sisters had instantly taken to her, but Mary remained somewhat distant. "What story may we tell you? Oh, I know. Catherine, dear, does Miss Bennet know how you met my son?"
"Mama Alice!" cried Kitty. "Lizzy may have enjoyed such a story, but Mary will find it most improper I am sure."
"Nonsense, it is not in the least improper. It is merely an amusing story. You must tell it, I think."
Mary realized that she was not treating the welcome she had been given at the parsonage with much politeness. She forced a smile. "I should like to hear it. Lizzy merely wrote Mama to say that the new minister seemed quite taken with you. At that point I knew you must be very nearly engaged or Lizzy would not have bothered Mama with the news."
"Bother is hardly the word I would use. Mama lived for such news," laughed Kitty. "Now, where should I begin? Well, it was my second visit to Pemberley, you know and I had heard there was a new clergyman. He had been visiting another one of his livings when I arrived but dear Mama Alice had called and we became instantly friends. Even Georgiana was comfortable in her company, so I knew that she must have a most appealing personality." At this Mrs. Markham gave a slight bow and Kitty laughed again.
"So a few days later I went down to breakfast but Lizzy and Mr. Darcy were not there. I soon found out why. They were in such a row! I had never seen anything like it. It wasnít like Mamaís constant baiting of Papa. It was quite loud. I donít even know what it was about, but the servants knew to stay away so I chose to do the same"
"Kitty, I donít think it is necessary to share such private news. If Lizzy is unhappy we must trust that she will come to us in the bonds of sisterhood."
"Bah!" said Kitty. "It was hardly private. Besides they made up before long. Mama Alice assures me that the happiest couples must occasionally have a row. Isnít that right?!"
"For sure, Catherine, no one would start to suspect your sister of being unhappy. But you digress from the story."
"Anyhow, I decided to leave the House and go on a long walk, but I had forgotten my way around and pretty soon I had walked a few miles and was a mile from the house and I was quite tired. For I had not slept at all the night before due to this awful little mouse who had made a hole in the floorboards. Mrs. Reynolds was quite apologetic, she was so embarrassed, for she really is the best housekeeper I ever saw. Anyhow, I was close to the parsonage so I decided to stop here and call on Mama Alice. But when Mrs. Jenks showed me in, Mama Alice wasnít home at all. It was only Mr. Markham, and he was most surprised to see me. We had never been introduced!"
"Well that is hardly shocking," said Mary relieved.
"Well, it wouldnít have been if I had merely curtsied and left my card, except that I was so tired and didnít know if the Darcys were still fighting, so I sat down and stayed half an hour. I was scared at first for Mr. Markham was so much older than any of the officers or even Bingley or Darcy, and he was a clergyman. Fancy me talking to a clergyman! But he was very kind and we had the most interesting conversation. But then one of the parishioners called in an emergency. So Mr. Markham bade me rest in the parlor for as long as I wished and then he left. So you will never guessed what happened next!"
"I am afraid to hear it."
"I fell asleep."
"No!" Mary was now quite shocked.
"Iím afraid so," laughed the elder Mrs. Markham. I was on my way home and met my son on the lane returning from his call. He was as happy as I had seen him since his first wife passed. ëTell me about Mrs. Darcyís sister,í was his immediate request. So I related what I knew and was no sooner finished when we found the lady herself asleep in our parlor!"
"So what did you do next?"
"Oh, Mama Alice woke me up, and they invited me to dine, and the three of us had the most delightful afternoon, and when I thought the coast was clear Mr. Markham walked me home and everything was at peace. And I followed Lizzy up to her dressing room that night and told her I thought I might be in love with a clergyman!"
"Oh Kitty!" Maryís responses were becoming quite short.
"I never knew that last part" said the mother-in-law. "I think your courtship might have been much quicker had I known. I urged my son some caution, Iím afraid. Mrs. Darcy had told me that you were a bit of a flirt."
"Yes, she had that reputation," noted Mary icily.
"Itís shocking, is it not?! And I certainly was a flirt. Lydia and I used to flirt with every man who passed our way. But I never flirted with Mr. Markham. He was far too respectable. I was really only thinking about staying away from the house for a few hours and then, oh well, everything turns out for the best, I suppose." Kitty smiled and blushed. "There now dear sister, are you not diverted?"
"Oh, I am excessively diverted," smiled Mary, who was not. She was thinking of how a girl such as Kitty could so instantly attract a middle-aged clergyman, a widower even, with such behavior, while Mary, who had always assumed that her demeanor would make a most appropriate clergymanís wife, had always been ignored.
She was still thinking these thoughts when Mr. and Mrs. Markham went for their walk the next day. The oldest inhabitant of the house followed Mary to the parlor.
"Miss Bennet, may I have a word with you?" she asked.
"Certainly Mrs. Markham."
"Miss Bennet, I feel like we have known each other long enough and that we should no longer be such strangers. I would like to be your friend." Mrs. Markham sat on the chair and leaned into to touch Maryís hand with her own.
"Why Mrs. Markham, I consider you my friend. Indeed, since I have been in your home I thought we have had such discourse as to make us quite intimate."
"My dear Miss Bennet, I know we have not been indifferent acquaintances. What I mean is, I can relate to your situation and I wanted to tell you that all is not so bad."
"I donít know what you mean."
"Miss Bennet, I must be blunt. I know you are unhappy living with your sisters no matter what an improvement your material situation might be. I was 27 years old when I was married. Although I was the daughter of an earl I always compared myself to my three much older, married sisters. I had little to look forward to except my brother someday regulating me to the back parlor when his wife tired of me."
Mary began to understand that her trouble was not so hidden as she thought it was. She spoke in a low voice. "But you did marry."
"Yes, and the whole family thought Mr. Markham quite below our rank, which he was. It was quite a trying time with my mother and father. But, they eventually reasoned, a gentleman of low rank was well enough for a youngest daughter- one who was already an old maid."
"Tell me," said Mary, was some emotion. "Were you satisfied when you found your husband? I mean- was the life you led one that left you happy?"
"I loved my husband dearly Miss Bennet. We had nearly thirty years, and yes, I think I was content. I had two sons that lived and a woman can hope for no better. My elder, as you know, inherited our estate and married quite well." Mrs. Markham paused searching for the appropriate words. "Unfortunately for me, his wife is too able. She did not need to share the running of her household with me. So I left the home that I had shared with my husband for so many years and came to keep house for my younger son, when his Margaret died."
"And now Kitty has given you a secondary roleÖ again. A womanís lot is most unfortunate."
"No, you misunderstand me! Your sister has brought a life into this house that was sorely lacking. And Catherine needs me to help her run the household. Between you and me, she appears never to have learned how. It is a most beneficial situation for all of us. But you should know that in my past history I have twice been in a situation where I was a burden- not a helpmate. And, my dear, I do understand what that can do to a woman who feels that she has much more to give."
Mary nodded and bowed her head.
"Mrs. Markham, may I ask you a question?"
"Of course, my dear."
"Does Kitty make a good clergymanís wife?"
Mrs. Markham saw that Mary was in earnest and answered her in the same spirit.
"Yes my dear. She is a proper and pleasant young lady and her simple and sweet ways complement any of the more serious qualities that a clergyman must sometimes have."
Mary had become quite used to emitting loud sighs in place of saying her immediate thoughts and this seemed as good as opportunity as any. Mrs. Markham noted the sigh and continued.
"Miss Mary, I am sure that some day, no doubt quite soon, someone shall find a use for your especial talents. In the mean time, I suggest you do not deny yourself such opportunities that a young lady might have. And if you do chuse to marry- know what traits might complement your temperament and situation in life, not those men most like you. And you must keep an open mind. There shall be no more standing up with my son at balls!"
Mrs. Markham was smiling when she made the last utterance but Mary took the advice quite to heart. Though her sisters had often told her so before, there was some level of understanding with the elder lady that Mary was content to be humbled. She knew that Mrs. Markham was right and pledged to be more social.Chapter 07
"Mary, there are two posts for you," Kitty Markham glanced over the morning letters. It had been several months since Mary had come to the parsonage and she had found herself content, if not happy, with the routine. Mrs. Markham was daily proving herself the best of mentors and friends. But it had been a year since Mary had left Longbourn and she sometimes longed to be back. The feeling had been especially acute the previous month when Georgiana had become Mrs. Easton and was settled in her new home.
The wedding had not been all inconvenience. Lizzy had used the excuse of it to keep Lydia away from Pemberley. Mary had now successfully avoided seeing her youngest sister for several years.
"Thank you, Kitty. Oh, they are from Charlotte. I wonder if she has entered her confinement yet. Little Maria is nearly four years old and I know they are hoping for an heir." There was a silence. Her sister had not yet come to term with a child. "How are you feeling this morning, dear sister?"
"I am feeling ill, actually," said Kitty who was barely eating her breakfast. "But the last time, Mr. Cromley said that was a good sign. Please, don't say anything to my husband yet. He went on an early morning call to one of his parishioners and has not noticed my illness yet... let us talk about something else."
Kitty's eyes went to the letters next to Mary's plate. "It's funny to think that you are such good friends with Charlotte Lucas. She was always so much older than us."
"Not so much."
"Yes, she was. There was this one time, I remember, when you three had gone to visit the Gardiners and Charlotte was already grown up, and she brought over Maria and Susan to play with us. We were still little girls, but she was already out, and she sat in the parlor with Mama, when we went out to play. And that rascal brother of theirs, John, ran all those miles across the fields just to play tricks on us."
"I remember. I was there. I never went to visit the Gardiners, except when the whole family went."
"No you weren't, you must have been in London, because I don't remember you being there at all. And Lydia and I pushed him into the mud, so he went and stole one of our toys. La, what was it? I'll remember."
"It was a book, my copy of Foxe. He thought it was yours because Lydia liked to look at the pictures. But it was mine. I was there."
Kitty thought a moment. "Yes, that was it... I don't think you were playing with us though."
"No, Lydia threw mud on me so I ran inside... I never did get Foxe back. Martyred again. It probably went to pieces among all those Lucas children."
Kitty deliberated. "We weren't very nice to you when we were young, were we?"
"You were never corrected so you were not at fault."
"I'm awfully sorry Mary. I liked you well enough, you know, when we were children."
"I know Kitty. Thank you. I think I'll read my letters now."
Kitty glumly turned her breakfast over with her fork. But she was soon interrupted. Mary gasped and went quite white. "What is the matter Mary?"
"It is this letter I have from Charlotte. Mr. Collins is dead!"
"What?! I would have thought that man would live forever, as boorish as he was. Please do let me see the letter."
Mary handed the letter to Kitty, which was quite short. The good minister had collapsed in the yard, while arguing with one of the tenant farmers, whom Mary knew to be a good and sensible man. Mr. Collins had not been happy with the running of the estate, and had been worried that Charlotte would not produce an heir. The stress had caused his heart to stop. And now Charlotte was alone with little Maria. And if her new child was a not boy, she would be without a home, for the estate was still entailed away from the female line, and its heir was a distant relation.
While Kitty read the first post, Mary hurriedly tore open the second.
"My dearest Mary," it began. "I hope all finds you well. I have entered my confinement and hope the child, for good or ill, will come in a matter of days. Mr. Collins was buried in the Churchyard just this morning, and I find myself quite alone with Mrs. Hill and the servants. My eldest brother has been here briefly, but John is quite overwhelmed by the rest of the family's needs. I have a proposal for you, which you may find quite sudden but which may seem reasonable in time. If you could come and be with me during my time of tribulation, I should appreciate it. In the past I might have asked Lizzy but she has a household to run. Besides I am seeking more of a long-term solution that a married woman may not solve. And I know that you may like the arrangement for I know that you feel frustrated after managing a home of your own to always be a guest. I am not in a position at the moment to manage either the house or the estate, and you know both better than anyone. When I let Mrs. Hill know of my intentions, she told me in terms perhaps not advantageous to my husband's memory that the staff and tenants would be overcome with happiness to have a Bennet return to the managing of the estate. Please, dear Mary, come back and live with me a Longbourn. I know we are of a temper that we may get along well, and the use you would provide me, the children, and the estate, would keep there from being that feeling of charity which maiden Aunts may feel at the home of their siblings. If the child is a boy, you may stay as long as may be. If I produce another girl, please, dear Mary, stay with me until we can transfer the estate and I may retire to Lucas Lodge. Let me know as soon as you can, for I do not know whom else to call on for assistance. Yours, Charlotte Collins."
Once she recovered from the shock, Mary considered the proposal. It took only a few minutes to decide her course of action. She consulted with the Darcys and Markhams and they approved a plan. She wrote a short reply to Charlotte promising to stay at least until her confinement was over and the question of the estate settled. Lizzy, concerned about her old friend, agreed to journey with her and stay for a fortnight, though she dared not leave the children, as young as they were, longer than that.Chapter 08
It was a different Mary that returned to Longbourn than had left it a year ago. Thanks to the generosity of her older sisters in gowns and bonnets, she could now pass as a woman of fashion. Thanks to the guiding hand of Mrs. Markham, she could now smile serenely when prompted without betraying her annoyance and boredom with society in general. She could not be clever without insult when pressed but she could think through a conversation without embarrassment. When the sisters alighted from the carriage at Longbourn, Hill noted the two women were not now so very different in bearing or beauty, an observation that would have mortified Mary had she heard it. In essentials, however, Mary was very much the same. Mrs. Darcy remained lively, charming, and witty. Mary remained inwardly awkward and unsure of herself, except when she fully understood the tasks that needed to be done. Now, with Longbourn in an uproar with the master dead and the mistress in confinement, she fully comprehended how to bring order to the situation. Mary had barely removed her bonnet when she began to give Mrs. Hill guidance.
"No one should be allowed to see Charlotte unless they are requested by the lady herself. She is too ill. Send Mr. Ramsey here to see me as soon as he can make the time. And send to Lucas Lodge for little Maria. Poor girl, her father dead and now lost in that wilderness of Aunts and Uncles. Her mother needs her here. As for menus, regular meals should be sent up to Charlotte, but don't order anything out of the ordinary downstairs. Oh, and when you send for Ramsey, tell him that all of my orders of a year ago stand, and that I will make sure that nothing is amiss as soon as time allows."
"Certainly Miss." Mrs. Hill looked quizzically at Mrs. Darcy, who was still taking off cloak.
"Mrs. Hill, was my sister always this direct with orders? I am quite shocked. I've hardly heard her say three words to any of my staff."
"Yes mum, I mean no mum." Mrs. Hill looked from one sister to another, unsure. Mary looked at her older sister and suddenly remembered that this was no longer her home, and that she was a younger sister to a woman superior to her in rank and fortune. Lizzy recognized the discomfort she caused.
"Well, I have two homes to run, and that is enough for me," laughed Lizzy. "By all means, Mrs. Hill, as long as Charlotte is confined I defer to your former mistress in all orders. She knows the way of this house better than I."
"Yes mum, will that be all?"
"Take us up to Charlotte please, Mrs. Hill, if she is awake and can see us."
"Yes, mum, certainly." As soon as the maid took their cloaks and bonnets, the housekeeper led the women upstairs. Charlotte was standing at the window. She had seen the carriage pull up.
"My God Charlotte, get into this bed this instant. Look at you!"
"Miss Mary Bennet, it is good to see you as well. As to my condition, I have a day or two yet, I promise." Charlotte looked their direction. She was smiling but did not look happy.
"Charlotte, we are so sorry," said Lizzy gently. "But we are here now, and will help you." After a few emotional moments the two old friends fell into conversation. When some time passed, Mary excused herself. She did not even want to think about how Mr. Collins may have left the books but knew that there should be no delay.
Lizzy sat with Charlotte for the rest of the day. Maria arrived with her uncle at teatime and she was allowed to see her mother. A sweet, round-faced girl, she was shy enough to be completely overwhelmed by the attentions of such a fine lady as Mrs. Darcy and meekly submitted to be brought upstairs. Mr. Lucas, a handsome, if freckled, man about Mary's own age, stayed in the sitting room. It had been some five years since they had seen each other. He had been at Cambridge and had come home rarely. He seemed the same brash youth she had known and disliked, but Charlotte had told her that he was changed, and in the course of the conversation she learned that to be the case. He was concerned about his father's spending habits, and sought to account himself to his younger siblings. It was he who had convinced Sir William to send Susan to be sent to live with Maria, who had married rather advantageously. But there was one other sister to be looked after, and two younger brothers. He had few options for them. Lucas Lodge had little land attached to it, but he was seeking to improve it as he could to eventually produce some cash. Mary would have continued the conversation along those lines but remembered that most men thought it... unusual...for females to discuss farming and business. In fact, she wondered at his candor in saying what he had said. There was a pause.
Mr. Lucas graciously interrupted the silence. "Miss Bennet, if I have not said so before, I thank you for coming. I cannot tell you how much it means to Charlotte not to be alone."
"I would consider it my duty even if I had not wanted to come. Charlotte has been a most faithful friend to me since my father's passing."
"I am sure she has. She is a wonderful sister, and I hope that we may now be closer since Mr. Collins... well now that Mr. Collins has passed."
Another pause. Mary did not know how to speak of Mr. Collins. In many years he might become an amusing anecdote but for now he was the recently deceased husband of a good friend. She sought out a different subject.
"What of the heir apparent? Who is to gain the estate if the child...if Charlotte does not have a son?"
"A Mr. Andrew Bennet. I do not know much about him except that he is some kind of cousin to Mr. Collins, and to you I presume. I know he was born in Portsmouth of all places, but I don't know where he is now. The Collins' solicitor is tracking him down. Charlotte has asked me to write him when the time comes. Even if the child is a boy, he may wish to dispute the child's claim to the estate."
"Yes. I mean, that would be most shocking."
It was his turn to seek out a safer topic for conversation.
"Tell me Miss Bennet, do you still play? I remember that you were once the most talented young lady in the community."
"Both my elder sisters now have sisters far more talented so I now know my weakness. I enjoy playing, some of the new concertos especially, but it is no longer my primary occupation."
"What do you do instead? Do you still read?"
"Despite a certain boy having stolen my best volumes, yes." Mary smiled.
Mr. Lucas first looked puzzled and then laughed. "I believe I know what you mean, Miss Bennet!" he cried. "I took your book and for years you just sulked and wouldn't speak to me. And now with only a half an hour's conversation to recollect our acquaintance you tease me with the remembrance! Good for you to finally claim what is yours!"
They were interrupted by Mrs. Darcy entering the room. "Charlotte is asleep and Maria is lying next to her. I think the girl can remain here for the time being, Mr. Lucas."
"Thank you," said Mr. Lucas warmly. "I am glad that both my sister and my niece are so well looked after." He looked keenly at Mary. "I shall take my leave then for today, and call tomorrow."
Lizzy looked slyly at Mary, who had noticed nothing. Mr. Bennet made his way from the house. Mary poured Lizzy a cup of tea.
"When Charlotte wakes from her nap, Lizzy, I shall sit with her. I have taken care of the most pressing matters and you look like you could use some rest."
"I would like to write a letter to my husband. Thank you." She then smiled.
"Why are you smiling at me Lizzy?"
"Three reasons. The first is that I am thinking of my letter. The second I shall not tell you yet, and as for the third, I am merely thinking of how you have improved in manner and character. You will sit with Charlotte now but would not sit up with Mama after Lydia's elopement. Jane bore the brunt of her nerves."
"What are you talking of? Jane never asked me to sit with Mama."
"But you should have all the same"
"Why? She wasn't ill. I sat with her plenty of times when she actually was ill, after you were married. But when she just had a fit of nerves? After you all left, Kitty and I would just stay downstairs and instruct Hill to do likewise. Mama would eventually make her way to the parlor, calm as could be. No different then how you treat your son when he has a tantrum."
"Dearest Jane,Chapter 09
"I am to return to London in a few days time. My family is meeting me there and I hope to be back at Pemberley before the end of September. So your visit may occur next month as planned. Give my greetings to your husband, a firm handshake to young Charles and many kisses to Eliza Jane.
"Charlotte was taken to bed last week and the result was a fine healthy baby boy. The mother is equally healthy, already downstairs, and has seen her parents and John. Her complexion is such that mourning suits her, and while I distress for her widowhood I at least do not grieve at the color of her clothing. I will not distress you further, Jane, with the humor of my black heart, I promise. Mr. Collins was a good husband to Charlotte and as such deserves to be mourned as much as any. Charlotte is not completely overcome but she does grieve him and as we cannot help but feel feeble in face of her sorrow, she only shows it in the most private of moments.
"The child's name is William after his father and born without the benefit of his namesake, he also shows grief, not in his style of dress, but by an endless cry that only the healthiest of lungs may produce. Such a small soul to own the land and livelihood of so many! He is truly crowned king in infant banns. Let us hope that the French do not attack Longbourn.
"To speak further of invasion: Charlotte is beginning to take back her household duties from the military commander that our sister has become. Now Mary has set up her camp in the vicinity of the library and refuses to come out for hours at a time. Mr. John Lucas is allowed to enter long enough to take letters to Mr. Collins' solicitor, so that he might arrange peace negotiations with the particular distant cousin, a Mr. Andrew Bennet, the might-have-been master of Longbourn. In addition, her aide-de-camp, Ramsey, is a frequent visitor. He takes her orders to the rank and file who follow them with the most patriotic fervor. You may think me exaggerating my dear sister, but I assure you I am not. I have walked to a few of the more needy tenants, in Charlotte's stead, and they all send many warm greetings to Mary.
"Mary seems determined to stay in this house as long as Charlotte extends the invitation, and Charlotte has not yet given any hint that her original offer will be rescinded. They seem to get along splendidly. Mary seems at ease here, at our old home, far more than she did as our guest or even at Longbourn before we were married. And little Maria seems to have taken to her as well. It is so singular the children followed her around in your house and in mine. Children never liked her when she was a child.
"So Mary will stay here, I think, when I leave, and may remain here for a long while. I do have to mention that I discern there might be one danger in her presence here. Mr. John Lucas, you know has taken up residence in Lucas Lodge for good, now that Sir William is so often indisposed. The man is young, handsome, and much the same as his older sister in both sense and intelligence. He feels a great weight, I believe, in taking the care the youngest Lucases, having already arranged for Susan to live with Maria for the benefit of the better company in ____shire. He is at loss of what to do with his younger brothers, having few resources to set them up in a profession, but he has some ideas if they show promise. He is so young and has so many responsibilities that a woman of sense and economy would do him great good- and he has taken a liking to Mary. They knew each other before of course, but he was so little at home these past years, that he had not seen her transformation into a desirable partner, nor her his. I know I have been here just three weeks, but their friendship is palpable and real, and I could see a deeper affection blooming if either of them should wish it. I will simply say Jane, that there is a danger, but shall say no more.
With great affection,
Mrs. Darcy was correct. There was a danger. Mary was nearly twenty-four before she heard gossip that might attach her name with any particular young man, and it flattered her. For Mr. Lucas did call, nearly every day, and the Meryton tongues began to wag. For sure, Longbourn was a calm place, a place for Mr. Lucas to think, and he was able to speak to both Charlotte and Mary about matters of great seriousness that seemed to have no weight at Lucas Lodge. And his sister was recently a widow, and he worried for her. But did he not also claim a familiarity with Mary? Did he not compliment her management of the estate and investments? Was he not a most intent companion? She imagined herself in love.
Charlotte did not pay much attention to the Meryton gossips nor the reports of her own mother that a wedding was imminent. With a newborn and still in deep mourning, she was not out much in society, and assumed all of the reports to be idle. But when she started to watch her friend more closely, she saw affection. Mary spoke more freely with John than anyone and they enjoyed baiting each other in a most indecorous way. Her brother's easygoing manner was nothing but encouraging, and he often looked at Mary with a keen expression. As Mrs. Collins knew that it was the same expression that John gave to an especially intelligent spaniel or to a particularly clever chess partner, she feared for her friend, confused about her brother's intent. She had been sure that he would not marry until he could assure a future for their youngest siblings.
She decided to speak with him on the matter. She bade him sit for tea on a day that Mary had gone to call on Mrs. Phillips. Mr. Lucas sat restlessly, half facing his sister, and half looking out at the beautiful fall day.
"John, what do you think of my friend Miss Bennet?"
"I think she is a delightfully odd girl. Instead of going on about ribbons and balls, she instead talks about linen manufacturing in Belfast and lead mines and Lord knows what else and then she finishes up her rambling with a treatise on the morality inherent in moral economy. Fabulous stuff. My tutor would have loved it. Did you hear her the other day when the old knight came over? Father was so confused he had to bow out of the conversation. 'Course then she was embarrassed and stopped speaking to anyone at all."
"Do you like her John?"
"Charlotte, you aren't matchmaking, are you? I'm a bad target. You know the Lucas family can't support any more dependent children, not without falling back into the trade. That would kill father."
"So you aren't interested."
"Charlotte, Miss Bennet had been a dear girl to you and the children but could you imagine me marrying her?"
"It would be a good match. She has wealthy sisters and a good name. You could do far worse."
"Charlotte, I beg of you, no imagining me with Miss Bennet. I simply do not see her as my wife, no matter what the hens of Meryton think."
"Well John, in that case you better make your lack of intentions clear to Miss Bennet before she is hurt. No hints or mannered ways of speaking. Mary only understands the blunt truth."
Within a half hour Mr. Lucas found himself pushed in the direction of Meryton by his elder sister. Mary would soon be passing up the lane on her way home, and their prospective meeting would provide him ample opportunity to not secure a betrothal. At the designated time she appeared and he offered to escort her back to the house.
It must be imagined with what expectation Mary took his side, and how her heart fluttered when he asked to speak with her. When he told her gently but candidly that she was not the object of his desire, it must be admitted that a feminine tear or two was shed and Mary was unable to speak for many minutes. He spent that time apologizing for causing any rumors to spread between his mother and her aunt, but she did not hear it. Finally, by the time the reached the house, at the proper time for him to leave her, she was able to speak.
"You need not apologize, Mr. Lucas. You owe me nothing and had made me no promises. You have not my heart or anything else that is mine."
"Pardon me, ma'am, but I do, and I shall return it directly. When that debt is paid, I hope remain your friend." With his final words he turned back down the lane.
The following day, a servant delivered a package containing a battered copy of Foxe. Mary opened it to find several martyrs in flames, slammed it shut, and threw the volume rather violently into a drawer.
Our heroine was heartbroken for a matter of days. By the age of 21, her sister Lizzy had had three proposals, two from a man with ten thousand a year. Mary was now 23 and had been told by a man to whom everyone thought she was perfectly fitted that he would not ask her to marry him. When a week had passed, however, she found that she could reason again, and realized that she had been taken in by her own self-flattery, no better than a flirt at her coming-out. Foxe was fished out, placed on a shelf in the library and John admitted back into her presence.Chapter 10
It was late winter, the point when grey gives way to hints of blue and green. Charlotte Collins seemed to now have been a widow for a long while, comfortably settled at Longbourn with her companion Miss Bennet and the children. The women had by now established a pattern that they would follow for many years. Assisted by her friend, Mrs. Collins lived frugally, socialized occasionally, saved well, improved the estate, and saw the tenants happy with a fair and generous hand. The two women had a pleasant life and wanted for little, save a little more lively company. Their most common visitor was John who visited several times a week to converse with the women and play with his niece. It must be said that the women saw other relatives as much as was proper but perhaps less than they feasibly could under such circumstances as theirs.
Letters that winter had brought much joy. Kitty was now heavy with child, and the future mother and father were thrilled after their earlier misfortunes. The grandmother-to-be wrote that Kitty had dutifully promised to follow her advice in child-rearing "to an extent" for Kitty wanted her child to have a more "jolly" childhood than her husband had had. A letter from Jane had brought similar news. There would be a third Bingley child in the spring. It was Jane's letter that had brought also an item of amusement. Apparently some Meryton gossip had reached her that Mary was to wed Mr. Phillips' clerk, a tall, gangly, and unintelligent fellow, whom Mary and Charlotte knew to be engaged to Mrs. Long's younger niece.
"Whatever could Jane have been thinking, in mentioning that I would marry Mr. Philip's clerk? It must be my Aunt's fault." was Mary's only comment, after their laughter subsided.
"I must blame Jane," replied Charlotte. "She was always a sweet girl, but she will believe every rumor, no matter how ill-founded, if it involves news that might show the goodness of people. And a wedding is often classified as a good event."
Mary smiled. "The only good news she must believe, is that Mr. Babbage has found the affection of a far more suitable partner. But save your censure of my sister Charlotte. When I write Jane the truth, she will surely blame herself for believing such idle reports."
Charlotte sobered. "Suitability is often a matter of necessity Mary- as it may be for Hattie Long. While I would love to see you married, it would not be the best match for you to marry a clerk. We must find you a gentleman who will appreciate a woman of independent means."
They were interrupted by a wail from the nursery. "I know at least one gentleman who is a bit too youthful for my taste," laughed Mary as the nursemaid scurried upstairs.
Most recently, Lizzy had written from London, inviting Mary for a stay in their home there. Charlotte, always wanting to expose Mary to the possibility of a good match in society, had convinced Mary to go- though only for a short trip before she got caught up in the annual needs of the farms. It was at this point, a few days before Mary was to leave, that she received a letter from Lydia Wickham in London. They had not exchanged news in some years. She opened the letter with some hesitation.
I am proud to inform you that I have a fine son. His name is George like his Papa and the nurse says he is the finest babe she ever saw. Unfortunately my Wickham has been on engagements these last six months fighting for our country, and our other sisters have been quite angry with me and will not help me at all. I have a small quarters here and am ill, and Kitty and Fanny are in the way all of the time. I am afraid they will do their brother harm flitting about as they do, constantly paying no mind to my poor nerves.
I think that Kitty and Fanny are in need of a good country vacation while I recover. I want you to come to London and take them for a time. You may take them to Lizzy's and then back to Longbourn. Charlotte is a widow and you are a spinster so neither of you have anything to do anyway. I shall expect you within a fortnight, for I can't afford to keep the extra servant longer than that, for Lizzy tells me that she can give me no more money until Easter. It shall be for no more than six months, I should think. I should be better then and the baby won't cry so much.
Mrs. George Wickham(It still looks droll, doesn't it? I had a fine painting done of my husband in his regimentals before he left last fall. You must see it when you come.)
Hiding her shock at Lydia's latest request, Mary showed the letter to Charlotte. After a long discussion, they concluded that Mary would assess the situation while in London, and if she wished, could bring the girls back to Longbourn. Charlotte was to soon seek a governess for Maria and there was already a nursemaid so the girls would not create so many more expenses. And Maria currently had no companions her own age, which made Charlotte favorable to the idea of bringing Mary's nieces. Mary had three other sisters to look to in case the children proved unwieldy and Lydia could not arrange their return. At the very least Mary wished to meet the girls, given that she was, unknown to Lydia, building them a dowry.Chapter 11
Mary had inherited a dislike of town from her father and there was little anyone could do to induce her to change her mind. She would manage to show a tolerably good face in the following weeks when Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. Easton insisted on taking her to the theatre and assemblies, but on the short trip to London from Longbourn she only thought of her youngest sister and her small nieces.
The carriage pulled up to the Darcy's London home just after dark. Though it was quite late for snow, a light powder had fallen, which lightened the grey of London immensely. The red of the bricks against the fresh snow made a beautiful contrast and Mary reflected on the small beauties that town might offer.
Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy had come outside to meet the carriage.
"Oh, my dear Mary!" cried Lizzy. "I just received your post yesterday. I cannot imagine what Lydia was thinking. Why did she not call on me or Jane I cannot imagine! You need not take on this burden."
"Eliza my dear," Mr. Darcy interrupted. "Allow our guest to come out the cold and offer her some refreshment before you discuss Lydia's latest escapade." Mr. Darcy offered Mary his arm, and they walked into the house.
"Mary, you seem so wonderfully well since the last time I saw you. Does she not Fitzwilliam?" Elizabeth asked impatiently, pouring Mary some tea a few minutes later. Mary sensed Lizzy was ready to dispense with the pleasantries.
"Indeed. You look most refreshed despite your journey." Mr. Darcy said calmly.
"Thank you. I have found helping Charlotte and the children to be a joyful way to spend my time."
"I am glad, and shall ask you all about dear Charlotte soon," said Elizabeth kindly. "But my dear I am afraid I must speak of our sister. Have you agreed to her most extraordinary request?"
"Indeed, I have."
Elizabeth started to protest. She would take the children. Or Jane would take the children. Mary was young, inexperienced, a single lady who did not have her own home. How could she take in children? Did she not know that if Lydia said six months, she may have just as soon meant six years? Mary bit her lip and stood firm.
Darcy stood suddenly. As the conversation proceeded he started to pace the length of the room. After a quarter of an hour, he finally interrupted his wife's pleadings to take in the children in lieu of her younger sister.
"Enough of this," he said. "The Wickhams have too often made use of both our and Bingley's good fortune."
"Fitzwilliam," started Elizabeth. Mary remained silent. She had not the awe of her brother-in-law that Kitty had once had, but she did know that her opinion no longer counted for much once he began to speak.
"Mrs. Darcy, hear me out. Your other two sisters are near confinement. They are not in a position to take on the additional burden of two spoiled girls. If Mary takes the children Lydia will not follow them- for she may invite herself to Longbourn- but Mrs. Collins is too sensible to admit her for more than an afternoon. If we take the children, trust that it will be not three months before Wickham has dropped his wife on our doorstep permanently. Meanwhile we can send support to Mary for the children and are no longer under any obligation to Lydia's urgings for such sums."
"My dear Fitzwilliam, Mary does not have her own home. Charlotte may not know to what she has agreed" Lizzy looked dismayed and Darcy put his hand on her shoulder reassuringly. The younger woman set her mouth and stared stormily up at her brother-in-law across from her. Darcy saw the face and looked down at his wife.
"Your sister has made up her mind, it appears." He turned towards Mary. "Miss Mary, I must confess that I am used to you somewhat more passive than my wife. I have never seen you so adamant about such an action before and I am inclined to respect your wishes for now and take your side against Elizabeth. Assuming of course you will allow us to assist you and that you will tell us immediately if you and Mrs. Collins can no longer keep the children or if you no longer wish to provide for them. Assuming their mother does not want them; we may take them in at a later date or find a suitable school."
"I thank you sir, and I appreciate your offer."
"Besides," he added grimly to the room. "While my wife might treat Wickham's children as her own, I do not know that I have that ability. They do not deserve to be the targets of my temper."
The two sisters stared awkwardly at each other. Eventually Lizzy took a swallow of her tea. She would have words with her husband in private about his marital treason but she knew that he would not change his mind. "It is settled then." She sat down her cup. "Tomorrow we shall call on Lydia."
Mary smiled weakly. She had considered having the girls at Longbourn a temporary measure, but both Darcy and Lizzy seemed to think that Lydia would permanently abandon them to their Aunts. She thought of Lydia, reckless as always, and took a deep breath, understanding for the first time that the visit might last a very long time. It seems that she would now have both home and children without the benefit of a husband. It was not the future that she had planned for herself.
The next day, after Lizzy had paid two required social calls, the Darcy's carriage made its way to that place in London where many gentle people under their luck lived on the edge of respectability. Mr. Wickham had taken a large flat in a genteel-looking building for his wife when the Bingleys had decided not to come to town for the season. In truth, the Darcys had found the lodgings for Lydia in Wickham's absence and more often than not paid the rent. Though they considered that trouble a small price to pay for not having to entertain Mrs. Wickham on a permanent basis.
A very young maid servant answered the door and announced their presence. "She's not feeling too well today mum," she said, curtseying to Mrs. Darcy before they walked in the room. "But she as been expecting you."
"Thank you Sarah. I hope that your parents are well." Mrs. Darcy smiled pleasantly. Mary could not pretend to be pleased with the surroundings.
The parlor where Lydia was sitting should have been well lit by the street, but it felt closed off, like that of a sickroom. It took a few minutes to adjust to the smoky light.
Mary had not see Lydia for almost four years. She was taken aback by her sickly appearance. While still buxom and pretty, Lydia was not well. She was almost lying across the sofa, her face was gaunt and her breath raspy. She began to cough almost immediately and the maid slipped in to help her stay upright. The new child, George, lay nearby, where the girl had been attending him before their arrival. He appeared to be a sickly baby and interrupted the ensuing conversation several times with his thin wails. Mary noted that Lizzy appeared shocked at Lydia's illness too, though she had seen her not so very long before.
"She was not this ill when the baby was born just two weeks ago," she whispered to Mary, as Lydia recovered herself.
"Mary, Lizzy, how good of you to come see me. I was just telling Sarah how I could use some company. Mrs. Brighton, Lieutenant Brighton's wife, was here just last week, but I have had a slight cold and she could not stay. We are sacrificing for the Empire, you know, being officer's wives, so we cannot go out to balls and the theatre like women of Lizzy's society can. Why, Mary, you look practically pretty."
Mary nodded and gave thanks but could do little more. Lizzy seemed far more at ease than she and inquired after Wickham and made small talk about his latest campaigns and letters for a half an hour.
"He cannot not write so often but he was happy to hear of his son. He really does take to the children, you know, when he is not fighting. They love him dearly. Of course, who would not fall in love with such a beautiful infant like my George?" Lydia motioned towards the cradle.
"Why don't you bring him over, so that we may see him, Sarah?" asked Elizabeth. The girl complied. Mary at last felt more at ease. She had been with little William as an infant, and could scoop up the baby and utter compliments like a proper Aunt. He was so tiny. That task lasted another quarter of an hour.
"If only the girls were as good. They are constantly flitting about and make a wreck of my nerves." Here Lydia erupted into another fit of coughs.
While Lizzy soothed, Mary looked about. As far as she could see, the apartment was furnished relatively well, but there was little sign two small children spent much time there.
When Lydia was recovered, Mary asked about the girls. Lydia shrugged and motioned to Sarah. "If you please Mum, Lottie took them upstairs to see Mrs. Morton."
"Oh, Mrs. Morton." Lydia lowered her voice. "She's what you would call a gentlewoman of limited means. He husband ran off and abandoned her and she lives on some annuity or something." Nodding like she had just shared a terrible secret she went on "but she took to the girls, so they go up there practically every day. She's as good as a governess and she's so bored without a husband that she watches them without any expense to myself."
"Sarah, why don't you show Miss Bennet upstairs to Mrs. Morton's rooms to meet Kitty and Fanny?" asked Lizzy. "I have some business to discuss with Mrs. Wickham and need to put things to rights here."
Sarah showed Mary how to navigate the hall and stairs to get to the next apartment, which proved to look much like Lydia's. She gave her name to another extremely young maid and almost immediately two tiny figures came running at her.
"Aunt Mary!" cried the slightly larger of the two and barreled into her skirts at top speed. Mary just barely escaped falling backwards only to have the other girl more shyly grab at the loose fabric next to her sister. Kneeling down in the hall to look at them face to face, Mary saw two beautiful, nearly identical looking, little girls, obviously overwhelmed with happiness at her presence. No one had ever been so visibly glad to see her before.
"Girls, give your Aunt some room to breathe." A middle age, pleasant looking woman walked up behind them, waving off the maid. "Hello, Miss Bennet, I am Susan Morton. I apologize for your nieces. They can be a little wild."Chapter 12
It was fortunate for Mary that Mrs. Morton had had practically all the care of Kitty and Fanny for three months, because it meant that their natural vivaciousness was somewhat tempered by a loving discipline. As it was, the girls, as might be expected of children of the Wickhams, were pretty, and lively and somewhat precocious. Mrs. Morton gave Mary a half an hour's instruction on their personalities. She was a bundle of energy herself and dismissed her attention toward the girls as "something to keep busy."
"They have always depended on each other and are practically one unit. They would do anything for each other. Also, they are too used to idleness but are very easy to teach. I know they are young, but they need both exercise and instruction to keep them out of mischief. Kitty already reads tolerably well, and Fanny knows her letters. I have even been teaching them to write. Oh, Miss Bennet, do write and let me know how they are doing."
Mary promised. She wondered what kind of woman did not live with her husband yet was so maternal and caring. After internally moralizing for a moment, she decided that Mrs. Morton was a genteel sort of woman and the fault must lie elsewhere. Satisfied, she wrote down every bit of advice on child rearing that the older woman gave her.
Lydia was less helpful. She had plenty of slightly outgrown clothes for the girls, but few pieces were practical. And she knew little about them besides their affect on her nerves. Of course, she was ill, and did not appear to be getting any better. Mary looked repeatedly at Lizzy with alarm at the coughing fits and the lack of appetite, but Lizzy was nonplussed. The latter merely ordered her physician to see to her sister and took his advice.
"She may be dying, or she may be fine," she told Mary. "The doctor has not confirmed her condition but believes that the illness was made worse by the confinement. If she continues to worsen, we'll remove her and the babe to the townhouse, but right now she wants to stay where she is and is in complete denial that she is ill at all. It is good that Wickham is gone, because the doctor does advise against any more children for the near future at least. Do not worry, Mary. You have done all you can by agreeing to take her daughters."
After three days they removed the girls back to the Darcy townhouse, and Mary brought them home a week after that. At the Darcys, they followed their cousin around like two hound dogs, and kept vigilance over his sister's cradle. They seemed to miss their mother little and their father less, though Fanny did ask for Sarah twice and Mrs. Morton once. Mary was thankful to see that they did not appear to notice the difference in the material condition between the two houses and was happy that they were not spoilt in that way at least.
The ride to Herefordshire was almost unbearable at first. The girls had been so little out of London, that every new sight was the source for a hundred questions. Kitty asked most of the questions while Fanny tried to escape the moving coach. Finally Mary had the idea of challenging them to remember as many verses as they could by the end of the ride. This kept them busy as Mary said Psalms and they tried to repeat them understanding very little of what they were saying. The coachman was oddly reminded of his low-church Sunday school. By the time they got back to Charlotte, everyone was exhausted and immediately took to bed.
Within six weeks, everything was normal. Kitty and Lydia, like Mary before them, now seemed a regular part of life in Herefordshire. They learned to sneak candy from Hill as had their Aunts before them; they played with Maria; they learnt their lessons; and they charmed everyone into forgetting that they were the children of the most scandalous marriage that Merryton had ever seen.
Mary was only disturbed that Lydia did not write. Lizzy assured her that Lydia had recovered most of her strength and that the baby was fine. "She is not, sister, as she was before," she wrote, "her face is gaunt, and she is pale, and there is still blood in her handkerchief. But she is beyond danger. If she does not write, it is because she is still Lydia, and not because she is ill."
Mary folded up the letter, wiping a tear with the edge of the paper. And found both girls staring at her.
"What are you doing? You should be at your lessons."
"Mrs. Ellis is teaching Maria on the pianoforte so we snuck out. Aunt Mary, why are you sad?"
"It is nothing. Girls, are you very happy?"
"Mrs. Hill gave us some jam on our bread at tea. You should ask her for some," answered Fanny incongruously.
"I suppose we must find delight in small pleasures," said her Aunt, and proceeded to march them back to the schoolroom.Chapter 13
"Mary, Lady Catherine is coming to call tomorrow. She will be within a few miles and is singling us out with a visit."
"Oh?" was Mary's monosyllable. She knew little of Lady Catherine but could imagine her based on so many of her relations' descriptions.
"Yes, she is passing within five miles of here on some other business and wants to see how the children have grown. She remembers Mr. Collins as her very favorite of clergymen."
"I don't imagine she wants to see ALL the children in this house. I will see that they are kept out of the way." After five months of residing at Longbourn, Kitty and Fanny had settled in and had responded well to regular instruction and discipline. But they could not disguise what could only be called a lively cleverness that often resulted in punishment. Disgraced so much in such a way, they nevertheless adored Aunt Mary and Mrs. Collins because both showered them with attention they had never gotten at home. Their new "Uncle" Lucas also became a favorite and they learned to time their outbursts as to not miss his visits due to their subsequent punishments. They had already played so many tricks on their Aunt Philips that Mary was afraid to expose them to another older woman the likes of Lady Catherine.
Charlotte thought a moment. "She says she will be here in the early afternoon. Why don't we send Mrs. Ellis out for a very long walk around noon with Kitty and Fanny? I need you with me if I am going to converse with Lady Catherine again." Mrs. Ellis was the governess. Mary had shyly asked Mrs. Morton if she needed such a post, but Mrs. Morton had deferred; her brother supported her with a good income. It was disgrace, not money, that kept her out of society.
"That might be a good idea. And I shall, myself, try to say as little as possible. It behooves a woman to be deferential to superiors."
While Mary remained outwardly calm, she was nervous at having such a visitor to Longbourn. She was made more so by John Lucas calling the following morning and teazing them both about their afternoon visitor.
"Why would you not want these darling children to meet the illustrious Lady Catherine?" he asked as he swung Kitty around by her arms, her skirts flying. Kitty was squealing for more, and Fanny shouted for her turn. Maria, having been greeted by her Uncle in the same way, was silently trying to gain her equilibrium, unable to walk in a straight line.
"Oh yes, Aunt Mary, we want to meet a real live Lady," gasped Kitty through her shrieks.
"Looks like you'll have your wish," said Mrs. Ellis who had been standing by the window waiting to take her charges to their lessons. "It appears that she is here."
"Oh no. She is early," Charlotte gasped quickly. She started to run to and fro, straightening the room, motioning to Maria to sit silently. John released the other girls and handed them to Mrs. Ellis who left the room with them as Mary was giving them directions on how to behave in case they met Lady Catherine. By the time that Lady was shown in, the three were quietly in the proper places with only Maria tucked in beside her mother.
"Well Mrs. Collins, this sitting room still faces full west. I would have expected you would have at least changed that."
And so the visit went. Lady Catherine was introduced and then proceeded to give instruction to all including Maria. Eventually she looked at Mary.
"And where are your charges? I would like to meet them."
Not knowing where Lady Catherine received the information that she had gained her nieces, Mary could only manage a weak "they are with Mrs. Ellis mum."
"They are awfully young for a governess. Mrs. Collins, you should not waste you money."
"They are but five and six Mum, but I assure you they are so lively and quickwitted that it takes a governess to keep them busy," answered Mary. "And Maria is already seven."
"I see they have inherited ALL the Bennet tendencies if it takes this many women to control them. I hope they do not influence Maria. Let me see them."
Mary rung the bell and requested that Mrs. Ellis come in with the girls. While Charlotte and Mary held their breath, they came in quietly and curtsied neatly before Lady Catherine, looking overly solemn. John was thankfully out of eyeshot of the great lady, for his eyes displayed merriment.
"Well, you are very pretty, aren't you? That does not bode well for the children of such a mother," said Lady Catherine, eyeing them over her glasses.
"What matters is that our souls remain pure and beautiful, ma'am," lisped Fanny in a dour imitation of her Aunt, who flinched, just slightly.
"And are your souls pure and beautiful?"
"We are working hard so that we may be good and grateful girls," said Kitty, this time drawing to mind Lady Lucas. Charlotte looked alarmed.
"Well, at least you are being taught modesty. Pray, do you know who I am?"
"You are Uncle Darcy's Aunt, Lady Catherine, and a most estimable personage," said Kitty, stumbling over the larger words.
"So we have to be good girls and be nice to you, for our own sakes and for Aunt Darcy's" added Fanny. Mary inwardly groaned remembering her hasty instructions form a half hour before.
"Hmm, and where does your Aunt think that that will get her? Do more Bennets plan to maneuver their way into my family? Don't think you will marry your cousin. You are below him in both rank and fortune." The girls looked confused.
"I assure you Lady Catherine, that the girls are quite in awe of the Darcys and are not being raised to presume anything. They are only innocent babes." Mary looked to Charlotte who was still recovering from the earlier exchange, had now clapped a hand over Maria's mouth in case she should add to the conversation.
"Perhaps. Pray, who do you intend to marry?" The Wickham girls exchanged glances. A pause.
Finally Kitty looked very solemn and said "A clergyman, ma'am."
"Yes, mum, I want to marry a clergyman too," said Fanny just as solemnly. Maria's eyes grew precipitously wide on her round face.
"Now, that is indeed singular. Who told you to say that?"
"No one, ma'am. Aunt Mary says that we must listen to the clergyman, for his is good," said Kitty.
"We must listen to our husbands too," squeaked Fanny.
The governess, a widow, disguised a cough.
"And Mrs. Collins was married to a clergyman, and we like her too."
"Lady Catherine, I do not wish my nieces to tire you. Shall I send them away now?" Mary put forth the question as soon as she dared. Lady Catherine, satisfied with their answers, consented, and the girls practically ran out of the room.
"They are good enough girls, Miss Bennet, but if any of them ever presume to act higher than their rank, I would beat it down. Then of course, they must not fall too low or they will disgrace their family. Clergymen would be good options, indeed."Chapter 14
There now Miss Wickham, you will do quite well," said Mrs. Ellis as she straightened Kitty's bonnet on the front steps of the house. The maid had dressed the girls previously but they never stayed neat for long.
"Am I the prettiest eight-year-old you ever saw?" asked Kitty. It was the day after her birthday. She was old enough now that John had allowed her to ride his horse around the leaf strewn grass in front of Lucas Lodge. Like her mother she was a lovely girl, and already tall enough to sit on a full sized mount with only a little help. Today was Sunday. They were to go to church and Kitty was looking forward to showing off the new ribbons Mrs. Collins had given her the day before.
"Well, Miss Maria was quite pretty at eight years as well, I daresay," said the governess. "but handsome is as handsome does, as your Miss Bennet often says."
Kitty privately thought Maria all together too stout and plain to be her equal in looks, but she did not say it aloud. Instead she took Fanny's hand and they started toward the carriage. The Collins family was already tucked inside. Aunt Mary came last, having hurried back from one of the tenants' cottages. A child had been born the night before.
"For I had to take them something. That poor woman hasn't been able to cook or clean up in weeks. They were twins, but one didn't make it," she said breathlessly to Charlotte, as she stepped into the carriage simultaneously pulling on her gloves.
"Aunt Mary, may we see the baby, not today but later?" asked Kitty as the carriage started off.
"When Mrs. Sandy has recovered, I will take you," answered Charlotte, smiling at Mary, who was still out of breath.
"I'm sure our baby brother is talking and walking around now," commented Fanny. "Why can't we go to London and see him?"
In the years they had spent at Longbourn, Fanny and Kitty had learned not to mention Mr. and Mrs. Wickham to their Aunt. While Mary tried not to say anything against her sister, she could not stop Mrs. Philips or Lady Lucas from eluding to past events, nor could she hide the fact that Lydia wrote so few letters. Instead she ignored the problem and steadfastly refused to take the girls to London. If Lydia wanted to see them, she would have to write and ask. But though they didn't mention their mother, Fanny and Kitty, like many girls their age, adored younger children, and often made reference to their baby brother.
"Shall you tell them now?" asked Charlotte, smiling.
"I think I may," said Mary. "Girls, how would you like to spend Christmas at Pemberley with all my sisters?"
"Really?" squealed Kitty. "May we see our brother and Mother and Father and all our cousins?"
"All but your father, I am afraid. He must stay in London. He is still recovering from the illness he had in Quebec," lied Mary, not without a tinge of guilt. "But your Mama will be there. And your brother and Aunts and Uncles and cousins. Aunt Darcy has invited us all. Maria, you and your mother and brother are coming as well," she added to answer Maria's unspoken question.
"And shall our brother come back to Hertfordshire and live with us?" asked Fanny.
The two women exchanged glances. Mary didn't quite know how to respond.
"I do not believe so. This is your home, as long as you are with me, and as long as I am Mrs. Collins' guest. But most children stay with their parents if they can. And your Mama has not asked me about him."
There was some silence. Feeling bad for her Aunt, Kitty reiterated her excitement to see Pemberley. "I was there, I know, but I don't remember. Everywhere I've been I don't remember."
"Where have you been?" asked Maria, who had only seen the local neighborhood and the parsonage in Kent, and barely remembered the latter.
"Well I was born in Newcastle, and Fanny was born at Aunt Jane's in Nottinghamshire. And I've been to Pemberley too. But I really only remember our last house in London And we've told you about that."
"It wasn't half so nice as Longbourne," added Fanny.
"But Pemberley is grand?" asked Maria.
"Very." Answered her mother.
"But Maria, it is more important to know that Mr. and Mrs. Darcy are good and welcoming people. We shall have a wonderful Christmas because those we love will be around us," added Mary.
"So Uncle John is coming?" asked Maria hopefully.
"No, my dear, but we see him all the time. I promise you will see many people that you will like," smiled Charlotte, who was looking forward to the trip.
It would be the first time in nine years that all five Bennet sisters were to convene on one location. Three of their husbands were also to attend the Christmas holiday at Pemberley. Wickham's absence would be regretted but there were nine children to make up for this unfortunate dearth.
Also absent would be Charlotte and her children, for Maria had taken ill at the last moment and could not travel. Charlotte was greatly disappointed but Maria was relieved not to have to meet so many strange people.
Four days before Christmas, Mary helped Kitty and Fanny exit the coach in front of her sister's house. They did not remember Pemberley and their awestruck reaction resulted in an unusual silence. Mary was surprised to see that only Mr. Darcy and the two eldest boys were there to greet them. The cousins made a marked contrast to each other, both resembling their fathers in every way possible. Charlie, though older, was shorter and appeared to have a merrier disposition that the shy Will. Both boys bowed to the girls who curtsied. Mr. Darcy whispered to his nephew, the elder of the two, who then said in a most authoritative voice. "We are to escort our cousins inside." Mary bowed slightly to her nephews, smiling and all four children ran inside to be immediately consumed by the enormous house. She started to follow but noted Mr. Darcy's look of concern.
"What is the matter Mr. Darcy?"
"My dear sister, let me take your arm." He turned and gave instructions to the coachmen and led Mary inside. "Your sisters are inside but they were not able to greet you yet. A post arrived this morning and it has left the three of them in such a state." He hesitated.
"Mr. Darcy, please tell me." She stopped several feet into the house and looked at her brother-in-law, who had more feeling displayed on his face than she had ever seen. Seeing his warmth of emotion, she began to see why so many women spoke of him as attractive. Mr. Darcy turned to face her and took her hand in both of his.
"It seems that your youngest sister was expecting another child. But she entered her confinement months early and was too weak to survive. The mother and child both died." Mary remained silent. Darcy, seeing her set, indeterminate expression, went on. "That was four days ago but the post just arrived this morning from Mr. Wickham. He is burying his wife in London and will be at Pemberley with his son in a week's time."Chapter 15
Three children and a pleasant life had caused Jane to grow stout. However, motherhood did not stop Mr. Bingley from gazing at her admirably whenever he got the chance. Mr. Darcy seemed likewise smitten with his wife, despite the smattering of grey hairs on her dark locks. Both husbands did not show the relief they may have felt at the unfortunate passing of Lydia Wickham, instead paying every bit of expected attention to their mourning wives. The good Reverend Markham was likewise preoccupied. If it was possible Kitty had grown smaller and more slight than she had been before. Her difficult confinement had meant Thomas would have no siblings. The loss of her childhood playmate had caused her to recess into her husband's side whenever they could sit together. Even Georgiana sought out the security of her husband, who was feeling most protective with the knowledge that he would in some days face the presence of his wife's childhood paramour.
Mary missed Charlotte. She had so little to say to comfort these women who were her sisters. She loved them, and she wanted to grieve Lydia but she didn't quite know how. She had started to moralize aloud- to justify Lydia's unfeeling and flighty existence, but Lizzy had quieted her immediately. It had been a difficult number of days.
Mrs. Darcy had otherwise very kind though and had accompanied her to the nursery when Mary felt it necessary to relate the news of their Mama's death. There was surprisingly little reaction. Kitty and Fanny thought they ought to be sad, but weren't. Both were a little upset that they had been robbed of a second baby brother. They eventually would mourn the hope that they had always secured and which had now passed- the hope that their mother and father would someday come to Longborne to stay and everyone would live together in the house and be happy. They were also a little uneasy about seeing their father whom they barely remembered since he had gone to the continent so many years before. They had followed his travels on a world map- Gibraltar on one long journey, Montreal on the next. But he was no longer in active duty, and they no longer knew quite what they would say when he finally came to claim him.
Mary likewise was worried. Would Wickham claim his children back? She wasn't sure that he would but she wasn't convinced he would not. The possibility of such a loss kept her from enjoying his holiday.
The only highpoint for Mary was when the family pulled itself together to exchange a few token gifts. With great fanfare and much clapping from their Aunts and Uncles, Kitty and Fanny presented her with a cleverly made wallet that held their miniatures.
"But how?" gasped Mary as she opened the little wallet, which she knew was beyond their pocket money.
"Mrs. Collins did it up for us. We had to sit at Lady Lucas's house for TWO whole afternoons and get our portraits painted. The portraits are from us, the wallet is from Mrs. Collins," said Kitty as Fanny beamed.
"Do you like it Aunt Mary?"
"Yes, my dears, I love it. I shall always have you both with me."
"Shall we hope he is the prodigal son?" whispered the elder Mrs. Markham to Lizzy as Darcy went from the room to greet Wickham in relative privacy. The other men had gone out riding as to escape the acquaintance as long as possible.
"We may hope what we wish, but I should not expect less than the serpent itself," remarked Lizzy.
Wickham entered some minutes later with the master of the house. He did not look well, unsurprising given the cholera that had struck him in Canada. But his wide smile gave mind of the young militia man that had stolen all of their hearts the decade before- even Mary's- though she would never admit it.
"My dear Mrs. Darcy, Mrs. Bingley, Mrs. Markham, Mrs. Easton, and Miss Bennet. Are you all here at Pemberley then? What a wonderful surprise to be able to speak with all of my poor wives' family in the hours of my mourning."
"And this is my mother Mrs. Markham." Kitty made the introduction knowing she was the least affected of all of her sisters. Mr. Wickham effused charm to the older matron, who raised a single eyebrow to Lizzy, who in turn noted as Mrs. Easton slipped out of the room in disgust.
"Mr. Wickham, you make good on your reputation as a charmer." replied the elder Mrs. Markham, knowing that she would have to carry more than her share of the conversation in the room full of angry women.
It was a quarter of an hour later that Mr. Wickham expressed an interest in seeing his daughters. Mary took it upon herself to fetch the girls as Mrs. Ellis had stayed in Hertfordshire. Despite her admonishments, they ran to him, and would not be separated from their sides the three days he spent in Derbyshire. Mary grew more and more incensed as Wickham proved himself an affable father, playing with them and scolding them in turn. The likewise attached themselves to their brother, who had grown, against all odds, into a tall healthy toddler. In their waking hours Wickham only left his children to have several long conversations with Darcy in the latter's office. It was finally at the end of one of these sessions that Wickham met Mary in the library where she was reading away from her gossiping sisters.
"My dear sister, I must complement you on the job you have done with my motherless daughters," he said amiably.
"I thank you Mr. Wickham," she said, hoping the conversation would end soon.
"I hope that you might do as fine a job with my son. I understand your cousin has a son about his age or a little older. They shall make excellent playmates, I think."
Mary started. "Excuse me?" Was he implying that she would not only return home with his daughters but with his son as well?
"I thought it understood dear sister," he clarified looking concerned. "I cannot raise any of them. I am on half-pay now, and am so very ill. They will all stay with you, as long as they like. I must go to Bath in the spring, and see after a sea-cure for the aftermath of the cholera. I cannot take children there."
Mary was torn between revulsion at her brother and relief that he did not want his children's care.
"I see. Well in that case, you should leave Pemberley for your own sake quite soon. I imagine it is cold this time of the year in Bath, but surely more healthful than the northern chill of this county."
"Do take care of them," he said sounding heartfelt.
Mr. Wickham traveled the next morning, leaving behind two heartbroken young girls. Mary held their hands as they cried but she inwardly smiled.
That afternoon Darcy called her into his study. After some conversation he said to her. "Miss Bennet I should mention that Mr. Wickham signed away guardianship of his children to you and myself yesterday in return for of one thousand pounds. I thought that would be more agreeable to you than to give them to his care for the bribe of three times that amount."
"Do not feel overwhelmed sister. If you ever tire of them I will pay for them to be sent to school," he said dryly, concealing his own angry disgust.
"That despicable serpent! Excuse me sir, I feel I am going to be ill."
"Yes, Wickham has had the effect on us all," he shook his head as she ran from the room.
Despite being overwhelmed with anger and grief that she could never assure her charges that their father cared for them, it was an elated Mary that left Pemberley some weeks later with the three children. Her only regret was that her little wallet of miniatures had been lost somewhere on the house or grounds and no one could find it. She would arrange to have all three children painted in a large portrait that winter to make the loss up to them.Chapter 16
It was both a joyful and tearful homecoming when Mary got out of the carriage with the three children in mourning.
Lydia's death could not darken a truth that Mary had long since realized. She was more than content with her life. She was happy. Longbourn was her home. The Wickham children were now hers forever, and her life was nothing she had hoped for but fulfilled exactly what she wanted.
Likewise, Charlotte had difficulty imaging life without Mary sharing her home. She missed her companion during the visit to Pemberley, and welcomed the newest Wickham child with open arms. Charlotte Collins knew well the conventional wisdom that a young gentleman with a large fortune must surely be in want of a wife. She also knew, having been through an advantageous if not happy marriage, that a woman of a certain age, with a small sum, a place to live, children, and a level of respectability, had no reason to be in want of a husband. Thus it did not surprise her when Mary Bennet announced upon her return that she would don a cap to denote her spinsterhood. At the age of twenty-seven with several children to care for, an estate to manage, and a small but self-made fortune, Mary had risen quite above all reasons that Charlotte could comprehend of why a woman might seek a husband. There was a slight want of respectability, to be sure, to never have been married, but the older a widow became, the less respectability was accorded the widow and the more the spinster, and Charlotte Collins had no reason to deem herself, and therefore her dearest friend, unrespectable in any way.
What Mrs. Collins, Miss Bennet, the five children, nor any servant nor tenant on their thoroughly modern estate could have predicted was that Mary was far from being immune from that disease which so often strikes ladies of a decidedly younger make and slightly less respectable means.
"Charlotte, I have some news that might prove to be distressing." Mary whispered to her friend who was engaged with the governess in teaching the girls, now nine, ten, and eleven years old, how to dance a simple set. The nursemaid was nearby struggling with Young Masters Collins and Wickham, who, at the tender ages of six and five, did not want to be excluded. The boys had not appeared to inherit many of their respective father's qualities, but they seemed to in terms of dancing. Young Collins was interested but clumsy. Young Wickham learned the step almost immediately- he would someday make a most pleasing dancing partner.
Concerned, Charlotte stepped out of the party. Mrs. Ellis nodded at Maria, who was becoming quite proficient. Maria stepped to correct Kitty, while the governess stayed with Fanny. Charlotte followed her friend to the library where Mary was answering correspondence.
"Charlotte, our solicitor has written to say that Mr. Andrew Bennet has expressed an interest in seeing the estate that he may inherit."
"May inherit?! That is quite a thing to write. The chances of him to inherit are quite low given that my son still has some time to produce an heir!" Charlotte was aghast. Mary nodded.
"It is unlikely for him but he is still the heir of the estate and he has some curiosity to see it. The solicitor writes what we already know. He's the son of a younger son- a distant cousin of my father and Mr. Collins. He is now in business and has attained some small fortune. But the solicitor has given no hint as why he might wish to see the estate right now. Perhaps he is passing through Hertfordshire."
"That must be the reason. He must be coming into the neighborhood for another reason. Such an inopportune, impolite inquiry to make! This is not the behavior of a gentleman- to call on a widow as such- it is most shocking!" Mrs. Collins was quite upset- mostly because she recognized the sensitive nature of an entailed estate whose rightful owner was a mere six years in the world.
Mary clucked in sympathy. "He means to write you directly and give a date that he will call. We can arrange for your brother to be here when he visits, if you wish. Remember Charlotte, it would be prudent to make amends with even a distant relation, as it is a possibility that your affairs will intertwine with his. Besides, it would be most unchristian to refuse his call."
"That is true, Mary, though sometimes your prudence only appears when you wish it to. You do not seem to truly share in my distress! Why do you especially wish to meet Mr. Bennet? He is not a gentleman, and you could have no interest in him."
"Well, for one, he shares my name, and it is always most curious to meet a relation. For another, I relish the idea of talking business." Seeing Charlotte's disapproving glance, Mary sighed. "But, of course, I am sure that he is merely curious to see the estate and meet you. Do not worry Charlotte. Unless he brings up another subject, I can be depended on to discuss the weather, scripture, and the impossibility of teaching children the skills needed in society. Now, back to your dance lessons. Leave me to my books!" And she pulled her father's chair back up to the desk.Chapter 17
Kitty and Fanny were such energetic young girls that Mary sought to curb their excesses through exercise each morning before they took their lessons. Some mornings the governess took all three girls. But on a particularly fine morning, the day that Mr. Bennet was due to arrive, Mary herself felt quite restless. So she set out with her charges herself. Maria elected to stay home and take a lesson on the pianoforte with Mrs. Ellis. The other three walked as far as a grove where there were some particularly fine trees. They immediately begged to climb. Mary looked out at the major coach road into Merryton, which was only half a mile distant. She briefly considered the spectacle of the girls exhibiting themselves in such a way, but remembering that her sisters had often climbed and that this did not halt their path to the affections of illustrious men, went ahead and consented to their play.
"Just not too high," she said pointing upwards to where the branches swayed easily with the breeze.
"La, they are so tiny. One would have to be quite stupid to climb up there," laughed Kitty, as she tried to rescue her petticoat from some brambles.
"Do you see where that branch broke off?" asked Mary pointing again to the highest part of the tree. The girls assented. "Your mother did that."
"Oh do tell us. Did she fall? Was she hurt?" asked Fanny.
The two were temporality interrupted by the sound of the daily express coach making its way into Merryton. It was full and as Mary looked up she saw a gentlemen had been relegated to sit above. From the distance, she could see him turn and face the girls. The girls started to wave as the coach went by and he tipped his hat in the direction of the trees.
As the coach weaved out of sight, Mary recollected Lydia's fall. Much to the delight of the girls she swung herself up to the lowest branch where there was a crook where a lady might comfortably sit. Here had been Mary's perch some 16 years before. She then proceeded to tell the story.
It had been a warm day and the two older girls had walked out, their younger sisters in tow. Jane was only two weeks from "coming out" and her and Lizzy retired under a shade tree to talk of balls and young men. Mary had even then been uninterested in such talk. She instead chose to play with her younger sisters who had immediately assailed the climbing tree. They easily conquered the larger branches leaving the comfortable seat open to Mary, who thought she might sit and read the volume that she had brought. Above her Lydia, who was only eight or nine, had challenged Kitty to see how high they might climb. Lydia, of course, immediately scampered higher and the weight of the branch had given out, for even then Lydia was not a small girl. Two bones had been broken and the doctor in setting the arm gave Lydia much pain. But she did not cry. She pursed her lips and whispered through the pain and her mother's hysterics that she had beaten Kitty and climbed the highest of all her sisters.
"I have not been in this tree since. I was too afraid," added Mary.
"Do not worry, Aunty, we will not climb higher," said Kitty.
"We are not so reckless as Mama was," added Fanny. "Now Aunt, you may climb higher and not worry about breaking branches. You are just a girl like us and you may come up."
Mary glanced around. There was no one in sight. And as she made her way higher she thought of the man of the coach and saw him waving for her to climb higher and higher. The girls giggled as she joined them on one of the higher branches. Soon they had her laughing as merrily as she ever had.
Mary and the girls had been gone for over an hour when they began to make their way back to the house. Their expected shortcut was blocked, however, by the combination of livestock and mud and by the time they got back to the house via the lane it had been nearly two hours since they had left. Mary recognized the hoofprints of Mr. Lucas's horse in the lane but saw no trace that there had been another visitor yet.
"Hurry girls. I had promised Mrs. Collins we would be back long before this, and it is past time for your lessons." Kitty laughed and started to run.
"Running isn't ladylike," taunted Fanny after her. The girls began to fight and Mary had to come between them.
These events distracted Mary from the quite obvious sound of a man on horseback approaching from their rear. She turned quickly.
"Excuse me Ma'am," said the rider, dismounting. "Is this Longbourn?" The man was plain but not without merit, and was dressed as a wealthy tradesman. He appeared eminently respectable and reminded Mary of her Uncle Gardiner, though this man was not yet in middle age. She realized after a minute that it was the man from atop the coach.
"You have found it, sir."
"You must be Mr. Bennet!," said Kitty loudly, though seeing her Aunt's disapproval, she added more quietly "We have been expecting you sir."
"I am, Miss," he said turning to the girl and giving her a keen, familiar look. He then turned back to Mary, who was loosening the ribbons in her bonnet, as she was about to enter the house. "Mrs. Collins, I presume."
"You mistake me, sir. We actually share a name."
"This is our Aunt Mary," said Fanny, laughing. "She is not a Mrs. at all," added Kitty. "She is only Miss Bennet."
"That's enough girls. Go inside to Mrs. Ellis and take your lesson." The girls knew when they were beaten and obediently went indoors.
"Pardon me, Miss Bennet. I have come to call on Mrs. Collins. Are you her relation?"
"I am a distant cousin to the late Mr. Collins. I grew up at LongbournÖ And live there now as Mrs. Collins' companion," she added after a moment.
"Oh, I see. Pardon me, Miss Bennet for interrupting your walk. Why don't you go on inside and I shall call on you and Mrs. Collins in a quarter of an hour?" He turned to mount his horse. Mary thought she saw a glimpse of utter satisfaction in his face and wondered what it might be about. She ran upstairs to change her gown, knowing that the one she was wearing was spoilt with mud. After a pause, she put on one that she had just remade from a dress Lizzy had sent her when fashion dictated that Mrs. Darcy of Pemberley could no longer wear it. The material was fine and little worn and she knew that it became her.
A quarter of an hour later Mary, Charlotte, and her brother received Mr. Bennet's formal call. In the preceding minutes, Mrs. Collins had asked Mary a number of questions regarding the man. Mary had little reply except to relate the few particulars of their short meeting.Chapter 18
Mr. Bennet's call was all that could be expected from a man who was a stranger and necessarily abhorrent in Charlotte's eyes. He was not a gentleman but he had a gentleman's manner, and was not so without pecuniary means that he felt initially uncomfortable in Longbourn's parlor. He was pleasant and intelligent, with a curious sort of manner that Mary found disconcerting. He seemed especially interested in Kitty and Fanny and was surprised to hear that there was a younger brother as well.
"And how long are you staying with Mrs. Collins, Miss Bennet?" he asked Mary cheerfully.
When Charlotte informed him that the arrangement was a permanent one he smiled, and subsequently asked what steps they had taken the raise the five children. Mrs. Ellis was described as a genial woman accomplished in the pianoforte, drawing, and languages.
"And of course, practical subjects as well," added Mary. "My nieces will have to look after themselves, not being brought up to fortune. I have Kitty practice her arithmetic on the ledgers and she barely makes a mistake."
"What about yourself, Mr. Bennet?" asked John, laughing at Mary's statement, as he was oft prone to do. "Are your progeny as practically educated?"
"I have no children, I am afraid. I was to be married-- when I was quite young, but the lady was not meant for this world." Seeing the three looks of sympathy, he added lightly. "My father would have approved of children knowing how to keep a ledger book. He was a clerk in His Majesty's service and quite proud of his education." Embarrassed he added, "Our side of the family fell from fortune rather abruptly, and has only been able to rise a little with each generation."
"But you are a merchant yourself, I believe?" asked John.
"Yes, I inherited my godfather's business. It was he who paid for my education."
"Money and inheritance are funny things." said John. "Now Miss Bennet will make you think she's a pauper, the way she talks, dependent on my sister's handouts, her family being deprived of its estate by the entail on the late Mr. Collins. But she's a woman of independent means with investments up and down the kingdom. Her older sisters are married to extraordinarily wealthy men whose estates dwarf this one. And yet in the end, here she is, forcing her tiny nieces to help in the management of Longbourn by doing its ledger books."
"John, I must protest." said Charlotte, for not the first time in her life. "Mary's business is no one's but her own. You seem determined to shock our guest."
John scoffed but Mr. Bennet looked troubled. "Miss Bennet, be assured I would not think you anything but a gentleman's daughter." He noticed for the first time that the gown of the supposed companion of Mrs. Collins was as fine if not finer than the elder woman's and made of stuff far finer than the material that he himself was wearing.
"I assure you Mr. Bennet, there is little that offends me. Except perhaps our neighbor, who, if he finds my worries about money amusing perhaps should stop sharing his own."
"My apologies," John smiled. Mary and he fought at least once a week.
"Besides," said Mary to Mr. Bennet, choosing to ignore Mr. Lucas. "My nieces are the children of my youngest sister, who had little means, and thus I am raising them accordingly. They will not want but they will not be spoilt, for it would not do them well when they are adults."
"Miss Bennet, you do not know how much it pleases me to know that they are looked after."
Charlotte took an opportunity to change the subject and the visit passed quickly. When it was time to leave, John turned to Mr. Bennet.
"How long are you staying in this part of the country?"
"A few weeks I think."
"Well, you must stay with us, sir. Sir William, perhaps, is not the best company, but he will keep you amused, and most of the siblings have shipped off now, so there is plenty of room."
"Sir William Lucas is our father sir. I don't think we've mentioned him," said Charlotte noting the look of confusion on her guest's face.
"Oh, yes of course, Sir William is the master of Lucas Lodge, one of the grandest small houses in Hertfordshire!" laughed John at his father's expense. But Mr. Bennet missed the sarcasm.
"A knight?" mumbled Andrew Bennet to himself as he swung himself up on the horse he had hired in Meryton that morning. "I've truly overstepped my place."
The visits fell into a pattern. Mr. Bennet called most with Mr. Lucas. The five adults would share polite conversation, the men would look in on the children, and then Mr. Bennet would take his leave. The man would look at Mary intensely, often asking about the Wickhams. Mary could not help feeling self-conscious that he thought her caring for her sister's children an unusual arrangement. She began to imagine scenarios where he might demand she send them to school or away to her sisters'.
On one particular day, he was asking her about the costs and decisions that went into hiring a governess. Mary was frowning and staring at her sewing, which was, as usual, not in the best way. Charlotte looked back and forth between them, slightly alarmed, as John rambled on, oblivious to any circumstances out of the ordinary.
They were interrupted by the sound of a carriage.
"Oh Lord, it's Lady Catherine!" cried Charlotte, looking about at the less than spotless sitting room. Mr. Bennet glanced alarmingly at Mr. Lucas. The men would have gracefully made their exit, except that Lady Catherine, as usual, was in a hurry. She was announced and had swept through the door before much improvement could be made on the state of the room.
"Mrs. Collins, I was passing by the neighborhood and remembered you. I always take an interest, you know, in my former charges."
Charlotte curtsied and gave both thanks and introductions. Everyone was silent. Lady Catherine looked keenly at Mary.
"Where are your girls? Still intent on marrying clergymen?"
Mr. Lucas, who had for several years relished the details of the earlier exchange, smiled at Lady Catherine and took the opportunity to speak.
"Indeed Lady Catherine, they are angelic creatures and would never lower themselves to any less than the most moral of men. However, my own niece often needs correction. It is fortunate for her that she has such friends with which to play."
"I think that you may be jesting with me, young man, in quite a familiar way. I do not approve." She looked at him and then at Mary who was seated across from him. "Pray, are you courting Miss Bennet?"
Mr. Bennet looked alarmed. Mr. Lucas was amused. "No mum, Miss Bennet and I are on good terms, but we are not intended."
"That is unfortunate. She is a spinster, you know, and a young gentleman on your level would be perfect for her. For my nephew could not do with another minor officer or some tradesmen as his brother, and you are good enough for a Bennet girl."
Mr. Lucas bowed and gave thanks, barely containing his amusement.
"And sir, what are you?" Lady Catherine turned her head to the other man in the room.
"I am a tradesman, ma'am."
"Indeed? That is unfortunate. Well, Miss Bennet, you cannot marry him. My nephew's name and family have been polluted enough."
"I assure you mum, I have no intention of marrying at all. Mr. Bennet is a friend of Mr. Lucas's and a distant cousin of my family. He is merely paying a social call."
Despite her steady answer Mary was so mortified that she hid her face in her embroidery. She did not see Mr. Bennet's questioning glance nor his disappointment when she did not give reassurance. And when Mr. Bennet departed the neighborhood two days later, with only a quiet bow to her and Charlotte and a more tender farewell to each of the children, Mary could not begin to hope to hide the empty space he had left.Chapter 19
"I thought that he might have had intentions towards you. He always looked at you so keenly," said Charlotte to her friend a few months later. They had not mentioned Mr. Bennet since he had left, but Charlotte was burning with curiosity as towards her friend's feelings.
"No," said Mary. "He made it quite clear that he did not want to be saddled with three children that were not his. It was all he could talk of. So even if he liked me, he would not have them."
"If you were to marry, one of your sisters would take the children, I am sure. Or they could be sent to school," commented Charlotte, knowing what Mary's reaction would be.
"Where I go, they go. They are my responsibility. I will not marry if that is the cost."
"But you do not deny that you had feelings for him."
"I do not deny anything. Oh Charlotte, do not torture me!" Overcome by tears, Mary had to rush out of the room.
Charlotte turned to follow her friend and instead saw her daughter in the opposite doorway. The girl had obviously been eavesdropping and looked worried.
"Mr. Bennet loves her too," said the girl.
"Maria! How do you know such a thing?"
"I heard him say so when he was leaving the house the day Lady Catherine was here. He seemed quite upset. I was by the door but he didn't see me. Are they going to get married?"
Charlotte considered for a moment. "Maybe someday Maria, but not now. They have too many misunderstandings. We'll have to bide our time and see if we can throw them together again. But you mustn't say a word of this to Kitty or Fanny or Aunt Mary, do you understand? Not a word."
"If they get married would he really send the Wickhams away?"
"I don't know my love, I don't know."
But Charlotte did not have a chance to scheme at matchmaking that season. Living and dying were so tightly interwoven, that no one was surprised when the scourge came early that year and what was a minor annual illness in the village became what the experts in town liked to call an epidemic. It may seem an abrupt point, for the author to rush through and destroy a main character in a sudden illness but that it how sudden illnesses strike in life, with little warning, and with little thought as to how the questions of estates and friendship and heartbreak would have to be settled. This author must inform her readers that the disease this particular year moved from town to the smaller towns, to the village, and eventually to Longbourn house itself where four or five of its inhabitants fell ill. Most recovered, but little William Collins was struck harder than most. His mother tied up in the heartbreak, would not leave his bedside, and almost became one of the epidemic's last victims. Unlike his mother though, Master Collins could not be saved. The heartbreak that this loss caused to the other children and to Charlotte and her family and friends, the author will leave her readers to imagine. She cannot write about sorrow without devolving into pathetic sentimentality, but will assure her readers that more than an appropriate amount of grief was experienced by Charlotte and Mary, that there were many tears, much anger at the Almighty, and shear anguish from the rest of the children. But Mary, as we know, was a pragmatic person, a trait reinforced by her long friendship with Charlotte, so at some point she reserved her distress for her private moments, and thought about the future for the sake of the others in the household.
Mary knew the motions of what would come. With Master Collins gone, Charlotte no longer had a right to stay at the estate. The entail still loomed over the house's future. For the second time in her life, Mary would have to pack up Longbourn, her home, and move into the homes of her sisters. This time around, she had fewer girlish hopes for the future-- she had just turned thirty years old and had by this time experienced both heartache and deep grief. She had more money now, it was true, but from it she only desired independence and a future for the children; she thought nothing of her own hopes. With help from her elder sisters she had created small dowries for all the girls, and would have enough to set up little George in a profession. Where she would live was a question. She could easily find a cottage somewhere and live independently with Lydia's children and some elderly companion. But she wanted them to have the advantages of living on an estate like Islington or Pemberley, and she knew that these advantages had to influence her decision. And there was the question of what would happen to Charlotte and Maria. Charlotte had saved money enough to keep her and Maria at Lucas Lodge, but Mary did not think she could bear to be parted from them. She was sure that with prompting Charlotte would also prefer that Maria have such advantages that living on a grand estate like Pemberley had to offer.
Mary looked around the parlor. The portraits of her four sisters and herself, her parents, and Charlotte and Mr. Collins made up their small portrait gallery. The portrait of the Wickham children that she had commissioned was also in a place of prominence. Those would be taken with her she supposed. Mr. Bennet would not want them.
Mr. Bennet. Oh the irony, that it would be a Bennet should force a Collins out into the hedgerows! Mary collapsed on the sofa and began to sob.Chapter 20
A month or two later Mary heard the familiar announcement. Mr. Lucas was often a visitor at the house; it was he who had written Mr. Bennet to tell that man that he had all the claims of a gentleman. In the meantime, Mary and Charlotte had gone on living at Longbourn with all of the children and Mrs. Ellis. Today, though, she was the only one home. Mr. Lucas should have known that fact- for Charlotte had gone to visit her mother an hour before.
He walked in, looking rather nervous, and gave a short bow. She smiled. John had stopped being so formal many years before. "Miss Bennet, I have a letter from Mr. Bennet."
"I should be pleased to hear it Mr. Lucas, if you do not think that Charlotte's absence should require a delay in your sharing it." When assured that his sister had already seen the contents, Mary bade him continue.
He read it to her. The arrangement was generous. They would have another six months at Longbourn, Mr. Bennet wrote, at least. He was trying to settle his business to the point that he could manage it from the country estate. It was too lucrative to give up entirely. In the meantime, the lawyer wrote, Charlotte was welcome to the next two quarterly rents to be placed into a trust for Maria. At this point, Mr. Lucas looked relieved. That along with the generous marriage portion allotted to her, meant that at least one descendent of Sir William would be provided for without sacrifice
Mary nodded. "I am so glad that we should not leave right away. Thank you for the news and express my gratitude to Mr. Bennet in your reply."
"I do not wish you to leave right away either," he said, changing his tone slightly.
Mary would never learn the subtleties of men.
"Indeed, I would remain here my whole life if I could. As much as I liked Derbyshire, I do not want to live there."
"Perhaps, you may remain here, that is, at Lucas Lodge, if you wish, when the mourning period is over, of course." He leaned in closer to her.
Confused by his mention of the mourning period, she questioned him. "That would be a singular arrangement. I had no idea Lucas Lodge had so many rooms."
He sighed. "At least some of us would have to share. Mary, will you marry me?"
Mary stared in amazement. Any lesson that first her mother and then Charlotte had tried to inflict on her, proved in vain. "Why?!" There was a pause as John sought to find words to answer such a question. She calmed slightly seeing his own agitation and asked in a gentler voice, "Do you care for me more than you did six years ago?"
Charlotte's brother was frustrated but knew better than to be dishonest with the woman in front of him. "Well, I had it figured out coming over here." He swore. A pause. "Mary, it's just that this is my refuge. You know what it's like, living with my parents, with two more of their children to provide for. And they care about polite society and rank and all of that, and it's all rot. They have nothing but that house and they don't see it. My father going on about my brothers' commissions like I had the option of buying them better ranks. Or Charlotte's great luck. That was the moment I knew it was all for nothing. Years ago. Everyone went on about Charlotte making such a good match. And the way my father lived, Charlotte had to do it, she didn't have a choice. You and Charlotte were my sensible allies, you were the only ones I could talk to. And now you're leaving and Charlotte might go with you. And I can't let you all leave. I just can't."
A rush of thoughts entered Mary's mind. She thought of Charlotte and Mr. Collins, of Lydia and her reckless, stupid marriage, of Kitty dancing with her neighbors, all the time flirting with her husband sitting lame across the room, of Lizzy and Darcy, and their teasing and rows and of the scene of them sitting with their newborn babe. Living at that point, only for each other. She thought of Jane, and Bingley, their marriage classified by sure pleasantness. She thought of Mrs. Markham speaking tenderly of her late husband. She thought of her own parents and the disappointment of their marriage. She thought of Charlotte, and sitting in the parlor reading while Charlotte embroidered and the trueness of their friendship. She thought of herself, years ago, and how hurt she had been when Mr. Lucas had declared to her that he had no intentions at all. And now that he declared that he had them after all, she thought of her subsequent realization of the past minute, that she did not want to marry him, that they could be the best of friends, but were nothing more.
"Mr. Lucas," she said, taking his outstretched hand. "You don't want to marry me. You are just in grief for your nephew who was almost like a son to you. You do not wish to be lonely, and are confused. But it will all sort out, I promise, and many a sweet young heiress will make their appearance when you are ready."
"Oh, Mary," he squeezed her hand and let go, pushing his chair back to his normal place. "You are a lifetime older than me... You will not reconsider?"
"No." And they were friends again, as instantly as they might have become lovers.
"I should take my leave then. I will look in on the schoolroom before I go and give my greetings to the children." He stood.
She stood up as well to walk him to the other room. "Of course. Thank you for Mr. Bennet's letter."
"Whenever I can be of service, Miss Bennet."
"Mr. Bennet, you know, will be here when I leave. He will be a good friend to you. You will not be alone."
"That is true." Mr. Lucas grew lively again. "If only you would marry him, then you could all stay and my life would not have to change so... my God, Mary what is wrong?
For she had stopped quite suddenly and had turned quite white. If only she were to marry Mr. Bennet. She thought that she had rid herself of those feelings. And recent events had made her almost forget them. But they came back to her in an instant.
Mr. Lucas was generally not a better reader of hearts than Mary, of his own or others. But now he instantly understood. As soon as he felt that he could leave her at her distress, he rose immediately to return home. There was a task that needed to be done.Chapter 21
All the details were now decided upon. All three sisters were to come and help her pack up the house and move the Bennet things. There was a comfortable house, a cottage, on the Pemberley estate, Lizzy wrote, that Mary could live in. It had no income, but Lizzy trusted that the family would be provided for if Mary was determined to keep Lydia's children with her. Charlotte and Maria were going to come and stay with them, at least for a time. Sir William, now dottering and infirm, urged his daughter to allow his granddaughter to live on the great estate, so that she would have as much exposure to society as possible. Though he did privately write Mr. Darcy that Maria should be encouraged to marry when the time came, for Mary's example of a path in life seemed most irregular.
Mrs. Hill came into the dining room one fine morning. Mary had just finished breakfast, and the Charlotte and Mrs. Ellis had already taken the children for a walk. They were to picnic on Oakham Mount and be gone most of the day, but Mary had not felt up for such an outing. She had encouraged Charlotte to go- color had come back into her friend's complexion, and she seemed to have regained some of the happiness she had felt before her son's untimely death. The housekeeper took the opportunity to ask for an audience with Mary. She was getting old, she explained to Mary, and it would not do for her to run a house for some unknown master, especially now that her husband had died. Could she come to the cottage with Mary and run the house there? She had spoken to Charlotte the night before and Charlotte had approved the plan. Mary was touched and assented. Mrs. Hill had known her all of her life, she realized, since she was a child, and was all that remained of the Longbourn of her childhood. This was it, the end of that road in her life. She stood and touched Mrs. Hill's hand. "Dear Hill. I do not know what we would have done without you all these years." Both women were near tears when the door opened and the housemaid came in. In Hill's absence she had answered the door.
"Mr. Andrew Bennet." She said meekly and nearly ran back to the hall. Hill also curtsied quickly and followed her young charge.
Mary stood, quickly opening and shutting her eyes to remove to tears. "Mr. Bennet."
"Miss Bennet." He stood looking most awkward.
"I have bad news for you I am afraid. Mrs. Hill, who has run this house for the last forty years, has announced her intention to follow me to my sister's estate for her retirement. You will have to find a new housekeeper when you move in."
"Oh." There was a pause. "You have decided then, where to live."
"Of course. It was a decision I have made once before. I am going to take my sister's children to Pemberley where my brother Darcy will kindly provide a house for me. With the governess and Hill, we should be quite comfortable."
"I see." Mary was becoming more and more uncomfortable at his short answers. To think that she had feelings for a man who could stand there unmoving, knowing he was shutting her out of her childhood home.
Seeing that he was not going to say anything more, she resumed her seat, motioning for him to take a place at the table.
"No thank you Madam, I have eaten... I wonder, may we go for a walk around the estate? I would... would have you show me the latest improvements you have made."
"I am afraid sir, I have been concentrating on my own affairs and there are little improvements to be seen on your estate."
"Oh, of course."
Mary's emotions were gaining the better of her. Never having been good in society, she had always remained somewhat aloof from it. But in her own home, she allowed herself the gift of speaking freely, especially when he would not say more. Could he not see the impropriety of being so interested in the estate?
"Mr. Bennet. You have allowed us several months more in this house, which we intend to use. If you have changed your mind, let me know at once. If not, please leave me and my children alone. We do not want anything to do with you!"
Miss Mary Bennet was shocked at her own bluntness. The next thing she said, which she could not have read in Fordyce, was quite unforgivable.
"These are the words of a gentleman's daughter!" Mr. Bennet turned a blustery red. "My God Mary, I come to do the honorable thing and you have nothing but spite for me."
"What do you mean by that sir?" Mary asked, aware of his use of her Christian name. Her again turned to grief and reawakened the tears.
Mr. Bennet was a direct man. "I was going to ask you to marry me."
Mary was glad she was sitting at the table for it meant that she could hide her head in her lap as she started to bawl. She was aware that this was a very unladylike thing that Charlotte nor her sisters would never approve of. But she had never been very ladylike and could not start now. She could not say a word. She felt him kneel down beside her and put his hand on her knee.
"Does the idea of marrying me make you so sad?" She shook her head as best she could. There was a pause. "You are happy then?" She nodded, still not looking up, but then shook her head.
"You must understand that I cannot marry you."
"But Mary, why not? Do you not love me?" She nodded. "For I love you." She allowed herself to smile slightly. "But don't you see? Your objections- that I am not a gentleman, that it would be a most imprudent match- those are all gone now. I can give you back your estate!"
Mary looked up aghast. "You thought that is why I did not encourage you before?"
"But of course." Mr. Bennet kneeled in from of Mary. He then started to speak, gaining momentum as he went. "I am in love with you. I have been since the moment I laid eyes on you and mistook you for Mrs. Collins. But I knew you were an intelligent and worldly gentlewoman above me in rank and standing, thoroughly uninterested in the idea of marriage, let alone a marriage beneath you. Lady Catherine made it perfectly clear what you all thought of me."
Mary started. She had lived in the world long enough to recognize that what he said was true. Even with the small fortune he had, his rank had not been even that of George Wickham's, let alone her elder sister's husbands. And she had stated publicly that she did not wish to marry even a man with much to offer her. No wonder he had not said anything to her. Yet, she was never one to think that much of herself. Always she had been less than her sisters and undeserving of a man's company. It never occurred to her that a man would think too much of her rather than too little. Her thoughts were interrupted as he held out his hand. Hesitatingly, she returned the gesture. "It is your tragedy that benefits me. The death of young Collins has given me everything I needed to make myself worthy of you, but as it caused you pain, I could not offer myself to you on that point. Instead I must offer myself as a man who loves you, who loves your sister's children, who needs you, and your company, and your intelligence. In marrying you, I want to give you back your estate, and deny you nothing."
It was a beautiful speech but Mary only heard one part. "You will allow me to keep the children?"
"Of course Mary... That was your hesitation then?!" Mary nodded and Mr. Bennet came to his own realization. "That I would send the children away! That I would not treat them as my own!"
"Yes, of course. You kept asking me about their situation, like you wanted them shipped off to one of my sisters' or some boarding school. You seemed not to understand why I wanted the care of them."
"Oh no!" Mr. Bennet recalled his words and understood the misunderstanding. "I had no reason to think that those words might have been thought of in such a way. I had assumed you understood, but you did not know... Mary, I loved your sister's children before I had ever set eyes on them."
Mr. Bennet stood and pulled out a chair, placing it close to Mary and sitting down he said in a calm voice. "Miss Bennet, did you never wonder why I came to see you and Mrs. Collins in the first place?"
"You were passing through Hertfordshire. You wished to see the estate"
"No, that was only polite conversation. The reason was to meet you."
Mary started to exclaim but checked herself and sat patiently waiting.
"Two events sent me to Longbourn, neither of which were in any way attached to the possibility that I may someday inherit the estate."
"I was speaking to a tradesmen in the north, one that had succeeded most admirably. In the course of the conversation it came out that a woman who shared my name had made the investment that allowed his current circumstances. I was quite amazed for I knew little of the other Bennets of the country, and to think that one, female, would see such a business opportunity- it seems most unusual. That event piqued my curiosity to find my distant relations but I thought no more of it until some months later.
"I was in Bath, enjoying myself as a bachelor of 35 might do- I had recently thought that I might marry, for the death of my Eleanor had held me from that step for so many years, and thought I might look to what society might offer me there. But only three days into my stay I came across some old acquaintances. By the end of the night I would be most ashamed of their conduct. At a tavern we fell into a card game with a number of gentlemen who appeared down on their luck. A particularly handsome but ill looking men struck me as a most interesting case. When he heard my name he started and looked surprised but said nothing. Soon this man had gambled away all the cash he had on him and my acquaintances who were rather drunk demanded that he give up any valuables to pay his debt. Can you guess who this man was?"
Mary had only known one man in her life that was given to drinking and gambling. "It was Mr. Wickham, wasn't it?"
"Indeed it was; he had been living quite a life of dissipation since the death of his wife and many people were quite angry with his conduct. Perceiving the general feeling, I did not dissuade my acquaintances in their somewhat violent stripping of the man's belongings, but neither did I support them. The only thing that appeared to be of value was a wallet of miniatures he had tucked beneath his jacket. I took it with some curiosity. 'What is this sir? You may claim to have no valuables but this appears to have some worth!'
"'Only the wallet, but do leave the paintings, they are my only goodness, the only thing I have worthy of me.' Mr. Wickham was most insistent. I looked closely at the packet of miniatures. It was quite cleverly made. The wallet unfolded to show two small paintings, Across the bottom was inscribed 'To Aunt Mary Bennet, with love- Catherine and Francis Wickham.' I was struck by the coincidence of my name. I looked quickly at them and felt a connection. The poor parentless children, I thought. 'I cannot care for them,' cried the man. 'Not in my state.' I questioned him farther and found that they were being raised by their Aunt in this county. 'I cannot let them see me in the state I am in!' exclaimed the man. 'But do not deprive me of my only connection to them.' Mr. Wickham was quite insistent. I took one more look at the children before me and up at the man who was near hysteria. 'Please sir,' he pleaded, looking at me. 'Have pity on my children, look after my children!'
"'Enough' I said, and paid off the man's debt, took him up to his room and left him to a forced sobriety. I returned the billfold to him and bid him farewell. And though Mr. Wickham had no notion of his words being intended in such a way, I wrote Mrs. Collins and her solicitor the following day, as our previous short correspondence was my only connection to the county. I planned to come to Hertfordshire and inquire about the children who had so captured my sympathy.
"As I knew that Longbourn was in Hertfordshire, I assumed that these Bennets might be related to me. So I came to Longbourn under the pretext of seeing the estate to make sure these children were cared for. I had known about my possible inheritance for years but never actually hoped to attain such a rank, and did not actually care to see the place. I came to find my family, Miss Bennet, and these children. My trip here seemed such a fool's errand at that time and I told myself that I was a madman. But I think it might have been fate."
As the story continued, Mary had said nothing but tears started to pour down her cheeks. It overwhelmed her that despite everything that Wickham should care for the children. She could with right justice assure them of their father's loyalty.
"My dearest Mary. Here is my handkerchief. I am going to leave the room for a minute. When I come back, may we begin again?" Mary paused in her sobbing to nod. As Andrew Bennet walked from the room her heard the sobs turn to hysterical laughter. On the other side of the door, he found Mrs. Hill, who was whispering to the housemaid. He gave them a curt nod. They curtsied embarrassed and retreated to the kitchen. He took a quick turn about the hall, opened the door again and entered.
"Miss Mary Bennet." She stood and gave a curtsey. Her face still betrayed her recent crying fit but she flashed a weak smile.
"Mary, as a man speaking most properly to a woman, I would like to ask you to be my wife. I feel that it will be most advantageous for both of us." As Mary had started smile. he added chuckling "besides, with you managing our finances, I'll never have to work another day. Then I may be a true gentleman." She started to laugh "Then you will marry me?" he asked.
He had to lean in to hear her shy "Yes, of course."
"Then, you do love me?" She answered him with the most beautiful smile he had ever seen. She then started to laugh without thought or reason.Chapter 22
What made you come back to me and propose?" asked Mary. They were in the parlor nested together in a large chair. Mary had hesitated sitting without a chaperone in such a way, but, she moralized, they were soon to be married. Estimating that they had another hour until the children returned from their picnic, she reasoned that no one would be harmed from such a measure. Mr. Bennet smiled at her question and pulled a letter from his pocket. Mary instantly recognized the handwriting of that of Charlotte's. She reached forward and seized it from him.
"When William had the fever, Charlotte wrote this letter," Mr. Bennet explained as she unfolded the single sheet. "When she became ill herself, she gave her letters to her brother to send in case she passed away. He did not send it, of course, because she recovered. But later he decided to send it after all, enclosing his own note. He had read the letter but thought his sister to be in error. When he suspected that she was right, he sent it. I received it about a week ago.
Curious and surprised, Mary started to read:
"Dear Mr. Bennet.
I have reason to believe that you may be the next owner of Longbourn, for my dearest son is quite ill. My suspicion that I myself may soon leave this earth has led me to look out for those around me, so please pardon the impropriety of such a letter. I have never been improper, but I believe now is the time. Thanks to my daughter's fine ears as you left Longbourn one day, I have good reason to believe that you look quite fondly upon my dearest friend Mary Bennet. I do not know what your hesitation is in courting her. Whether it is your lack of rank or her avowed spinsterhood that prevent your marrying, I do not know, but now that you are master of Longbourn, I beg you to reconsider your decision. I know that she cares for you deeply, though, as is a Bennet family tradition, she shows less, not more than what she actually feels. I believe that she could bear your absence as long as she had a home and an estate to manage, but now that it has been taken from her, I fear for her. I believe she needs your company. As partners in life and partners in business, you would be most fitted for each other.
Respectfully, Charlotte Collins"
And at the bottom, a scrawled note.
"My sister was right, our friend expressed a great affection for you. Do come to Longbourn soon. I am sorry I delayed in mailing this letter." -J. Lucas
"Such a letter for Charlotte to write!" cried Mary. "It is really quite shocking, for her and Mr. Lucas." She then told him of how her and Charlotte talked of marriage and how she had been too upset to admit her love for him. They stayed in conversation until Charlotte and the children returned. Charlotte's reaction to the news was as jubilant as could be expected, given her recent loss, and the children crowded around Mr. Bennet to be embraced as members of his most immediate family.
Being a failure at many of the trappings of polite society, Mary Bennet took a somewhat unorthodox path to a respectable marriage and home life. She was not a great beauty. She had few refinements. It had been many years since she had touched a pianoforte or tried her hand at dancing, leaving the governess to give such lessons to the children at Longbourn. She failed utterly to take advantage of the advantageous marriages of her two elder sisters, instead taking it upon herself to protect her ancestral home- even when it was out of family. And yet Miss Mary made a fortune and ended her life as Mrs. Bennet, mistress of Longbourn. She also raised five children, three of her sister's, and two of her own- both boys, to the relief of a woman who had lost a property twice to entail. Mr. Andrew Bennet may not have been able to retreat to the library as his predecessor had done- for his wife was as often there as not, but neither was he subjected to the fits of nerves that would have required his frequent escape from her company. For Mary and her husband were both quite content.
As for the former Charlotte Lucas, she was also quite content. She was happy for her friend and husband and did not envy them the joy they found in each other's company. She watched as her daughter grew and her siblings one by one found their way into the world. She was relieved when her brother John finally married and produced an heir at the age of 45. And she did all this observing from her own home, for she would remain at Longbourn until her dying day.
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